There is no shortage of studies from both faith-based organizations and secular ones that point to declining church membership across the country, especially amongst millennials. While this often gets overblown as a talking point (at Grace, our fastest growing demographic in the last 5 years would be considered millenials), there does seem to be shift downward across the country in the way the population prioritizes being part of a local church community. I think this is true for all age groups and demographics, but the research does tend to focus on the millennial generation in order to sound the alarm for the future.
The drift from the church is a symptom of something deeper – a shift from the Christian faith altogether. The most well-known statistic related to all this is that now 1 in every 3 men and women under the age of 30 prefer to be categorized as a “none” when it comes to religious affiliation.
Perhaps what is most fascinating, however, is that there has not been a correlating increase in men and women converting to atheism, the belief that there is no God or gods in the world at all. So what has happened is a the formation of a new category, if you will, a category that is becoming known as the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. It’s this middle ground where people don’t want to be tied down to any one religion or institution or authority, but they also don’t want to throw away the spiritual realm altogether.
This exposes something deeply rooted in all of mankind – the desire and need for a sense of transcendence. If people toss out spirituality, then the idea of meaning and purpose and being part of something bigger than our mundane, normal lives goes away with it. So people don’t want an authority to hold them accountable to a way of belief and life, and yet, as John Starke puts it in the book Our Secular Age, “there is a fear that our lives have no gravity or substance in this sense so there is temptation amongst the secular crowd toward transcendence for we cannot seem to live without it.”
This dilemma, then, leads to this unclear but increasingly popular “spiritual but not religious” category of people that is gaining members faster than any church. It sounds attractive, like it’s the best of both worlds, but its popularity exposes the fact that people have not analyzed this worldview with the same scrutiny that they analyze organized religion. As Tim Keller bluntly puts it, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.” To put it another way, people create their own rules and then live by them and expect others to do it too, while calling it “spiritual”. It’s the same old problem under new management, the problem that the Apostle Paul explains as trading in the glory of God for the glory of self and lesser things (Rom 1:21-23).
All this to say, this mentality is not only outside the church and Christianity, but very much within. Even amongst people who belief in Jesus as their Saviour, and would claim the truth of the gospel in their lives, there is a tendency to devalue being part of a church.
But isn’t “church” outdated, like an old institution that is no longer needed? And what about the all corruption we see in the headlines, isn’t the best thing to do to just toss it out altogether?
Maybe we can boil it down it all down to this question – why bother with the church? Have you ever asked that question before in your faith journey? I know I have.
That question is exactly the one that Sam Allberry sets out to answer in his book with the same title. It’s a short little work that is refreshingly concise while maintaining a convictional message. Below are some excerpts, and I’m sharing them in an “interview” format (note: I didn’t actually interview Sam, but the answers are direct quotes from his book).
If you were in an elevator with someone and had 1 minute to answer the question, “why should I bother with the church”, what would you say:
Sam: That is how God has designed his people to flourish. Outside of the local church, we will lack the encouragement God has for us, and we will be failing to help others grow in their faith too. To think we will carry on our Christian lives is therefore a little arrogant—I’m saying I can manage without the encouragement that God wants to provide me with through the local church—and quite selfish—I’m saying that I won’t encourage those in my local church.
But Sam, can’t we get on just fine in the Christian life with the vast resources of podcasts, worship songs, and online sermons that are available to us on command?
Sam: The truth is that “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be … there are many parts, but one body” (v 18, 20). The membership of every local church is no accident; it is by divine design. There is no one there who is a spare part, a third foot or second nose. There is no one there who is not necessary, or who doesn’t need the rest of their church. That includes you—which is really quite exciting.
Isn’t the church just riddled with corruption – how can we trust these institutions when it seems like every week there is another headline of abuse, illegal profiting, etc?
Sam: As Christians, it is very important that we acknowledge the times when Christians have done wrong in the name of Christ, as well as remembering that we need to distinguish between those who were truly Christians and gravely mistaken and those who claimed to be Christians, acted in the name of “the church”, but in fact were not living with Christ as their King and Saviour and did not seek to live by what he says in the Bible. We must not deny that such things have happened.
