What’s the big deal about church attendance? Does church membership even really matter? That appears to be the as we witness a seeming rapid decline in recent years.
Some of it is, perhaps, not surprising. One might expect a sharp decline in attendance in recent years, like the 6% drop that occurred between 2019 and 2021. In the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic churches were closed, some struggled to go digital having never expected to leave the analog world. Roadblocks were placed in front of in person worship, even when social distancing was observed, and as things began to slowly open up again, there were many who just didn’t necessarily come back.
It’s not simply COVID though. The decline has been years in the making. For example, Gallup, which has been tracking church membership in the United States since 1937, noted last year that for the first-time membership has dropped below 50%. Up until roughly the beginning of the 21st century this number hovered somewhere around 70%. Then it began its decline, now sitting at around 47%.
The truth is that there are any number of reasons for those dropping numbers, each a discussion in and of themselves. Some of them are incredibly valid reasons bore out of a place of hurt, and pain, or out of the loss of a sense of community in the church. Churches, bodies comprised of flawed humans prone to mistakes, miscalculations, and poor judgment, can cause pain and sorrow that chase people away. Though this is not the case in every instance, we can’t discount the effect that this has had on church memberships. People, hurt people, leave, and vow they will never come back.
But the reason why people leave is a broader topic, another discussion for another day. The question is can we ignore, even forsake fellowship? Is church attendance and membership no real big deal when it comes right down to it? These are particularly relevant questions in our present day and age where we can stream our services, listening to sermons on the go. No longer constrained to geographic boundaries we can listen to a pastor we particularly enjoy anywhere in the country or the world whenever we want without disrupting our life. Suddenly we can sleep in or take the kids to travel games on Sunday and still feel like we are, on some level, still doing church.
Yet, this is an incredibly dangerous practice, an incredibly dangerous mindset for the Christian to slip into. The reality is that the church, as a fellowship, is incredibly important to the believer for their spiritual growth, maturity, development, and safety. Church is one of those absolute necessities for the disciple of Christ, not only that they may properly worship God in communion with other believers, which is the most important reason, but for their own security.
The Danger of Being One:
What we have to recognize is that the dangers, they are plenty. This world, it is filled with threats which we, often times, can’t even really see. They surround us, and detached, distant from the flock of Christ, they become even more prevalent even if we don’t recognize their apparent presence in our lives. Slowly, and surely, they chip away at us, and our faith, when we are determined to live the solitary existence, or believe that we can exist apart from the flock of Christ, as if it were somehow a mere suggestion more than anything else.
As I think about this my mind goes to one of the most often recited parables of Christ. This is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. (Matt. 18:12-14; Lk. 15:3-7) In this story Jesus tells of the shepherd who, in noticing one of his sheep has wandered away, leaves his flock of ninety-nine remaining to find the lost. It’s a beautiful tale of the love that the shepherd has, rejoicing as he carries the one who has strayed home on his shoulders.
We look at this story as one of redemption and restoration, the answer of our Savior, the Good Shephard, to the Pharisees and religious leaders who would question why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners, the unclean who rejected by righteous society, the subject of their scorn. Yet, there is another element to this story as well, one that we must rightly consider. This is namely why the shepherd leaves the flock of ninety-nine to seek out and bring back the one who is lost.
There is a danger to be out in the world alone, away from the flock. The apostle Peter describes this danger in his first epistle, reminding the reader that our adversary the devil is out there, walking about, prowling as he seeks those whom he can devour. (1 Pet. 5:8) Any who watches the nature channel or has seen a documentary about lions recognize that the lion prefers to hunt the one who has wandered away from the flock or the herd, lurking in the grass, hidden away until the perfect time to pounce, and capture his prey.
The lone Christian, separated from the flock, the church, makes easy prey for the devil. They aren’t receiving the nourishment and the protection of the shepherd who cares for them. Instead, they are isolated without the defenses that they need in a hard, harsh world filled with hazards and perils, risks and threats. They are subjected to the elements around them that would subject them to harm and hurt as they find that there is little shelter or comfort to protect them.
We are told of the importance of fellowship, of the edify, nourishing, uplifting nature of fellowship, of the accountability and care that it brings because it is important. Left alone we are weak and vulnerable, even if we refuse to recognize it. It is why the Parable of the Lost Sheep is a parable of restoration, because if the lost sheep could go it alone there would be no need for the shepherd to go after him and return him to safety.
But God is Everywhere:
But we aren’t really going it alone. After all, God is everywhere, so He is always with us. We don’t really need church for fellowship because we can have fellowship with God anywhere.
