This is one of those posts I’ve wanted to write for awhile, but I wasn’t sure how to say what I think needs to be said. The danger of legalism and false guilt is very real. But so is the danger of disobedience and self-deception.

I want to talk about church members who attend their home church with great irregularity. These aren’t unchurched folks, or de-churched, or under-churched. They are semi-churched. They show up some of the time, but not every week. They are on again/off again, in and out, here on Sunday and gone for two. That’s the scandal of the semi-churched. In fact, Thom Rainer argues that the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that church members don’t go to church as often as they used to.

We’ve had Christmas and Easter Christians for probably as long as we’ve had Christmas and Easter. Some people will always be intermittent with their church attendance. I’m not talking about nominal Christians who wander into church once or twice a year. I’m talking about people who went through the trouble of joining a church, like their church, have no particular beef with the church, and still only darken its doors once or twice a month. If there are churches with membership rolls much larger than their average Sunday attendance, they have either under-shepherds derelict in their duties, members faithless in theirs, or both.

I know we are the church and don’t go to church (blah, blah, blah), but being persnickety about our language doesn’t change the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25. We should not neglect to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing. Gathering every Lord’s Day with our church family is one of the pillars of mature Christianity.

So ask yourself a few questions.

1. Have you established church going as an inviolable habit in your family? You know how you wake up in the morning and think “maybe I’ll go on a run today” or “maybe I’ll make french toast this morning”? That’s not what church attendance should be like. It shouldn’t be an “if the mood feels right” proposition. I will always be thankful that my parents treated church attendance (morning and evening) as an immovable pattern. It wasn’t up for discussion. It wasn’t based on extenuating circumstances. It was never a maybe. We went to church. That’s what we did. That made the decision every Sunday a simple one, because there was no real decision. Except for desperate illness, we were going to show up. Giving your family the same kind of habit is a gift they won’t appreciate now, but will usually thank you for later.

2. Do you plan ahead on Saturday so you can make church a priority on Sunday? We are all busy people, so it can be hard to get to church, especially with a house full of kids. We will never make the most of our Sundays unless we prepare for them on Saturday. That likely means finishing homework, getting to bed on time, and foregoing some football. If church is an afterthought, you won’t think of it until after it’s too late.

3. Do you order your travel plans so as to minimize being gone from your church on Sunday? I don’t want to be legalistic with this question. I’ve traveled on Sunday before (though I try to avoid it). I take vacation and study leave and miss 8 or 9 Sundays at URC per year. I understand we live in a mobile culture. I understand people want to visit their kids and grandkids on the weekend (and boy am I thankful when ours come and visit). Gone are the days when people would be in town 50-52 weeks a year. Travel is too easy. Our families are too dispersed. But listen, this doesn’t mean we can’t make a real effort to be around on Sunday. You might want to take Friday off to go visit the kids so you can be back on Saturday night. You might want to think twice about investing in a second home that will draw you away from your church a dozen weekends every year. You might want to re-evaluate your assumption that Friday evening through Sunday evening are yours to do whatever you want wherever you want. It’s almost impossible to grow in love for your church and minister effectively in your church if you are regularly not there.

4. Are you willing to make sacrifices to gather with God’s people for worship every Sunday? “But you don’t expect me to cancel my plans for Saturday night, do you? I can’t possibly rearrange my work schedule. This job requires me to work every Sunday–I’d have to get a new job if I wanted to be regular at church. Sundays are my day to rewind. I won’t get all the yard work done if I go to church every week. My kids won’t be able to play soccer if we don’t go to Sunday games. If my homework is going to be done by Sunday, I won’t be able to chill out Friday night and all day Saturday. Surely God wouldn’t want me to sacrifice too much just so I can show up at church!” Not exactly the way of the cross, is it?

5. Have you considered that you may not be a Christian? Who knows how many people God saves “as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). Does going to church every week make you a Christian? Absolutely not. Does missing church 35 Sundays a year make you a non-Christian? It does beg the question. God’s people love to be with God’s people. They love to sing praises. They love to feast at the Table. They love to be fed from the Scriptures. Infrequent church attendance–I mean not going anywhere at all–is a sign of immaturity at best and unbelief at worst. For whenever God calls people out of darkness he calls them into the church. If the Sunday worship service is the community of the redeemed, what does your weekly pattern suggest to God about where you truly belong?

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313 thoughts on “The Scandal of the Semi-Churched”

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  3. In this debate about attending church and obeying a leadership team’s view of attending church, consider this information from the bible. So one may ask “Doesn’t Hebrews 13:17 command us to obey and submit to our leaders, implying that church leaders possess official authority?
    A look at the Greek text proves useful here. The word translated “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is not the garden-variety Greek word (hupakouo) that’s usually employed in the N.T. for obedience. Rather, it’s the word peitho. Peitho means to persuade or to win over. Because this word appears in the middle-passive form in Hebrews 13:17, the text ought to be translated “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders.”
    This text appears to be an exhortation to give weight to the instruction of local overseers (and possibly apostolic workers). It’s not an exhortation to obey them mindlessly. It implies persuasive power to convince and to win over rather than to coerce, force, or browbeat into submission. In the words of Greek scholar W. E. Vine, “The obedience suggested [in Hebrews 13:17] is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.”
    Likewise, the verb translated “submit” in this passage is the word hupeiko. It carries the idea of yielding, retiring, or withdrawing, as in surrendering after battle. Those who occupy themselves with spiritual oversight don’t demand submission. By virtue of their wisdom and spiritual maturity, they are to be accorded with respect. Christians are encouraged to be uncommonly biased toward what they say. Not because of an external office they hold, but because of their godly character, spiritual stature, and sacrificial service to the people of God. In the words of Hebrews 13:7, we are to “imitate their faith” as we “consider the outcome of their life.” By so doing, we make their God-called task of spiritual oversight far easier to carry out (v. 17).
    (Taken from Frank Viola, Rethinking Leadership)

