According to the Sydney Anglican Research Project, the first reason why generally sympathetic people do not become regular attenders at church is because our gatherings are not sufficiently compelling.
If this is the case, what should we do about it? I think this is a question that needs some serious ongoing thought (I think most ministers have thought about this many times).
In his briefing article, Tony Payne helpfully observes that he brings a set of theological convictions to his reading of the research. I am sympathetic to his position here and agree for example that even if the research shows that prayer and bible reading are unpopular, they are an essential part of church, whatever the research says. However it seems to me the Tony is too quick to jump to theological conclusions without letting the research challenge our convictions. He states confidently –
Consequently, it would be foolish to conclude from the Research Project that we should dumb down our church gatherings, shorten the preaching, reduce the Bible readings, cut back on prayer, and have lots more music in order to be more appealing to visitors.
I have two problems with this statement. Firstly I it seems to imply that more music and shorter preaching ‘dumb down’ our church services and are therefore definitely a bad thing. But what if the preaching is shorter because it is better prepared and more succinct, and what if people actually learn more from shorter sermons because they do a better job of communicating a single memorable point. And what if there are more songs that capture the gospel in a deep and meaningful way.
In other words, I don’t want to give up my theological convictions either, but it seems counter productive to dismiss so quickly questions that the research raises about our methodology.