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Why do Christians Go to Church?

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.

  1.    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?

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Can Christians Win a Culture War?

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.