Today, many self-identified Christians have largely stopped meeting together.
If you’ve listened to any church leadership podcasts or read any books/research on American worship patterns, you realize that we’ve encountered a “new normal” with church engagement over the past 20 years. Our society is opting out.
This isn’t a completely new issue for the Church. The writer to the Hebrews said, “(Let us) not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” (vs. 25) Somewhere around the mid-60s AD, what appears to have been happening is that some of the Hebrews were giving up on gathering for weekly worship. “Hebrews” is a New Testament term for Jewish converts to Christianity who had, by and large, maintained a lot of their Jewish cultural practices, but who were wrestling with how their new Christianity was different from their former Judaism. A big part of Jewish ceremony was the Sabbath Day regulations. The Sabbath Day was a day of rest and “meeting together” for worship. Consequently, when Jews converted to Christianity, there was this question of to what degree “meeting together” was still necessary since there was no longer officially a scheduled worship day. Some of them thought, “Great! No Sabbath day! That means free day. I get an extra day to work or vacation or whatever else I want.” So the writer of the Hebrews has to remind them, “No, God’s people, don’t stop meeting together!”
Millennials, by a pretty significant margin, attend worship less than any other generation. Only 27% attend religious services weekly. When you account for the fact that we know religious self-reporting is generally over-reported by double, this means that probably somewhere around 14 of every 100 Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 are engaged in church life on a weekly basis. The odd thing is that the research also shows that, according to their own self-attestation, Millennials are almost no less spiritual. In other words, just as many of them believe in God, almost as many pray regularly, and almost as many believe in heaven and hell according to the Pew Research Data. This tells us their reaction is NOT against the concept of God per se, or spiritual disciplines, or doctrine. Their reaction is against…the modern American Church.
Now, there’s probably several reasons for this. I don’t mean to oversimplify. But I also don’t want to allow stalwart churchgoers to miss the point by saying that younger adults are just “godless.” That’d be 1) statistically untrue, 2) condescendingly dismissive, 3) inopportunely missing the occasion for necessary self-reflection. In other words, to that last point, it’s probably time the Christian Church takes a good, long look in the mirror and asks whether or not we are presenting an accurate and compelling vision of the Kingdom of God – the one Christ designed his Church to be.
I would certainly suggest the American church itself shares some of the blame for young America’s spurning.
I’m afraid that the idea of “church” in the past 50-75 years has become the idea of a production and consumption of spiritual commodities. And if so, upon the dawn of the digital age, this has then rendered “meeting together” useless. Here’s what I mean. If “church” to you is listening to a message. Guess what? I can get great messages at home…online. Christians can find a preacher online smarter than their pastor, funnier than their pastor (well, mine can’t, but in general… 🙂 ), more insightful than their pastor, or more moral. If theological tradition is what is most important, it’s possible, for instance, to find a more “Lutheran-sounding” Lutheran. Point being, if you’re part of a church primarily to hear a message, there’s no reason to belong to a church. You can get that online. Furthermore, the exact same thing can be said about music. In other words, we’re a consumer-minded culture. And if church is merely a collection of commodities you consume, you don’t need to be a member anywhere for the same reason I don’t need to go to the mall anymore…I have Amazon Prime.
I think we pastors and worship leaders, for a long time, have believed that producing good commodities (sermons and songs and studies) has been the extent of our leadership, the measuring stick of whether or not we are quality ministers. In reality, I think we we’re supposed to be discipling and shepherding and compelling church members into a collective, church-wide local mission.
So, am I suggesting something like a sermon in a church service is worthless? Granted, I’m a little biased, but no, not at all. The blessing of a sermon by a local pastor is he knows you. You can find a smarter, more insightful preacher online, but you can’t find someone who BOTH 1) studies God’s Word intensely, AND 2) knows your struggles and applies it to your particular life circumstances. Sermons and worship music for the church are RELATIONAL proclamation of an objective Word. It speaks into your life directly. But that doesn’t change the fact that “church” is not primarily about consuming messages.
So, yes, the church should probably shoulder some of the blame for America’s declining interest in church. We’ve commoditized spiritual content, told people to consume it, and called it “church.” That’s an issue.
On the other hand, I think every individual Christian probably shoulders some blame for simply mimicking the individualistic patterns of our culture. We’ve become a people so focused on self-comfort and self-convenience, that we treat our spiritual lives as though they’re simply one more aspect of our lives. What does this mean? Virtually every other aspect of my life I do at my own personal convenience. This generation doesn’t have to go away to school, it can go to school online when it wants. This generation doesn’t have to watch The Cosby Show at 8:00pm on Thursday evenings on NBC…when it comes on. We can binge watch shows online, when we want. On demand. We don’t have to shop when the stores are open, we shop online, it’s convenient for us.
So, understandably, modern believers have concluded that we can do our spiritual lives at our own personal convenience too. Here’s the problem: we’ve forgotten that we live in the New Testament Era, the Spirit Era, where God is met by interacting with the people he lives in by his Spirit. Post Pentecost, without knowing other Christians in deep and meaningful ways, you cannot really know God. (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; 2 Tim. 1:14; Eph. 5:18; Rom. 8:9,11; Gal. 4:6)
There Is No Christianity Outside of the Church
Not only can you not know God on your own, but you cannot obey God on your own. When someone gives up meeting together with the body of believers, when you try to foster a relationship with God on your own, it’s impossible to carry out one of the most common New Testament biblical directives, which is to “one another.”
In You and Me Forever, author Francis Chan puts it like this:
“Consider this: the phrase ‘one another’ is mentioned 59 times in the New Testament. Fifty-nine times, the writers of the New Testament give us commands that we cannot obey without turning to another member of the church and demonstrating the character of God. It’s impossible to ‘one another’ yourself; it’s impossible to ‘one another’ in your heart. These ‘one another’ commands require us to demonstrate the gospel with others.
While Jesus was on earth, HE revealed God to the world. But now He has formed the CHURCH, given us His mission, and empowered us through the Holy Spirit. It’s our job to reveal God to the world through the way we live together.” (You and Me Forever, pg. 56)
In The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark says this beautiful “one-anothering” was what created the platform for gospel proclamation and the explosion of the New Testament Church. He writes: “alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86) Stark is saying the unbelievers, the other-religious people of the New Testament Era, all thought you could appease your god(s) simply by having a personal relationship with that god(s) – making sacrifices, praying, and doing good moral acts. While the early Christians would have agreed with some of that, they knew that if we’re going to truly know God, we have to have a close relationship with the people He indwells.
If we want to be Christians, we cannot do it independently. We have to do this together. It’s not us about getting content we like at our own personal convenience – that’s my Netflix account. Church is about God’s people graciously functioning together with Jesus as their head to advance His Kingdom.
(This week I looked at the negative side – where churches have gone that I wish they hadn’t – namely, conditioning a consumer mindset. Next week I’ll tap into more of what Christ designed his Church, and therefore local churches, to be.)