Not long ago, Pew Research released a survey[i] on why Americans do and do not go to church. While 73% of Americans identify as being Christian[ii], surveys say Americans who report going to church weekly is only around 35%.[iii] Our best estimates for our own city (Tucson) are that less than 3% of the population gathers in a local body of believers on any given Sunday.[iv]
I write this as an appeal to the 65% nationally and 90%+[v] in Tucson who don’t attend church regularly.
First, I want to understand you and your reasons for not attending. In a recent survey, those reasons were expressed this way[vi]:
Does that list express your reasons for why you don’t attend church? I would love to hear from you what your reason is.
I am going to walk through the reasons given for not attending and ask if you would reconsider:
“I practice my faith in other ways.”
The largest group of those who don’t attend (37%) say that they practice their faith in other ways. That is wonderful! I’m so glad that you practice your faith beyond Sunday morning. Our faith is to be expressed daily and through various means (prayer, reading the Bible, service, stewardship, etc.). However, let me be very blunt: there is no space in the New Testament for authentic Christianity expressed outside of the context of the local gathering of believers. From the resurrection of Jesus forward, the New Testament is the story of God’s work of salvation in and through the local church. Why is that? I can think of a number of reasons for that, but the simplest is that God designed it that way. That’s the only reason we need for church to be important, but I’ll offer a second for good measure: God’s work has always been done through a people and is leading toward the union of a diverse people.[vii] Our three-in-one God is a God in whom perfect community exists and he calls us to community, not merely to a relationship with him.
“I’m not a believer.”
The second largest group who don’t attend are the 28% who share that they aren’t believers. Each of you has a different story. Maybe you grew up in a Christian home but rejected Christianity at some point in your life, or maybe you are Jewish or Muslim or an atheist. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, I would encourage you to attend church, and not just once or twice. I would encourage you to attend for a season of your life. Whatever your beliefs, you owe it to yourself to examine the claims of Jesus of Nazareth and re-consider at this stage of your life what he might mean for you.
“No reasons is ‘very important.’”
The third largest group says that “No reason is ‘very important.’” Oh, friend. Are you letting the niggling realities of life (sleeping in, work, football, etc.) prevent you from a weekly re-setting of the priority of your commitment to your God and Savior in your life?
“The church failed me.”
The next three reasons all point the finger at the church: “I haven’t found a church I like” (23%); “I don’t like the sermons” (18%); and “I don’t feel welcome” (14%). I don’t, for a second, doubt that you have been failed by the church. Churches are filled with humans who can fail in all sorts of ways. We can be lousy at welcoming newcomers, choosing instead to catch up with our friends; we can play good music badly or bad music badly, and I’ve preached more than a few sermons that I wish I could’ve had a chance to redo—whether because they were boring, awkward, or unclear. But give us a chance. You might’ve hit us on a bad day. Give a church at least three Sundays before writing it off. And you have the ability to read up about the church on its website and watch many services online before you go (you can do that for our services here at New Life) so that can help you find something that might be a fit for your theological bent or worship style preference.
On his final night before he was crucified, Jesus drilled into his disciples how important it was for them to love each other. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that their discipleship is marked first by their love for one another: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[viii] And then, later that night, Jesus tells his disciples that their unity is of the utmost importance. He prays to his Father that his disciples: “…may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”[ix]
The early Christians understood this well. Irenaeus (who lived in the second century) said that the church “is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.”[x] Origen (who lived in the third century) said, “Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the church, no one is saved.”[xi] And Augustine (who lived in the fourth and fifth century), “No man can find salvation except in the church.”[xii]
Friends, you need the church. In all its messiness and in all its faltering, you still need it. You need it because God’s Kingdom is bigger than you. You need it because God’s work on earth is through his church. You need it because just like the church, you are also messy and you also falter. And you need her to call you back to him.
[iii] See https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/. If you lower the threshold to attending once a month, the number rises to 50%https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/religious-participation-survey/496940/. However, both numbers are self-reported, and thus are both almost certainly lower.
[iv] Our numbers were arrived at by computing Tucson’s population and dividing that by the number of churches in Tucson (of all types) and their average size. Our numbers have been confirmed externally by 4 Tucson.
[v] The number of those who attend church regularly is somewhere around twice of those who are in attendance on any given weekend, so the likely number of those who attend church regularly in Tucson is about 6%.
[x] Against Heresies, Book III.
[xi] In Iesu Nave homiliae
[xii] Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem