Why Aren’t People Interested in Church Anymore?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably noticed that fewer people are attending church these days. Most (not all, but certainly most) of our churches have fewer people on a Sunday morning than five years ago. Probably less than we had just twelve months ago!

Of course, with the pandemic, that decline may have increased by leaps and bounds.

But why? Why have churches been declining over the past several decades?

  • Is it because the sermons are worse than they used to be?
  • Is it because the music isn’t as good as before?
  • Is it because the facilities are getting older and falling apart?

Nope, it’s not any of these. Our sermons are fine. The music great. And, sure, my church building, might need some love…but it’s actually got a nice vibe.

So, then what is it? Why are there fewer people in church these days?

The answer has to do with a major shift in the culture. It has to do with the end of the era that we would call Christendom.

What’s Christendom and what does it have to do with declining church attendance? That’s what I want to share with you.

What you’re about to read will give you a really helpful framework for understanding what is going on in our churches and in the world.

The End of an Era

We live at the tail end of an era in Western civilization known as “Christendom.” I’ve heard Christendom defined in essentially two ways. The first is that Christendom simply means Christianity. Christianity and Christendom, in this sense, are basically synonyms. The second definition says Christendom is that part of the world in which Christianity prevails—as a religion, as a philosophy, and as a way of life. In other words, when Christianity is at the center of culture and has great power within the culture—that’s Christendom.

When I speak about Christendom here, it’s this second definition that I have in mind. Yes, some folks think of Christendom as a synonym for Christianity, but the two are really quite different. Whereas Christendom refers to a cultural locus of power, Christianity refers to a faith-based lifestyle and a relationship with God through Jesus.

I want to take a close look at Christendom. I want to explore the origin of the era and culture that we call Christendom and, more importantly, I want to unpack how Christendom has shaped the church as we know it today.

Whereas Christendom refers to a cultural locus of power, Christianity refers to a faith-based lifestyle and a relationship with God through Jesus. Click To Tweet


What is Christendom?

In Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Christendom is defined as the “centuries in which Western civilization considered itself formally and officially Christian.”⁠[1] Christendom was that period in history (about the last 1500 years) when the whole culture was essentially a Christian culture—a time when Christianity was at the center of power in Western culture. It was the historical era in which Christianity prevailed.


“Formally and Officially Christian”

Christendom was a time and a cultural context in which, if a person wanted to maintain a good reputation in the community, they had to attend church regularly—meaning every week! In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger tells about a friend of his who said, “You know, when I began my ministry in a church in Alabama, I never worried about church growth or worship attendance or evangelism. Back then, if a man didn’t come to church on Sunday, his boss asked him about it at work on Monday.”⁠[2]

But what if you couldn’t make it to church? What if you had to miss a week? How’s this for a solution? “Robert Chambers, the Victorian Scottish publisher and naturalist,” writes Leonard Sweet, “kept pews in two different churches. If he was absent from one, the congregation presumed he was in the other and his reputation remained intact.”⁠[3] In Christendom, people went to great lengths to maintain the appearance of faithful religious practice.

But, as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s not the world we live in anymore. Very few places, if any, in Western society consider themselves to be “formally and officially Christian.” And there is certainly no need to maintain a religious appearance in order to be well-respected. In fact, some might argue that the opposite is true in our world today!


“In Christendom Everyone is a Christian”

Alan Kreider, in The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, says, “In Christendom everyone is a Christian.”⁠[4] Or, at least, everyone is considered to be a Christian. Everyone acts as though they are Christian and believes Christian things. As a result, in Christendom culture, churches spring into being and grow because church attendance is simply an expected social norm. You go to church—it’s just what you do.⁠[5]

In Christendom culture, churches spring into being and grow because church attendance is simply an expected social norm. You go to church—it’s just what you do. Click To Tweet


Christendom Church-Planting

One of my former congregations was launched when the founding pastor went door to door through the streets of the community informing residents that a new Presbyterian church would soon be established. All he had to do was let people know when and where this new church would meet. And that was enough to virtually guarantee that the church would grow in attendance and membership.


Because it was 1953! And because back then those who had a Presbyterian background were certain to attend the new Presbyterian church. All the founding pastor had to do was find the Presbyterians who were moving into town.

In Christendom, going to church is just what you do.

That, however, is a far cry from the early church in the first 300 years of Christianity. People didn’t just “go to church” in those days. Being a Christian involved deep commitment and great risk. The early church was at worst persecuted and at best marginalized by the Roman Empire.