But as we are honest about these failings, it is helpful to remember some key gospel truths…Alongside the failings of Christians and churches have been many instances where the gospel has been truly reflected. Yes, the church has been guilty of wrong. It is most likely far worse than we’ve realised, because not every failing reaches the light of day. But if the church has been far worse than we might think, it has also been far better too. It was Christians—Bible-believing people—who spearheaded the movement to abolish slavery. It was early Christians who bought slaves in order to set them free. It was Christians who were at the heart of the civil rights movement in the USA, and Christians who led the reconciliation movement in post-apartheid South Africa. Today, a huge amount of charitable and relief work takes place throughout the world through Christian agencies, often unreported and unnoticed. The church has done harm, because the church is made up of sinful people. But that is not the whole story, because the church is made up of saved people who are being made more and more like Jesus. And, at the end of the day, it is not the church we preach, but Christ.
For many, this discussion is not theoretical, but personal. What if the church has hurt me, wounded me, and some of my deepest pain has come as a result of those “in church”?
Sam: Church can hurt. In fact, if you’re in a church for long enough, it will hurt. This might range from an unkind comment from someone else, to being seriously let down by someone you trusted, all the way through to being abused by someone else within church. If you are reading this and you have been abused by someone you trusted and had every right to expect to be trustworthy, then I understand why you may well have given up going to church and have no intention of ever going back…You might need to put this book down and speak to someone you do trust about what has happened. For most of us, though, our experience of being burned in church is lower level than that, though still hurtful. It could be that we’ve been hurt by poor leadership. Of course, no pastor or elder will be perfect. The Chief Shepherd of the church is flawless but his under-shepherds are not, and sometimes they will be much less than perfect.
It could be that we’ve been hurt by other church members. Again, we are all sinful, and sometimes our sin will hurt someone else. It might be that someone betrayed a confidence, or let us down in some way. Or a brother or sister has been, frankly, vindictive to us, either as a one-off or as a pattern of behaviour.
Jesus himself knew his church would be a place where hurts would be caused—and gave us a roadmap on how to deal with it: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over (Matt 18:15). Often, we just don’t do this. We allow resentment and bitterness to grow within us, and that can become a more serious sin than whatever kicked it off in the first place. It is all too easy to fester, continue to fester, and then to explode. These things need to be nipped in the bud—we need to give the person who hurt us the opportunity to see the effect of their actions, to say sorry, and to change. We need churches where we are willing to say, and to hear, “Friend, I’m feeling hurt by what you did… Can we talk about it and pray about it?”
And then we need to be willing to forgive. Tim Keller once defined forgiveness as resolving not to bring the offence up again with God, with the person who offended us, or with ourselves. Often it is the final one of these that is the most difficult.
Isn’t being part of the church more work than it’s worth? It requires the expenditure of a lot of time, treasure, and talent to be part of a church, so, why church?
Sam: This sounds rather like hard work, and it is. Devotion is not a laid-back, feet-up-on-the-couch kind of word. It speaks of spending ourselves—using our time, giving our gifts, investing our emotions. But it speaks of doing so gladly, because in God’s church we find something worth being devoted to—an embassy of God’s kingdom, a family of God’s people, the bride of the Lord Jesus. It is remembering what the church is, and whose the church is, that makes hard work glad work, and keeps us joyfully devoted.
Lastly, what do you do on the Sunday mornings when you wake up, and you’re just not in the mood? Maybe you were up late watching a game, or out with friends, or you have a busy Sunday afternoon ahead. How do you motivate yourself to actually, well, go?
Sam: I will do this if I’ve realised something crucial: going to church is not about me and what I’ll get out of it this week. I belong to the others there, and so it is about them and how I can encourage and serve them. This shifts my focus. I’m not now thinking, “Is church going to scratch where I itch today? If not, maybe I will give it a miss.” No, I’ll be thinking, “I need to be with my Christian family today. I need the rest of the body, and the rest of the body needs me.”
Thank you Sam – lot to consider there, but at its core it has been affirmed to me that if I claim to be a Christian, then I can’t cut out the body of Christ, the church.