It’s dangerous when aspects of a consumeristic culture influence the church culture.
Now don’t get me wrong, living in a culture where having options as a consumer is a blessing. Companies train their employees that “the customer is always right”, and we as consumers have the power of choice in the West. We can choose Verizon or AT&T, Coke or Pepsi, Optimum or Dish, and nowadays, we can cut our cable cord altogether and still be in the loop on what’s going on in a seemingly endless number of ways. With most every “thing” or service we need, we can freely come and go as we please. Consumer is king, they say.
So when you think about it, it’s not that big of a shock that this concept influences the way many Christians view “going to church” on Sunday’s. Consumer is king, after all, and we can choose on a weekly basis whether or not we need church any given Sunday.
There’s no shortage of ink being spilled on the lamentation of “declining church attendance in America”, but an interesting footnote is worth zeroing in on. The reality is not necessarily that less people are going to church, but rather that people are going to church less. You catch that? The attendance decline across the country is more so marked by folks who still attend, just not as frequently than they used to. People who used to go four times a month, now go three. Those who went three, now go two, and so on. We’re not talking about weeks where we’re sick or away for a vacation. We’re talking about “normal” weeks where we decide to do something else, or nothing else, on Sunday morning.
As you look at how Western culture becomes increasingly more centered around the consumer, it’s not hard to see why these attendance stats are the way they are. Sunday mornings are filled with more options than there used to be, and if we miss church a few more times a year than we “used to”, who cares? Does it really matter? The kids have Sunday morning sports, or it’s a really nice day, or a really crappy day, or we didn’t get a lot of sleep because we stayed up later than usual binge watching Netflix. Besides, we can always just listen to a podcasted sermon and can hear great worship music on YouTube from the comfort of our own homes anyway. It’s not like I’m abandoning my faith, so what’s the big deal?
It’s a Big Deal
The problem is not that the “consumer is king” mentality is wrong in and of itself, the problem is when attenders and members of a church see themselves as consumers. The church is not a store, it’s a people, and so Christians are not consumers, they’re family members. And healthy families gather regularly. On Sunday’s, healthy families “go to church”. Now, let me be clear, it’s possible (and common) that people can go to church regularly and not be a believer, but it’s not possible to be a mature and growing believer if you’re not going to church regularly. It just doesn’t add up, and any lens you peer through, whether Biblical, Historical, or Communal, not going to church on Sunday is a big deal. And the consequences could be tragic.
When the start of the local church in the New Testament took off at Pentecost, regularly gathering together as the people of God was a distinct characteristic. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” Acts 2:42,46.
The early church, treated like exiles in their own land within the expansive Roman Empire, gathered regularly to worship out of sheer hunger to hear the Word proclaimed, spend time together, and break bread as a church family. As we read the development and expansion of the early church throughout the New Testament, we find that regularly gathering didn’t just mark some churches, but all of them. And gathering wasn’t just recommended or helpful, it was necessary for perseverance. “And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Heb 10:24-25
“Not neglecting to meet together” means that being part of the church includes going to church, and it’s difficult to truly be part of something that you are not consistently around. Further, each and every church has a common mission and purpose if they are seeking to do God’s will as God’s people. Sure, the methods will differ based on context and gift sets, but each church is a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9. The church’s purpose is to proclaim the excellencies of our Savior, so what kind of message does it send to the people we are proclaiming to that we see no big deal in skipping our opportunity to worship that Savior with our faith family because of a T-ball game? Or a beach day? Sporadically attending church services will dampen our evangelistic light at best, and hurt it altogether at worst.
If you take a moment to consider it, it’s pretty telling that after nearly 2,000 years of church history, a constant characteristic of the church is the regular corporate gathering of the body of Christ for the same reasons they did in Acts 2. The people of God coming together to hear the Word of God preached, to sing praises to one another, and to encourage one another in our walk with Christ is still a defining aspect of what it is to be the church and it has stood the test of both time and context across the globe.
One Roman historian who was not a Christian described the early Christian practice with these words: “It was their habit on the first day to assemble before daylight, and to recite by turn a form of words to Christ as a god…After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food.” The early church gathered on the first day of the week to proclaim and worship Christ, and then they gathered again around the table. Community, worship, fellowship, and it was noticeable to all.
When something remains unchanged for nearly 2,000 years, it’s likely not contingent on a certain generation or cultural context, but rather that it is central to what that “something” is at its core, in this case the church. God’s people gathered in the 1st century, God’s people gather in the 21st century. God’s people gather, period.
The third lens to view this through is the current experience of what church is. It’s a community we’re part of, not a building we go to. In fact, we don’t do ourselves many favors when we even say the words “going to church”. That phrase makes church out to be the building we gather at as opposed to the people we gather with. A more accurate and helpful phrase would be, “going to worship with the church”. But alas, semantics. The point is that if you remove the spirit of community away from the church, then no wonder it becomes a coin flip as to whether we should attend on any given Sunday. When we purely see the church through the lens of what it does for me, then we can arbitrarily decide if we “need” church that week. What if others need you to be at church that week? What if others, in line with Hebrews 10, are relying on you to be an encouragement to them in our gathering so they can persevere in the faith until that final Day? What will others miss out on when you miss church?
And, let’s be honest. If you’re not regularly or consistently going to church, it’s probably not that you’re so mature in the faith that you don’t need it, but more likely you’re drifting from maturity without realizing it. To put it simply, we need church. We need the body of Christ, because it’s the BODY OF CHRIST. God gave us His Son as the head, and he gave us one another as the body. We need both.
The underground church in China is not gathering illegally and risking their lives because the regular meeting of the saints is merely recommended, or merely helpful. It’s required for those who are faithfully living out the calling on their lives to be faithful. The bottom line, brothers and sisters, is that we can’t claim to love Jesus if we don’t also love his church. And we can’t claim to love his church if we don’t regularly and corporately gather with it.
Let it be true of all of us for the sake of His glory, the good of others, and our joy, that on Sundays, we go to church.