So, how did the church of Jesus Christ go from being persecuted and marginalized to being the dominant cultural power in Europe? I’m glad you asked!


The Rise and Fall of Christendom

Even though the church had a lot of cultural power throughout most of its history—an era we call “Christendom”—it wasn’t always that way. During the first 300 years after Jesus, the church had very little power at all in the culture, which at that time was dominated by the Roman Empire.

And yet, somehow, in the fourth century, the church ended up at the very center of power in Western society.

How did that happen?

How Did Christendom Begin?

The era we call Christendom is largely considered to have begun when the Roman emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity in A.D. 312. Christianity was legalized the following year when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, giving Christianity “a position of privileged equality with other religions.”[⁠6]

This changed everything for Christianity. Up until this time, the church had been in a position of near powerlessness in the Roman Empire.⁠[7] But the moment Constantine announced his edict, the church was thrust into a position of cultural authority and the period of Christendom began.

The church found itself in a completely new situation. For the first time ever in its history, the church had political and cultural power! The church finally had a say in the halls of government. At last, the church had the opportunity to influence policy.


An Incredible Change

The question is, was that a good thing? Barry A. Harvey, in Another City, says this:

“With the conversion of Constantine…the church faced a new situation for which it was largely unprepared. The same empire that had regularly ridiculed (and from time to time persecuted) the members of Christ’s body was now expressing interest in their story of salvation and its criteria of true universality, even to the point of inviting the church to order the imperial household.”⁠[8]

Can you imagine experiencing such an incredible change of status? To go from outcast to overseer?

Now that the emperor himself claimed to be a Christian, Christianity was no longer a ridiculed and persecuted religion. Instead, it now held a place of great advantage and entitlement in the Roman Empire.

Which led to a whole new challenge…


Neither Catechized nor Baptized

Now that the church found itself in a position of power, the challenge for the church would be to maintain its identity and sense of mission in light of this incredible development. Unfortunately, the change was so radical that the church eventually all but lost sight of its mission. Harvey puts it this way: “The eventual result of this near-fusion [of church and empire] was the loss of focus on the church’s missionary identity.”⁠[9]

The expression “missionary identity” is critical. In the pre-Christendom church, every follower of Jesus understood themselves to have this “missionary identity.” Their whole lives were characterized by mission—by loving their neighbors, laying their lives down for others, and living out the teachings of Jesus in their families, their friendships, their businesses, and their local communities. But with the emergence of the church’s new status within the Roman Empire, a whole new understanding of “Christian” began to emerge—an understanding that stemmed in part from the fact that Constantine was neither catechized (trained in Christian theology and practice) nor baptized until shortly before his death.

Did you get that? Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, was neither catechized nor baptized! Do you realize what that means?


A New Breed of Christianity

Throughout his life as a “Christian,” Constantine refused 1) to receive the teaching of the church (catechesis) and 2) to embrace Jesus’ command to be baptized. As a result, “Constantine offered the world a new possibility of an unbaptized, uncatechized person who nevertheless somehow was a Christian.”[⁠10] This led to a whole new breed of Christianity, one that did not require conversion or commitment.

This new and unfamiliar brand of Christianity developed over a fairly short period of time. Harvey writes that before Constantine’s reign, “Christians constituted a distinct minority in the empire…. Recent estimates place the percentage of Christians in the empire around 300 C.E. at about 10 percent.”⁠[11] However, this quickly changed once Constantine became a Christian. Harvey goes on to say that “within a relatively short span of time being a Christian was the accepted norm of imperial society…. By the middle of the fourth century C.E. over 50 percent of the population had been baptized.”[⁠12]

My goal here is not to portray Constantine as the bad guy of the story. No doubt, there were numerous political and cultural factors that kept Constantine from engaging in the church’s catechesis and from being baptized. And I don’t want to suggest that God was not involved or was not at work in the midst of all this great change. What I do want us to consider is the effect Constantine’s conversion had on the church.

