According to the Barna Group, in a study conducted in 2008, approximately 1 in 4 American adults had never set foot in any form of a church during the previous twelve months. Of this group, about one-third said that they had never attended church in their lives. In the same study, 3 in 5 American adults had attended church at least once in the previous month. A larger proportion self-identified as born-again Christians, and within that group a significant proportion of those who don’t attend church do engage in prayer and Bible study.
A search of the web on the subject of “church attendance” turns up a wide variety of studies, but the common threads are that many people overestimate how frequently they attend church, and in general, church attendance in the US is declining. This won’t be a surprise to Christian pastors and other leaders. A major topic in the world of church leadership is the subject of the people who are no longer attending regularly. Fifty years ago, a normal part of American culture was church attendance. Today it is not at all uncommon to find that even parents who once attended church regularly have not had that same expectation of their children. It isn’t even strange any more to hear someone say, “I’ll take my child to church when he is old enough to decide for himself what he believes.”
Christians are as subject as anyone else to think it is possible to be “spiritual but not religious.” Yet church attendance has always been a central feature in church teaching, and in countries where Christians are severely persecuted, many Christians nevertheless attend church at great risk to their freedom, even their lives. Why do they do it? Why don’t they just pray in hiding and avoid the risk? Every Christian knows that God is everywhere. One of the great things about prayer, after all, is the fact that you can pray anywhere and anytime. Why isn’t it enough for Christians just to pray wherever and whenever the opportunity arises? What makes church attendance important enough to take personal risk or accept personal inconvenience?
There actually are good reasons for any Christian to attend church regularly, and it isn’t because anybody gets any points in the church hierarchy or with God for attending church.
- Worshiping in church helps a Christian to build a strong relationship with Christ.
If your relationship with Christ is not strong, the occasional visit in a church will not likely make a huge or noticeable difference. In fact, the very strangeness you experience as a visitor rather than a regular member is likely to distract you from the major values of worship in the church setting. It is like learning to appreciate the flavor of arugula in a salad. It takes time.
The big value of worship in the church setting, even if the church is small and unadorned, maybe just somebody’s living room, is the focus. Especially in liturgical churches, the focus is God alone. Everything else is secondary. Regular attendance in some ways simply increases your comfort with things that were strange the first time, but more than that, like repeating the multiplication table helped you to learn those facts, repeating the different elements of the liturgy or whatever worship elements your church uses gradually makes those elements part of you and your relationship with Christ. You can refocus yourself to an attitude of worship almost anywhere if you have grown accustomed and allowed yourself to be immersed in the worship experience in your church.
One of the great things about worship in a church is the many things you learn while singing hymns. It is quite possible to read the words of a hymn and think you know what it means. But many times I discover nuances of the hymn while singing in the congregation that simply do not show up when I am sitting in a chair in my house reading the words of the hymn while I wait for a pot to boil. The Bible tells us that God inhabits the praises of his people. The Holy Spirit is certainly present in worship at church and makes his presence known in ways that simply don’t happen elsewhere.
Other worship elements also strengthen our commitment and build our understanding of the faith. Actions like reciting the Creed reinforce your understanding that in your faith there are absolute truths on which no compromise is possible. The public reading of scripture assures that you experience the Bible as a coherent body of teaching and may expose you to texts you have missed in your private reading. Corporate confession of sin is a deep reminder of our sinful nature. Corporate prayer and song invite us repeatedly to both listen to God and speak to him, practices that build our relationship with God just as interaction and conversation build our relationships with family and friends.
2. Worshiping in church with other Christians helps a Christian to learn to love and forgive people.
Jesus said that the second commandment is to love your neighbor. It is pretty hard to love the neighbor when the neighbor’s dog does his business in your yard every day. It can be hard to love your fellow church members, too. Many people excuse themselves from church attendance by pointing out all the hypocrites they see in church. Unfortunately, the church membership is full of hypocrites, full of sinners, full of people who are not perfect. Everybody is welcome in Christ’s church, so if the church is actually true to the mission Christ gave it, there will always be people inside who can be criticized by someone who is perfect.
