TAC commenters are the best commenters. Thank you for all of you who offered thoughtful input and commentary on my last piece regarding the church and declining attendance.
Here are some responses to those comments—because they offered excellent food for thought, and I wanted to give some deeper thought to them. 1,000-or-so-word blog posts aren’t adequate to address the depth and complexity of the issues the U.S. church is facing, and it’s worth considering these issues in greater detail. So without further ado, here’s a look at some of the main objections I received Wednesday:
It’s About Catechesis, Not Community
This is true to some extent: don’t go to a heretical church, even if it’s just across the street. Don’t abandon doctrine or orthodoxy in your efforts to connect with a body of believers. When referring to “denominational difference” in the original piece, I was referring more to minor issues of worship or layout than core doctrinal considerations. If we’re considering two churches that are both Bible-preaching and doctrinally sound, then choosing between them becomes a matter of other, more gray issues: such as location, size, and communal integration.
Because we’re discussing this issue in the public sphere, and because logistics are what people pinpoint as keeping them from church on Sundays, I think it’s important not to simply say, “The right doctrine and sound preaching will keep people in the pews.” It should—that’s true. We would hope that, as one commenter points out, “the Church that preaches repentance and hope” would draw and keep a congregation. It’s about the Gospel, first and foremost.
But if people say that they are “too busy, have a crazy work schedule,” or are “too lazy” to attend church, it could also be that they need physical checks and balances (such as church proximity and member connectedness) to get them out the front door on Sundays. This isn’t unspiritual or belittling of doctrine: it’s an acknowledgment of the sinful proclivities of our nature, and the need for support and accountability.
In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”
Thankfully, this isn’t a temptation for everyone. One commenter said, “We attend a Church that is 40+ miles from our home, passing roughly eight others on our way. It takes up approximately 4-5 hours of any Sunday. It’s where we feel the focus is where it should be and the liturgy is delivered in it’s purest form.”
When you have the conviction and church allegiance necessary to attend church 40 or 50 miles away, that becomes a salutary and acceptable practice. Geographic and logistical concerns are more important for people who find it difficult to “stick” with a church, and need some extra accountability.
This plays into the “communal” aspect of a church, as well. Fruit is important—as so many commenters pointed out, there are a lot of Christian churches out there that have produced bad fruit, and it’s debilitated or decimated the faith of many. But let’s not forget that church isn’t a social club or humanitarian nonprofit: it is, first and foremost, the church. We should not become so focused on the political or social (or geographical) facets of our faith, that we lose sight of the deeper philosophical and theological truths necessary for a church to thrive. “Church shopping” is symptomatic of someone looking for a laundry list of experiences or services that they think it ought to provide. But church is meant to be more serious, more metaphysical than this: church is meant to delve into the deepest subjects, the ones that have to do not just with this world, but with the next.
Don’t Pick On The Megachurches
One commenter said: “Many megachurches actually do the ‘personal, communal’ thing better that smaller churches by having really good small group ministry. Sunday morning becomes a kind of modern version of big, cathedral Christianity with small groups filling the need for smaller, communal groups (many of which are often geographically-centered) during the week.”
I hadn’t thought of it this way: perhaps the “megachurch” is the best evangelical response to an absence of the awe-inspiring beauty and reverent ethos offered by a cathedral. It gives members that sense of collective solidarity, along with an impression of towering greatness and beauty. That said, it seems that without the ancient, embodied rituals of the cathedral, a megachurch cannot offer the same depth and lasting reverence that a cathedral can. It may be able to foster some emotional goods via its inspiring service, but whether these responses will blossom into lasting devotion and discipleship is difficult to know.
It isn’t fair to disparage all megachurches. But there are some interesting findings worth considering for people who want to worship there: the Hartford Institute for Religious Research reports that people who attend megachurches are most often younger, single, wealthier, and have a higher level of education. Most attending a megachurch have been doing so for five years or less, and 45 percent of the church’s members never volunteer. While social and communal outreach programs exist, the Hartford Institute found that these are largely set up to help members “craft unique, customized spiritual experiences” by providing a “multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement.”
These words—a “unique, customized spiritual experience”—are symptomatic of, I would argue, one of the biggest problems with modern Christianity. They’re indicative of a consumer church, one that’s set up more like a Build-a-Bear Workshop than as a body of united and serious believers. Members are likely to fall prey to what Rod Dreher has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”: asking what their church will do for them, how it will appeal to their needs and wants and desires, and not really committing themselves to the truths of the Gospel or the demands of Christ.
In January, Jonathan Aigner shared some of his reasons for disliking megachurch worship services. Focused on the experiential and personal, he said, they do little to foster the unity of their congregants or the longevity of their faith. Worship, he argued, is “about unity, not choice. It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help. It’s about theology, not experience. It’s about participation, not consumption. It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.”
A megachurch that accomplishes the former without falling prey to the latter is defying the stereotypes and tendencies of its brand, and will (hopefully) overcome the difficulties of size and potential alienation to build a strong, healthy membership.
The Damage of Scandal
As one commenter put it,
People who call themselves Christians and publicly proclaim their love for the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace and then treat defenseless kids with stern cruelty are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.
People who spend millions of dollars to make themselves more comfortable for an hour or so each Sunday and no money on local people who might need help are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.
People who act as church leaders and commit crimes or cover up for others who commit them are not a good advertisement for their beliefs. … These people either have never read the Sermon on the Mount or, if they have read it, they have rejected it.
This is so true, and such an enormous problem to face. Rod Dreher has written well on this subject before, as he spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Catholic church’s child sex abuse crisis. He knows firsthand how faith-crushing such horrific evil can be.
This is why I did emphasize a loving, serving church in my first post: because we need to see fruit. We need to know that the truth of the Gospel is being acted out, that loving service is happening in the body of Christ. The only way healing can come to those wounded and marred by poor doctrine and cruelty, is by the true, real Gospel being administered to the hurt and wounded.
However, there’s another important point worth mentioning here. No church is perfect, and it’s important that we differentiate between scandalous, evil behavior and the everyday pitfalls and weaknesses of a body that has yet to be sanctified. A worship service that is less than perfect, a message from the pulpit that rubs you the wrong way, a couple of congregants who gossip after church—these are issues that need to be sanctified, but are not necessarily grounds to run away from the church. Here are some thoughts from an article I wrote on this subject a couple years ago:
The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions. And they may again drive you away, urging you into a “free range” faith that is ever seeking the authentic.
But you can choose to stay and to love this flawed and marred church, still so far from perfection. You can choose to walk amongst the faltering limbs of this body, this ailing bride, because you know that you too are a flawed limb. You know that you, too, have caked makeup over your raw sores, and have attempted to look “normal,” even perhaps “authentic.” You know that you’ve whitewashed your tombs.
Church is not about our perfection or authenticity. There are layers of sin and blindness that we have yet to uncover. But church is about Christ… . It’s about the Gospel. And that truth reaches out to us in our states of inauthenticity, giving us a chance to rise above the facades.