Recent surveys of the US population tell us that more and more people who self-identify as Christians readily confess that they seldom or never attend church. Most Christian denominations could have told us that without conducting any surveys; they simply need to look at all the empty pews on Sunday morning, pews that once barely contained the numbers who gathered there regularly for worship. In the face of increasing numbers of Americans who simply answer “none” to questions about religious connections, the decline in the most conspicuous behavior related to a church connection raises two questions that must be addressed. First, what is the point of church attendance? Second, does a decline in that behavior have any impact on the outcome of conflicts between the culture and the free expression of Christian faith?
First, the point of church attendance is somewhat like that of regular gym workouts for the body. A person who joins a gym and never again sets foot in it is unlikely to achieve any goals such as muscle toning, strength building, or an increase in physical endurance. A person who joins a church and never again sets foot in it is unlikely to develop in understanding of Christian discipleship as a way of life, is not likely to be a good spokesman for the absolute truths that are tenets of the faith, and is highly unlikely to be willing to endure cultural and political ostracism on behalf of the faith.
Second, given that the person who does not attend church regularly is weak on all the central principles of the faith, this person is probably not likely even to recognize that there is a conflict between the culture and the faith. A person whose church attendance is classified “seldom or never” almost certainly absorbs the cultural trends and initiatives and style of thinking about the issues, never realizing when those trends and styles are directly contradictory to the faith he claims.
Pollsters focus on church attendance precisely because this behavior is public. Anyone who wanted to know if someone attends church could verify the truth for himself. Churches open their doors to all; it would be most peculiar if someone came to the door of a church and was turned away. However, the public nature of this expression of faith has led the culture, particularly the segment with no religious connections, to conclude that church attendance IS the faith. This misconception is expressed most notably in a federal regulation that defines a “religious employer” as a church or house of worship. This definition is mirrored in writings on atheist and secular websites, where the term worship is considered to be equivalent to religion.
Why should a Christian attend worship regularly if worship is not the same thing as religion? There are several reasons.
- · Attending church nourishes a relationship with Christ. Worship is a crucial element of faith, even though it is not the only element. Christians put their faith in God, the Mysterious Three in One, and in church on Sunday morning, God is the center of attention. In prayer, hymns, Bible readings, preaching, symbols, and yes, rituals within the worship experience, God is the focus. If Christian worship is not all about God, then it is not Christian worship.
- · Attending church nourishes a relationship with other Christians. This item is very often dismissed by people who visit a church. They either conclude that they “didn’t get anything out of it,” or that one or more people they saw were hypocrites. Churches must be filled with hypocrites or there won’t be any people there at all. There is a sense in which it can safely be said that every Christian is a hypocrite. Lutherans say that we are all simultaneously sinful saints and saintly sinners. Every church is full of people who do not live up the best Christian standards, but the fellowship sustained by worshiping together nourishes commitment to those standards and to the effort and self-discipline required to achieve them. As for someone who claims not to “get anything” out of worship, it must be said that worship is not about “giving” anything to the congregation; it is about giving to God.
- · The Lord’s Supper is as essential to Christian health as good nutrition is to your body. This is the element of worship where a Christian actually does receive something, and it is a precious something. In this meal, Christ gives us his very body and blood, the body broken and the blood shed on the cross. This meal strengthens us and reminds us what he did for us. It feeds our zeal and courage to live and speak our faith with confidence.
Church membership and attendance have numerous other benefits for a Christian who wants to be effective when the culture attempts to suppress the free expression of our faith in the streets and byways, at work, in the gym, in stores and doctors’ offices. None of the benefits of attendance are likely to develop if a person attends in the spirit of checking off an appointment. The question pollsters ask is about attendance, but the value is not in the definition of the word attendance; the value is what happens when the Christian is actively involved in the mission of the church nourished by education and guidance in the principles and practices of the faith.
Can Christians win a culture war? Until recently, the influence of Christian faith, practice and even vocabulary was dominant in the culture of the US, so there wasn’t much of a culture war. The culture wars have increased dramatically during the last twenty or thirty years. The cultural changes reflect in part the fact that more people feel free to say they have no religious connections along with a real decline in such connections. It is hard to predict how trending will continue over the next twenty or thirty years. However, it is quite certain that no Christian who confuses the normal cultural values in the US with the values and teachings of Christianity will be able to refute, reject and repel aggressive assaults on Christian values.
Those of us who think deeply and seriously about the meaning of these conflicts must pray and work to invite and attract Christians to be active participants in the churches to which they allege connections. It isn’t really something unique to this century. It is actually simple obedience to Jesus’ call to make disciples. Making a disciple goes way beyond simply persuading someone to pray to receive Christ. Making disciples does not end with good annual statistics for baptisms. We make disciples when we are constantly and consistently mentoring new Christians in the faith while helping long-time Christians to mature and take on leadership of newer disciples. This is what happens when people regularly “attend” church. If we do these things, then more Christians will be effective representatives of the faith when culture and Christianity conflict.