Within the last 48 hours, in two different Facebook contexts, I’ve come across this piece by Thom Rainer. The decline in church attendance in the United States (principally measured by Sunday attendance) is no longer a conjecture; it is an established fact. To most church leaders, it is more than a fact. It is a problem, a disturbing trend that must be reversed. It is, as Rainer says, seen as an indication of a shift “away from [our country’s] Christian roots” and that fewer people are “following Christ”.
Are these interpretations the only valid ones? I would challenge that notion rather strongly. First, even though the original European settlers mostly came to North America (or at least to the part which has become the United States) with the expectation that they would be able to practice their preferred form of the Christian religion undisturbed, it is questionable whether the United States can claim “Christian roots.” That should be evident if you’ve gotten through high school and had to study US Government. There is, once again, this little thing called the First Amendment. God-language, and even theological arguments, are welcome in the public square; however, we are officially not a Christian country, and it seems to me that the intent of the nation’s founders was to make sure a wider variety of religious paths could be pursued. Christianity has been a dominant influence in United States culture, but that does not mean we have explicitly Christian roots. Most of the founders were more Deists than Trinitarian Christians, anyway, even if they attended standard-brands (mainly Protestant) churches. Participation in what eventually became the Episcopal Church was one of the major ways a Virginian entered the political arena, as I have argued here.
I also wonder how many people are following Jesus by trying to model their lives on his example and teaching, but are not members of specific churches. Probably, some form of Christianity is what Americans are (partially) rejecting when they self-identify as “spiritual but not religious“.
So, I have to question some of the starting premises of the essay–that the United States has strong “Christian roots” which are under threat, and that fewer people are “following Christ”.
But there are bigger issues, and I think they are things that people who attend, or are thinking about attending, church should consider quite seriously. The two much more fundamental problems with the essay are the ways in which Rainer speaks of “commitment”, and the way his approaches to the supposed problem of church (numerical) decline might discourage mature Christian discipleship.
Rainer makes what I believe to be a false equivalency. This is:
Commitment to Christ=Commitment to the Institutional Church
This needs much more careful scrutiny than I am seeing. It insinuates that “commitment to Christ” is quantifiable, and attendance at church services is an appropriate measure. It implies that service to God equals service to the immediate local expression of the institutional church.
If you are hypnotized into making these false equivalencies, you quickly realize Rainer is feeding us a nonsense: The #1 reason people aren’t coming to church is…. (drumroll, please…)
They aren’t coming to church.
They’re not committed because they’re not committed. Or, at least, they’re not committed in the way Rainer (and I would venture, most ordained congregational leaders)wants them to be. The way that brings in money. The way that makes the minister the star of the show at least once a week.
Toward the end of the essay, Rainer makes the claim that people, despite declining commitment to the church, “still want to be a part of something that makes a difference. They have a desire to be involved in something bigger than themselves.” And the solution is for the church to give them that–nay, enforce that, if the person is to be a member of the congregation.
Nonsense. You can be part of something bigger than yourself–even be doing the work of God–without doing it being a direct “church ministry”.
I have a young relative doing exactly this, exactly now. He is turning his love of the outdoors to organize a sponsored canoe trip along the Erie Canal to help raise money for a summer camp for childhood cancer patients. You can read about it here. Yes, he is borrowing an Iroquois war canoe from a church member, and the church is allowing supporters to use their kitchen and social room to help prepare meals for the paddlers and road crew to take on this week-long adventure. It is not a (direct) “ministry” of the church. Yet, somehow, a high-school junior is doing something that directly makes him a part of something much bigger than himself.
Other people show their commitment to Christ by taking on work such as health care, teaching, volunteering in feeding programs, and building houses for economically disadvantaged families. Sometimes, this takes away from church attendance. Is it a display of Christian leadership to tell someone they should be listening to your sermon on a Sunday, rather than putting up drywall with Habitat for Humanity?
Rather than moan about a small decline in attendance, I would much rather see pastors motivate their congregants to get out of the pew one Sunday morning a month, and really serve God, rather than attend a service. “Ministry” that is limited to church activity, and that must be conducted under church supervision, might be very nice for the congregation–but it has little chance to serve the wider world that God supposedly loves enough to send his son.
Furthermore, the attempt to “play Daddy” that Rainer’s approaches to this questionably-defined problem are repellent, on completely biblical grounds: we are to come to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
How can that happen if you’re checking up on people’s attendance, using the “Sunday School” model of calling when someone doesn’t show up? And what if the answer isn’t one you like? I have a relative who travels about 50% of the year for business purposes. Can that person not be a part of your congregation because they are absent more than you would like? More worship times doesn’t solve this–if a congregant is out of the country, you could offer worship three times a day, every day of the week. They still can’t be there.
And what about people who might worship elsewhere occasionally, with friends, relatives, or for any reason they don’t care to explain to a pastor?
Do you intend to turn people away from the door who show up once a month, if they haven’t taken your “entrance class”?
The approaches Rainer suggests are for a church that is quickly going the direction of the dinosaur. I am happy to see it go that way, and look forward to something better: a church that is truly open to the world God loves, and which, rather than seeking to control and monitor its members, gives them the opportunity to develop into spiritual maturity and the full stature of Christ.