Constantine offered the world a new possibility of an unbaptized, uncatechized person who nevertheless somehow was a Christian. --Barry A. Harvey, Another City Click To Tweet


No Apparent Need for Mission

The church’s new reality was an incredible departure from the church’s pre-Constantinian existence! Suddenly, the church had political and cultural power, influence, and authority—something it had never had before. It’s no wonder the church was unable to maintain its identity as a missionary people in light of such enormous change. All this newly acquired political influence must have felt like an answer to prayer. All of a sudden, there was no apparent need for mission. I can only imagine how it must have felt as the church watched thousands of people get baptized and begin to pray their prayers, not to Jupiter, but to Jesus. It must have felt like the consummation of God’s plan of shalom for the world!

In little more than a moment in time, the church had been thrust into a position of cultural and political power. For the next 1500 years, that power and authority was the church’s reality in the West.

And with that increase in power came a decrease in the church’s missionary identity.

None of this is to say that God abandoned the church during the Christendom era or that there was zero participation in God’s mission. God continued to work through his people to bring shalom into the world.


Only Certain Individuals

What changed was that in the pre-Christendom era, the church’s missionary identity applied to every follower of Jesus; in Christendom, the church no longer understood its missionary identity as extending to all Christians. Only certain individuals took on the responsibility of being missional people. Only certain individuals felt called to live all of their lives all for Jesus. These people, who longed to be a part of God’s mission of shalom, usually ended up living in monasteries and convents—the only model of deep discipleship available at that time. It was these monks and nuns—people like Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict of Nursia, Hildegard of Bingen, and Teresa of Avila—who kept the light of Christ alive for the church in ways the majority of Christendom failed to. And it tended to be these monks and nuns who sought to bring shalom into the world around them, both locally and globally.

Still, most of the people who belonged to the Christendom church had no deep sense of their call to participate in God’s mission. The truth is, when a person is born into a Christendom culture it’s just assumed that person is a Christian. Such a person goes to church, sings the songs, prays the prayers, and pays their tithes and offerings. In Christendom, that is what being a Christian means. In Christendom, the kingdom of God has apparently already been established on earth. In Christendom, when you look around, you don’t see any part of society that hasn’t already fallen under the influence of the church. If that’s the case, then if everyone in a Christendom culture is a Christian—and if God’s kingdom is already established (politically and culturally, anyway)—what mission could there possibly be?


A New Distinction

​Christendom affected the way the church perceived the world and its ministry to it. “In Christendom everyone is a Christian.” In other words, there is no category for people who are not Christians—at least not within the Christendom society. In Christendom, babies are baptized as soon as they are born and a person belongs to a parish simply because they live in a particular village. Accordingly, there is no difference between people who have chosen of their own volition to put their faith in Christ and those who have not.

​But human beings are prone to making distinctions. In Pre-Christendom, the distinction was between the church and the rest of the world—those who had yet to be reconciled to God. In Christendom, there wasn’t anyone who had not heard the gospel (the very basics of the gospel, in any case). As a result, in Christendom, a new distinction emerged. As Harvey puts it, in “Christendom the fundamental division is not between church and world, but between clergy and laity.”⁠[13]

In Pre-Christendom, the distinction was between the church and the rest of the world—those who had yet to be reconciled to God. In Christendom the fundamental division is between clergy and laity. Click To Tweet


“Professional” Christians

This division resulted in a new caste system of sorts. Now there was a caste of Christians who were full-time spiritual leaders. There was also a caste of Christians who were spiritual followers. In other words, there were “professional” Christians and there were “ordinary” Christians.[⁠14]

​And what did these new “professional” Christians do? They provided spiritual goods and services for those who were considered to be “ordinary” Christians.


”Maintenance of Their Structures”

Because of this new distinction, ministry became something that was performed by only a select few—the clergy.

With this framework, the church’s ministry no longer revolved around participating in God’s mission in the world, as it had in the time before Constantine. Rather, “in Christendom societies, mission often received little emphasis, for the churches concentrate upon the pastoral care of their people and the maintenance of their structures.”⁠[15]

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

​When everyone is considered a Christian, mission seems to become obsolete. The only kind of mission that exists in Christendom culture is mission to other parts of the world. Mission is what happens far, far away. That understanding of mission continues to linger. Even today, when we think of mission, we in the Western church often imagine faraway places like Africa, Asia, and South America. We still use the language of “mission trips” to refer to going somewhere else to do something that God wants us to do.

The only kind of mission that exists in Christendom culture is mission to other parts of the world. Mission is what happens far, far away. That understanding of mission continues to linger. Click To Tweet


Spiritual Goods and Services

In Christendom, mission at home is unnecessary. And when mission at home is no longer needed, the church must find a new reason to exist.