That, however, is the point. Christ died for sinners, and the apostle Paul followed that statement by saying, “of whom I am chief.” Each of us could say that. We go to church and are immediately surrounded by our own kind – sinners. It may be that we have differences with one person or another. That is unfortunate, but then one of the fruits of the indwelling Holy Spirit is kindness and forgiveness. Worship in church is just the place to exercise that fruit and nurture its development. In many churches, prior to the Lord’s Supper – Communion, Eucharist, whatever you choose to call it – there is a time to “share the peace.” The background of this practice is Jesus’ teaching that if we have something against someone, before we give an offering to God we should make peace with that person. We “share the peace” and remind ourselves to love the people we meet everywhere. It is a lesson we can take home, to work, to the grocery store, or wherever we go.
3. The Lord’s Supper is as essential to spiritual health as good nutrition is to biological health.
Non-liturgical churches often do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, certainly not every service, as most liturgical churches do. Still, it is part of their worship cycle. Regular church attendance in any Christian church provides frequent opportunities to enjoy that experience.
The Lord’s Supper is one of two sacraments established by Christ himself as central to our faith. This Supper recalls what Jesus did on the cross. The elements are embodied in the story told as they are presented, the story in which Jesus instituted this supper as a living memory of him. But the memory is not an anecdotal memory; it is a transforming memory. Before Jesus died, he asked us to remember what he would do by dying, when he gave his own body and blood for our sins in order to reconcile us through his forgiveness. Liturgical churches in one way or another consider the bread and wine to be the literal or nearly literal body and blood of Christ, while evangelical churches generally consider the elements symbolic. Every Christian, however, agrees that Jesus established the understanding that in this supper we recall his sacrifice on the cross, his broken body and his shed blood, the suffering and death he endured for our sins. It strengthens us to remember what he did for us and feeds our zeal and courage to live and speak our faith with confidence.
As Christians are more and more strongly pressed by a secular culture, church attendance is increasingly devalued. Confronted with scheduling challenges as the culture more and more sees Sunday as a day for meetings, athletics and work, Christians are truly tested if they want to attend church. It might be helpful if they avoided the customary phrase “church attendance” and used some other word or phrase to speak of this time. It may be helpful to think of the word “worship” simply because that is the actual focus of this time. Christians do not gather inside church buildings on Sunday mornings in order to have a good count for the attendance records. They gather to worship God, to praise him, to give thanks, to confess their sins and remember his love. They do not come together to compete for perfect attendance pins. If they speak and think of this time as “worship” rather than “church attendance” it may be easier to assert and act on its priority over other calls.
The secular culture of the US challenges Christians today in ways that would have been unthinkable fiffy years ago when most businesses closed on Sunday. In that era, Scouts would not have scheduled a gathering. In that time, Little League confined its activities to the other six days of the week. Today, social activities, charitable fund-raisers, athletic leagues and a general cultural sense that Sunday morning is for “me” makes it much more difficult for US Christians to prioritize a worship service over all the other conflicts. In Libya and Iraq and Nigeria and Laos, there are conflicts, too. The local culture, and sometimes the local government, prefers that Christians not gather for any purpose. Nevertheless, in all those places, Christians risk everything in order to get to worship with their congregations. They risk being arrested as threats to national security or local harmony. They may be shot on sight by Islamic rebels. Suicide bombers may break in during worship and kill or maim many Christians. Locals may hold guns to their heads and demand they sign papers renouncing their faith in Christ. Yet in these and many other dangerous countries, Christians continue to take the risk in order to join others in their congregation for worship. There must be something very worthwhile to be experienced in regular worship at church. Christians who don’t know why they should miss their marathon runs or their social gatherings and go to worship on a Sunday morning need to ask the Christians of the persecuted church around the world, Why do Christians go to church?