A few weeks ago, I asked those who identify as Christians and struggle with church attendance what was the cause of that struggle in this poll (you can still vote).
Part of the reason I had to ask the question is because I can no longer really relate to the struggle. I grew up in a situation where we literally feared that if missing a service for another activity happened to coincide with our death or the return of Christ we might spend eternity in hell! I did go through a phase later–when I thought I was going to hell anyway–where church attendance was not a given. But now in this last decade of my life, I have been a preacher, and though I hope true motives are in play, I am paid to show up to church services!
Currently only twenty-five people have voted in the poll, but one thing really stood out. 32% of responders (eight people), said that either their current church experience was not engaging enough or that church attendance was not important to the Christian walk. I would love to get more responders to see if those numbers hold, but I suspect they are very true.
A week ago or so, author/blogger Donald Miller found himself in a controversy after admitting he rarely attended church, though he is apparently a well-known evangelical. You can read his original post here. After the storm of passionate comments, Miller responded with another post.
I thought his second post was more helpful, because he was pushed to clarify and defend his views on why church attendance is really non-essential for him, even though he considers himself a Christian. Here are a couple of quotes from Miller and I’ve added a few thoughts in italics below.
“Millions of people who do not attend church have rich, meaningful communities that they created or have joined. You could create your own community out of your home in a matter of months.”
I’m sure that Miller is correct, but the critical question for the Christian, in this discussion, is whether or not it is important to Jesus for us to belong to a church. If so, is what Miller describes as your own created community a viable substitute for traditional church?
“I choose kind ones, I don’t care what they believe. This is part of why I feel like my community is so healthy.”
Even if you take a very ecumenical view of the church (i.e. not overly focused on denominational doctrines), you would have to concede the church of the Bible is formed around certain beliefs. In a sense, Miller is just saying he has swapped community for church. While these ideas are not mutually exclusive, it is a mistake to equate them. There are many communities that are not the church, though every church should be a community. Building a community around kind people is pleasant, but it is not the same as experiencing community formed by the name of Christ.
“Do people really believe there’s no spiritual life, no walk with Jesus, no community and no love outside a Sunday morning worship service?”
I don’t know what people might believe, but I would think that most thoughtful Christians do understand that Sunday morning worship is only an aspect of a spiritual life and only one way to enjoy community. However, Miller’s rhetorical question misses the point. This issue should not be framed as to whether Christians can be spiritual and enjoy authentic community outside Sunday morning church service OR can only experience such things in the context of church service. Why can it be both/and? Miller conceded it is both/and for many, but not for him. But again what Jesus expects of us is more important than what we find personally beneficial.
In Miller’s two posts, he sometimes writes about the church in rich theological language. In one place he calls it the “bride of Christ.” He describes the church as one body and consisting of all those that belong to Christ and hopes he is considered part of it. That’s all very compelling biblical language. And I believe that Miller and many like him are very sincere in their frustrations with traditional church services and feel the need spread their wings and fly outside of the church walls. However, I just don’t think this view of the church/community holds up under biblical scrutiny.
The church of the Bible is not some nebulous community that we form ourselves based on a quality we like (in Miller’s case–kindness). The church is a people called out (not really talking about the etymology of ekklesia here) to believe in and submit to the Lordship of Jesus. It is not defined by us and its mission does not come from us.
The church assembles to acknowledge her (if I may now change the pronoun) Lord, to commune with her Groom through the Lord’s Supper, to encourage one another in pursuit of holy lives. The church meets on Sunday, because Jesus rose on that day, and it became known as the Lord’s Day (cf. Rev. 1:10). Scripture and the testimony of history bear this out. We encourage one another toward the Great Commission. We encourage the weak, even when we don’t get a lot out of service.
I want to be empathetic to those who declare themselves Christians, but struggle to attend services. I really do and I want to understand. We need to look at some other models of “doing church”, which I will discuss in my next post. Click here for a preview of what I hope to discuss next week.
But as I wrap up now, in my view, it is simply not an option to be a Christian and to opt out of church in favor of your self-styled community (cf. Heb. 10:25). I could say a lot more and probably need to from the biblical witness, but as this post is now over a thousand words, let me stop for the day. Feel free to share your thoughts or questions.