All across the world this weekend, people will gather in groups—some bigger, many smaller—to worship Jesus. To sing songs, to pray together, to hear God’s Word preached. Voluntarily. No one forces millions of people to show up, to come together for worship, and yet it happens. It happens not just this week, but every single Sunday.
Unfortunately, as recent surveys show, the percentage of Americans attending church has declined in recent years, even in evangelical denominations. The decline of churchgoers isn’t massive, but the data suggest that the infrequent attenders from 20 or 30 years ago have moved further away while the religiously devoted (though a slightly lower percentage) continue to attend.
A survey from several years ago showed that only 35 percent of Americans believe that attending worship services constitutes an “essential part of being a Christian.” The theologian in me wants to quibble with that word “essential,” because I wouldn’t want to imply that going to church makes you a Christian, or that any person who is currently not attending church is necessarily lost. But the vast majority of people who answered that survey weren’t analyzing it theologically. They were simply asked what’s important or essential to being a faithful Christian. And only 35 percent of American Christians said church attendance is a big deal. That means most Christians see church attendance as something optional, something good if it helps you along in your personal spiritual life, but not something that is commanded, required, or essential to your faith. You can have a personal faith that’s strong, and if the church helps with that, great! If you’re fine on your own, that’s great, too!
Why such a low percentage of American Christians who believe churchgoing is necessary?
The first answer is obvious. We live in a highly individualistic culture. In a fragmented era of expressive individualism, many people see themselves as lone individuals who only come together based on common interests or goals. Any commitments we make are on our own terms. In an individualistic culture, the community aspect of our existence can suffer. Church attendance suffers, too.
A second reason for that low percentage? We live in an anti-institutional age. Institutions—whether they be educational or political or religious—get a bad rap, and some of that is deserved. We see how corruption can take root in institutions or how rituals and routines can stifle creativity and innovation. Americans are suspicious toward institutions, including religious ones, and tend to trust individuals to figure out what’s best for themselves, not listen to a church or a pastor or a political figure tell them what to do.
But there’s a third reason, and it’s one we do well to consider because this “churchgoing is optional” mindset may be a negative effect of things we ourselves have said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a rise in church attendance. Much of the churchgoing during that time was cultural. Upstanding citizens in the community would go to church because, well, that’s what upstanding citizens did, not always because they had a genuine faith or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In response, some preachers and pastors emphasized the distinction between cultural Christianity and what it means to be “born again”—a Christian who has genuinely been converted. (This was always an evangelical hallmark—to say it’s not enough to just be nominally religious but radically saved.) To heighten the contrast, church leaders would say things like, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. You need to, as an individual, have personal faith in Jesus.”
Looking back, we may conclude that was the right move at the time. Distinguishing between the trappings of faith and the substance of salvation remains vital. But I wonder if, in the decades that followed, the truth that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian morphed into a different idea—that being a Christian doesn’t necessarily include going to church. I wonder if people started thinking that personal, individual faith in Jesus is the only important thing, and if the church can help with that, fine, but if not, that’s fine, too.
Here’s where the problem shows up. The idea that belonging to a church is an optional add-on to one’s Christian life is far from the biblical picture. The idea of an unchurched Christian wouldn’t have made sense to the writers of the New Testament.
When I was a student in Romania, American evangelists would come and preach, and they’d sometimes say things like, “I’m calling you to trust in Jesus, not to become part of the church.” The translators would always change that last part. I remember one of my professors (who was also a pastor) saying, “That’s not really true. When we call people to follow Jesus, we’re calling them to become part of his people.” I think the Romanians were right. When we urge people in our congregation to trust in Jesus and to turn from sin, we are also calling them to become part of our fellowship. We call people into the family of God.
Over the years, I’ve written about the beauty and significance of gathering with the church, the challenges of congregations full of “part-time churchgoers,” and why expressive individualism heightens the struggle for faithful church attendance. The challenges are real due to the first two reasons I mentioned above. Let’s not make them even harder with statements that seem to pit true Christianity against the church.