​Historically speaking, in Christendom the purpose of the church—especially the local church—had nothing to do with reaching people with the message of Jesus and inviting them into relationship with their Creator (because “everyone is a Christian”). It had nothing to do with restoring the shalom of God to a broken and sin-scarred world. Rather, the purpose of the Christendom church was to provide spiritual goods and services to those who were considered to be ordinary—as opposed to professional—Christians.

​To put it somewhat bluntly, when inviting people into the family of God became unnecessary, the Christendom church had to find other reasons to perpetuate its existence.


A Powerful Force

So there you go. A brief summary of the effect of Christendom on the church and the mission of Jesus.

For a long time, Christendom has been a powerful force in Western society. But if you take a look around today, it sure doesn’t look like Christendom anymore. Christianity no longer has a place of prominence in the nations and societies that make up Western culture. Gerhard Lohfink states that “the illusion of living in a completely Christian society has been definitively and thoroughly demolished in our day.”⁠[16]

​As evidence of this, Kreider points out that “throughout most of the West, Christendom is in a state of decrepitude if not decomposition. In many countries shoppers flood the malls on Sundays, while Sunday morning has become a special time for sporting events.”[⁠17]


Evidence of a Post-Christendom Reality

​The death of Christendom has certainly been evident in the churches I’ve been a part of, and I bet it has in your church, too. Whereas the oldest generation tends to faithfully attend church every Sunday, younger generations attend far less frequently. ​Soccer tournaments, gymnastics competitions, weekend getaways, and professional football games on TV exert a powerful draw on younger folks in our churches. But it’s not even just about declining attendance on Sunday mornings. With the death of Christendom, there has come a great loss of privilege for the church. There was a time when pastors were considered a relevant voice in discussions about public policy. There was a time when students in public schools prayed to the Christian God. There was a time when Christian witness and evangelism was held in high esteem.

​Please understand, I am not condemning those who aren’t in church every Sunday. I am not suggesting that we need to reclaim our political power or force children of other faiths to pray to the God of the Old and New Testaments. I am not saying we should go back to how it was. I’m pretty sure we couldn’t if we tried, and if we could we probably shouldn’t. What I’m saying is that these new trends—lower church attendance and less political and cultural influence—is simply evidence of our Post-Christendom reality.⁠[18]


Christendom is Dead

​This new reality poses a serious challenge for churches because many churches still see the world through the framework of Christendom. Many churches still think that the old ways of reaching people—by merely focusing on providing spiritual goods and services—will be enough to keep their churches alive. If they just offer more programs, more lively worship services, better pastoral care, more exciting ministries for children and youth—then people will start coming to church again.

But, let’s be honest. More and better is just not enough. More and better is probably not even what God is interested in! This is not the world it once was. Christendom—for better or for worse—is dead.


[This article is based on chapter two of my book, Beyond Thingification Helping Your Church Engage in God’s Mission. For more info about the book, click HERE.]



[1] Guder, Darrel. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 5-6. [Available for Logos]

[2] Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2015), 11. [Available for Logos]

[3] Sweet, Leonard. The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 17.

[4] Kreider, Alan. The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 94.

[5] To be clear, I am not arguing that church attendance is unimportant or that we can fully live our faith apart from the Body of Christ. We are called to gather regularly to encourage one another, strengthen one another, worship together, and receive God’s Word. See Matthew 18:20, Acts 2:46-47, Hebrews 10:24-25.

[6] Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, 33.

[7] Cultural and political powerlessness, that is. Spiritual power, on the other hand—and even moral authority—was something the church had in abundance.

[8] Harvey, Barry A. Another City (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1999), 71.

[9] Harvey, Another City, 81.

[10] Harvey, Another City, 37.

[11] Harvey, Another City, 67.

[12] Harvey, Another City, 68.

[13] Harvey, Another City, 95.

[14] There were also eventually the monastics who didn’t technically fit into the category of clergy. They were “ordinary” Christians who felt called to live lives of deep discipleship—which, in the pre-Christendom era, had been the norm for all Christians.

[15] Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, 96.

[16] Lohfink, Gerhard. Jesus and Community (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 132. [Available for Logos]

[17] Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, 98-99.

[18] Infrequent church attendance, I would argue, is not inherently bad. I suspect there are many in the younger generations who simply are not interested in the mere doing of church stuff. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and may not be finding it in the local church—or at least not on Sunday mornings.