  4. Another aspect to this debate is the simple fact that many devoted Christians have stopped going to institutional church altogether. Recent reputable surveys both in the USA and Australia demonstrate that nearly 48% of all believers are now attending simple churches or home fellowships.. In essence It means more people are going out the back door rather than going through the front door of institutional church’s. I suspect the reasons for this cultural shift are both diverse and complex. However these surveys do shed some light on the reasons for change. Firstly, people have left institutional church because they have been mistreated. Secondly, legalism has set in. Thirdly people have indicated they are tired of being told what to do, what to say, what to think and how to behave by leaders who have forgotten who truly is the head of the church ie Jesus Christ. In fact in Australia the Baptist Union of New South wales is already experimenting with replacing failing traditional church’s and planting new ones using a simple church model, often with out any hierarchy what so ever. One should not be surprised by this. Billy Graham in fact prophesized this would happen in the late 1950s early 60s.

  5. Mike Gantt says:

    There are two kinds of people leaving the institutional: those who do so following the broad way that leads to destruction and those who do so to seek the narrow way of following Christ Himself. None of the surveys I’ve seen on the subject of church attendance seem to capture this distinction.

  6. Mike I guess your post opens up another line of discussion. Salvation being a gift form God (which is not earned) because of Christ allowing himself to be crucified on the cross means those people who use their free will to accept Him as Lord and Saviour will spend eternity with God. In my view going to a institutional church has no bearing on the gift of salvation. Now I know their are a number of theological positions on this matter. Some believe once saved always saved, some believe you can lose your salvation and some lock it into predestination where you don’t get to choose, it will happen no matter what. So it depends on where a person sits in this spectrum of positions. Where I sit is once saved it cant be undone if you have received God the Holy Spirit (Gods seal) at the point of confession and accepting Christ as Lord and Savior ie I mean a true conversion not a religious experience. Mind you that is only the beginning of your journey as you know well I’m sure. One can go to church for 20 years and still not be saved. Conversely one can never go to church and be saved. A great line debate. I like your web page blog by the way its taken me a long time to get where your at. Blessings to you

  7. J.Shaw says:

    Thank you Grahame Smith, one of the best comments I have seen on this thread…And one that best describes my position on this topic. A true conversion, not a religious experience, is all that matters. I believe our salvation is predestined, through our own “free” will…In other words God knows the eternal destiny of our soul long before our earthly bodies were created, but through our “free” will, we determine when we accept it. God was whispering for 20+ years to me while I hid from the light, knowing, but not accepting the gift….Again, great comment, thank you!

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  10. In this debate about attending institutional church…. one thing I noticed in the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, church attendance doesn’t seem to get a mention. However Christ does take the church to task on other issues. Tellingly, the issues and identified goals addressed are, love in the ecclesia, endurance in the face of persecution, morality in the ecclesia , loyalty to Christ’s name , discernment of true doctrine and dedication to spirit empowered living . I take it from this scripture that the first job of the church is get itself on track, God can take care of the wider issues.

    I also have found today the institutional church has become so self focused it has often forgotten its role or become confused about its role (in addition to following and obeying Christ).

    This role confusion is cleared up in the following passages

    Firstly In Eph 6:12-13 we see Paul warning us that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. He then tells us to take up the whole armour of God so we can stand against this evil. Thus we do not wrestle with the world or our own potentially dysfunctional traditional church system.

    Secondly In 2 Corinthians 5 18 Paul makes it clear we are ambassadors for Christ and he has given us a ministry of reconciliation to reach out to mankind and bring them back into relationship with him. Not stuck in a inward looking church institution.

    Thirdly In Eph 3 : 10,11 Christians are to reveal to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, the manifold grace of God and what he achieved through the cross. Often not taught to believers. Grace is shown to abound across society/church and to declare it to demonic structures.

    Fourthly In Eph 5: 11-14 We are to expose the designs and deeds of darkness through the light of Jesus Christ. This is not passive it means getting out and doing it. Not though endless sermonising

    Fifthly In Eph 6: 10-18 We are to resist and stand actively against the devils schemes. This is where the ecclesia comes in

    Lastly 1 John 2: 12-14. Overcome the evil one, to conquer his influence over our characters. Again this is where the ecclesia comes in.

    If the Christine group you are in are doing the above, then well done. If it’s not happening, then fortunately the Ecclesia (two or more gathered in His name) is both wide and diverse and diversity they say is the spice of life. So go and immerse yourself in it and enjoy. Hope this is further food for thought

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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