Many people who profess Jesus as Lord have tapped out of church. Pew Research recently released findings that reveal that 61 percent of people who consider themselves religious rarely or never attend church services, while 82 percent of people who call themselves somewhat religious or somewhat spiritual or both rarely or never attend church. As many as 37 percent of responders say they choose instead to practice their faith in other ways, while the remaining non-attenders cite reasons such as time constraints, dislike for the church, or the pastor’s sermons as reasons for neglecting church attendance.
Pastors and churches in post-Christian America (previously known as the Bible belt) are watching the unraveling of Christian fidelity ripple into every area of life. Some of our unraveling is a gift from God, though. The church-centric model found in cultural Christianity that equates faithfulness to Jesus with box-checking legalism never advanced the gospel. The idea that church attendance alone, or even service to the organizational needs of the church, proves genuine life change is foreign to the gospel.
Recent pivots to empower and unleash Christian disciple-makers into every domain of our cities represents a fresh wind of God’s Spirit. There’s a growing understanding that we make disciples in the community throughout the week more than we do in a Sunday morning event. A strategic enthusiasm for disciple making that celebrates both gathering and scattering, and that values both the reaching and sending is growing. These shifts in our thinking are not only faithful to the New Testament, but they rightly energize the modern believer.
In this encouraging renaissance, however, it seems we are overlooking at least one essential practice of the faith: attendance at the weekly church gathering. It’s no longer just fashionable to be late to church. Many Christians in post-Christian America simply do not see weekly church gathering as a necessary part of their spiritual formation. These four realities help explain why Christians make skipping church a way of life.
1. A misinformed ecclesiology
The word “ecclesiology” means the study of the church. For centuries, evangelicals have both affirmed the universal church, or “Big C” church, as it is sometimes called, as well as engaged in the local church. The universal church represents all believers of all times who name Jesus as Lord. In Christ, we are unified as one global, or universal, body. The local church, while a part of the universal church, is a smaller assembly of believers who are not only united in Christ, but who are geographically proximate and relationally accountable to one another to walk with Jesus alongside one another.
The letters of the apostle Paul were written to local churches in local communities, therefore, much of the New Testament not only describes the local church, but prescribes how each local church meets together and joins the kingdom mission of God. Recent trends, however, find Christians who claim loyalty to the universal church, yet who are uncommitted to the local church. This is not only inconsistent with the expectation of the New Testament, but it doesn’t work. Only in our physically present, relationally invested, and financially committed engagement in the local church is the universal church populated and mobilized for kingdom influence. In other words, outside of active involvement in the local church, we miss the kingdom of God altogether.
2. A relational exclusivism
As we read the apostle Paul’s letters to the churches in Asia Minor, we discover an expectation of diverse people, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, educated and uneducated uniting together in Christ Jesus. As believers in Galatia were arguing about who’s in and who’s out, Paul wrote, “For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28).
He also wrote to the church in Ephesus:
“But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:13, 19-22).
We naturally gravitate to people who are like us. That’s natural, but in Christ, the chief source of our identity is not our hobbies, our socio-economic status, or our season of life. The chief source of our identity is Christ who abolished the walls of separation that once put us at different tables in the seventh-grade lunchroom. Yet many modern Christians have never embraced this Christ-centered intimacy with other believers. Instead, they have looked for a church where people are most like them in ways outside of their faith in Christ.
Rather than removing the walls of separation, we have simply replaced the old religious walls with new socio-economic ones. The result is Christians who build their most significant relationships with people who are outside of Christ, and not for the purpose of missions and evangelism, but rather for identity, acceptance, and affirmation. Any disciple-making lifestyle prioritizes genuine friendships with people who are far from God, but Christians who relationally exclude their faith family do little disciple making at all.
3. A forgotten calling
When talking about the church, I often tell people, “It’s very difficult to follow Jesus by yourself.” We don’t just attend church on Sunday. We do that, but we are also the church everyday. We are a people on mission with Jesus wherever we live, work, and play. But that’s more than a slogan. It’s actually an invitation into spiritual warfare that pits us against forces intent on either killing us or killing our witness. Again the apostle Paul wrote, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Eph. 6:10).
Because of the intensity of the work of ministry and the spiritual battle involved throughout the week, believers who are engaged in it view the weekly gathering as much needed care for their soul. They eagerly anticipate reuniting with brothers and sisters who too have been sharing the gospel, serving their neighbors, and sacrificing to seek Jesus and his kingdom first. They need the fellowship with other people who love Jesus. They need to hear the stories of God’s faithfulness. They need the encouragement of the Word. It’s not a calendar event to attend. It’s an essential requirement for full-of-faith living.
Unfortunately, many believers disconnect from the local church, not because of the music, or the schedule, or the church leadership, but because they are simply not living on mission with Jesus. They have forgotten their calling in order to pursue their self-interests, and as a result, they see little need for the soul care of the local church.
Our rhythms and routines actually shape the heart of our children and set the spiritual trajectory for our grandchildren.
4. A new parental rhythm
The biggest question is not, “Do our children follow Jesus?” The better question is, “Are we investing in our children in a way that will make it likely that our grandchildren will follow Jesus?” That question changes how we view the church and how we lead our children to participate in the mission of God.
Our patterns prove our priorities, and priorities reveal our passions. We all get this. I still remember as a kid sitting around the TV on Saturday afternoons with my family and watching University of Tennessee Volunteer football. The garden still needed attention. The lawn still needed to be mowed. But everything stopped for Volunteer football. My grandparents are gone now, and I haven’t watched a football game with my extended family in years. But I still root for the Vols. Our patterns prove our priorities, and those priorities are transferred to the next generation.
Make no mistake about it, our rhythms and routines actually shape the heart of our children and set the spiritual trajectory for our grandchildren. Many Christian parents, however, still assume that a nominal commitment to the local church will give their kids just enough Jesus to get into heaven and just enough to keep them out of trouble on earth. We assume the primary goal of parenting is to produce well-rounded, socially-elevated, academically-stellar, and athletically-accomplished children who will give a nod to the moral framework of Christianity. Nominal Christians, however, do not produce nominal Christians. Nominal Christians produce nonChristians.
One current illustration of how this new parental rhythm plays out is in the decision of many Christian parents to enroll their children in programs that routinely take them out of church on Sunday mornings and keep them relationally disconnected from their church family. Parents are, in essence, catechizing their children to prioritize and pursue excellence in other endeavors to the neglect of the body and mission of Christ. Too often, parental motivation at this point is not to lead their children to live for eternity, but to encourage a pursuit of a feigned significance that will leave them wanting.
Do athletics, arts, and academics play an important role in the lives of kids and families? Absolutely. Are there enormous opportunities for Christian families at the ballpark? A thousand times yes! Is any of it worth sabotaging your child’s view of Jesus and their opportunity for a multi-generational impact in the kingdom of God? Not on your grandchild’s life.
It’s the local church that took shape in Jerusalem and spread throughout the known world in the pentecostal power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the local church that Paul instructed and in whom Peter trusted to pass down the faith once delivered to the saints. It is seven local churches of Revelation that remind us of our calling and of the dangers that woo us away from Jesus and his mission. It’s the church for which Jesus died to establish as light in the darkness. And it is the church that signals the mercy of God to all who are far away.
Organizational demands, schedules, and people problems in local church life can weigh heavy on us. Left unchecked, churches can become so internally focused that we are no longer salt and light in the community. The routine neglect of the local church, however, will never win souls, multiply disciples, or expand Jesus’ kingdom. Instead, it is through the local church that we make a difference on earth or in heaven. By God’s grace, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10).
This article originally appeared here.