This is an argument I’ve heard used many times over the years. The truth is that we are exceptionally blessed because we can practice the presence of God wherever we are, in whatever we are doing. We have the Scriptures readily available in any translation we want. We can hold a physical bible in our hands, or we can download an app to our phone or tablet and carry it wherever we want.
More than that, God is, indeed, everywhere. His qualities, His presence, His divine nature, and eternal power, they are shown in all that He has created. (Rom. 1:19-20) The glory of God is declared from the heavens. (Ps. 19:1-4) Yet, as Paul reminds us, these are invisible attributes. In that, we are reminded of the words of Augustine of Hippo who wrote in his letters, “Invisible things are seen in a special and appropriate way. When they are seen they are much more certain than the objects of the bodily sense, but they are said to be invisible because they cannot be seen by mortal eyes.”
God is everywhere, but He chooses to reveal Himself in certain ways and certain places. One of the key ways He does this is through His Word, and where His Word is preached in truth and purity.
In Hebrews we are given the admonition not to forsake the assembly, not to neglect meeting together. (Heb. 10:25) Why? Because to we are to gather in order that we may, communally, receive what God has, ultimately given us. Here, we see the visible presence of the invisible that surrounds us, our eyes open to the heavenly in faith and hope, as God unveils for us. By forsaking, or abandoning the assembly, by removing ourselves from it, we not only neglect the Gospel, we close our eyes to it, finding it easier to slowly move away from it, drifting from a life with God.
To claim then that we do not need church because we God is everywhere, is to claim the presence of God in one area, but to miss, and neglect God in another. It is to step away from that place where He has chosen to clearly reveal Himself in the blessed communion that He offers through the bride of Christ. One cannot legitimately say that they desire to worship God where He reveals Himself if they are not willing to come to the place where He does truly reveal Himself. They cannot forsake the visible presence, saying that the invisible will be enough without some measure of a cost to themselves.
Love for God and Love for Your Neighbor:
What’s more is that church, and how we worship in church, represents two fundamental directions, namely the vertical and the horizontal. The horizontal is how we honor God. As we direct our praise upwards we are seeking those things which are above. (Col. 3:1-2) In this sense, what we are pursuing what Christ himself refers to as the greatest commandment, namely that we love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. (Matt. 22:37)
There is another element of the greatest commandment though. This is, namely, that we love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matt. 22:39) Our membership and our participation in the body of Christ is one of the ways in which we fulfil this commandment, living together in community with one another, blessing tone another, praying with one another, joined together in one heart joined together horizontally, but directed upwards vertically.
How? Well, the simple answer is multifold. It is reflected in what we are doing together, and how we are doing it. This is namely edifying and uplifting each other, (1 Cor. 14:12) holding each other to account, restoring them in a spirit of gentleness and love, (Gal. 6:1) giving witness to the larger community, including the unbeliever (1 Cor. 14:16) and offering instruction in righteousness and pure doctrine. (1 Tim. 4:11-14) In this sense, each believer, in worship, as a part and a portion of the church, represents a part of God’s temple which, then, comes together in order to glorify Him, and magnify His Spirit to others.
This horizontal element which is essential to our relationship with our neighbor is reflected throughout the Scripture as well. Consider Paul in his writing to the church in Ephesus. He tells them that they are to be filled with the Spirit. One of the ways in which this is manifested in how they address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Eph. 5:18-19) This, in turn, shows us how our faith is not simply an individual expression, but one which exists as part of a larger community, reminding us that to love God is to love one another, to worship God is to worship with one another, and to live in communion with God is to live in community with one another.
Now, none of this is to say that we must join a church, or we must attend a church regardless of what that church says and does. The truth is that we need to show discernment and wisdom, and we must prayerfully consider what that church does, what it believes and how it honors God. The reason why is because there are a number of churches out there that have false teachers, or toxic cultures that can hinder our spiritual growth. There are a number of churches out there that offer up false doctrine and false teaching which can confuse us.
Yet, this reality does not free us from the obligation that we have to find a true, Bible-believing, Christ preaching, God honoring community that will help us grow spiritually as we seek to praise and glorify our God. We are building blocks, built together on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ as our chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:10-22) We find our completion when we are part of the greater whole. It is when we are joined together in unity, bound together in love for the glory of God that our purpose is ultimately fulfilled. We must live like this, recognizing that we are no longer strangers, but rather a family in the household of God, who we are the adopted children of through the atoning work of Christ Jesus.
So yes, church attendance is important, as is church membership. It is essential to who we are in Christ. Nothing in this world, or of this world can replace that fact. The sooner we recognize that the sooner we can center our priorities and recognize that our churches must be the focal point of our understanding of what community must be and must look like, recapturing a deeper peace which comes through living in communion with one another.