Editor’s note: The original version of this article was published by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Click here to read it.
Decline: no one except Oswald Spengler likes to talk about it. Of particular importance today is the decline of church attendance and membership in the United States of America. When statistics came out that showed that the Southern Baptist Convention had experienced a decline in membership after a long plateau, evangelicals across the spectrum wrung their hands at the weakening of America’s largest Protestant denomination while liberal media outlets exhibited no small degree of schadenfreude. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a spike in atheism and even much of a bump in agnosticism. Many claim to talk to God and meditate; the same identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Americans like the idea of God being around, but He is surely not to be found in the church assembled.
There are doubtless myriad reasons for this development, but one particular trend occupies my attention. The narrative is familiar: an evangelical kid hits his late teens or twenties. He gets burned, embarrassed, or frustrated by his religious upbringing. He spurns said upbringing and vociferously condemns the entire institution of the church, perhaps eventually forswearing the label of “Christian” altogether. Pastors, youth ministers, parents, and others respond with three common reasons to justify church attendance.
First, church attendance is beneficial or useful. One gets encouraged, re-energized, taught, counseled, and discipled in a congregational setting. Personal narratives dot arguments for how helpful church membership is: individual experience rules the day in such a debate. Of course, the would-be lapser can offer his own negative experiences on this count. Soon, the conversation devolves into a tit-for-tat of examples and counterexamples.
Second, church attendance is commanded in Scripture. “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together,” evangelicals will rightly cite from Hebrews. However, there is no “why” or “wherefore” for the verse. This deontological approach sets forth a biblical rule to be obeyed. A Christian must submit his will to God’s because we do whatever God tells us. Of course, Islam promises just as much of a spiritual life. Such a perspective can become burdensome and even give way to legalism. Certainly the Christian life (and, by extension, membership in Christ’s body) means something more than submission.
Third, church attendance is a necessary evil if not a liability. We find this sentiment in the cliché that “following Christ is not a religion but a relationship.” Never mind for right now the fact that all people have a relationship with God; it is just not necessarily a good one. If we think through the logic of that phrase “not a religion but a relationship,” it reinforces an individualistic retreat from the Christian assembly: why engage in organized weekly acts of worship in a corporate setting? Isn’t that a hallmark of religion? Why can’t I have a (good) relationship with God outside the walls of the church? It is at this point that we are faced with a double jeopardy.
For one, preachers and teachers who condemn religion can sometimes perceive a Christian home and family as the breeding ground for lukewarm faith. Without a big conversion experience from a life of lecherous and spectacular sin, one will lack the gratitude and ensuing zeal for salvation. It must be admitted that this may spring from evangelical inexperience. When the Mainline Protestant and Catholic leadership began to fail and fall to revisionism in the 1960s, their flocks fled to the greener pastures of nondenominational evangelicalism in the 1960s (as well as to the Southern Baptist Convention and various charismatic groups). The Generations X and Y evangelicals are the first to be completely raised in the post-Mainline-exodus milieu. Thus, any fallout or challenges regarding the passing on of the baton of faith to the next generation is a relatively new thing for the widespread nondenominational churches across the country.
Evangelical leaders need to be asking some hard questions. Can’t we see the faith derived from a Christian home as a benefit? Don’t we have a responsibility to teach our children in the faith and to introduce them that most wonderful gift, Jesus Christ Himself? On the other hand, if one has to be full-sprung in rationality and volition to be considered a member of Christ’s Body, why should we teach our children to pray? If there is no room for faith in the young at church and thus no union with God for the young, why on earth do we expect Our Father in heaven to heed the prayers of our offspring? Indeed, we have stumbled upon the crisis of catechesis, which afflicts Christians across the world right now. As James K. A. Smith has pointed out, our children will be catechized and will be spiritually formed by a liturgy. The only question is who will be the teacher and what will be the curriculum. Right now, many preachers are overly eager to join the wider culture in condemning the Body of Christ.
These quandaries of passing down faith have been dealt with before (see the history of Israel for just one example). They can be dealt with again. Evangelicals must learn how to steward their heritage. All too often, evangelicals act like the Christian upbringing does not happen or is something to be ashamed of for its lack of testimonial verve. No wonder their young cast off this great blessing with tremendous eagerness. Their Christian experience is consistently threatened to become inauthentic.
The other, more troubling reasoning lies not with faithful evangelicals, but rather those who malign and abandon the flock to seek a religion-less Utopia. While sexual discrepancies get a free pass, young drop-outs are wont to condemn hypocrisy, greed, and social insensitivity in the pews. To summarize a common refrain, they will exclaim, “Those nasty sinners over there! How could anyone fellowship with them? I am leaving, thereby proving my moral excellence.” Of course, there is a double standard here. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask church-jumpers, “Where else do you expect Pharisees on a Sunday morning? And have you never been a hypocrite yourself? Am I to extend no mercy to you on that account?” Of course, a sarcastic quip will only go so far.
What evacuees fail to realize is that religion is inescapable if faith is to be in the plural. Religio (“to bind [together]”) is what happens when a faith is shared in common, across space and time. You have a group of people together confessing the same essentials. However, if faith cannot be shared, then by all means go home to be your own authority! It will be just you and God; institutions are bad. Collapse into yourself as you become your own prophet, priest, and king. You’ll have no church, no Christianity, and eventually a very different God. God will be small and His work in your life will resemble that of a doting or perhaps ambivalent fairy godmother.
What can be said in response to this? After all, we cannot really complain about church decline if young evangelicals are taking us at our own word. How should we be talking about church attendance and membership?
There remains a most potent argument for rejecting the abandonment of Christ’s body. It is to reaffirm that the Church was, is, and will be absolutely essential to the Christian life, a non-optional part of its nature. How could we have become Christians without the Church? She is necessary to enter the faith. We would never had heard of the faith if someone had not told us about it; we would not have read about Christ if some member of the flock did not write a book or article about Him. We cannot go call out the name of the Trinity, throw ourselves into a swimming pool, and call that baptism. We cannot go home, pray over certain victuals, and call that Communion. All of this requires an “other”: one or (more likely) several other Christians.
Going home with your Bible (and blogs) and calling that the Christian life is an utter farce. It is totally foreign to the faith as recounted in history; the very fathers who hammered out what Christianity means in the councils and creeds had a completely different view of the Church. For them and others, the Body of Christ is much like Noah’s Ark: she is leaky, cramped, and stuffed with filthy cantankerous animals. But she’s the only thing that will float as the world is drowned in the waters of God’s just judgment. Imagine, if you would, a worried fellow in the late antediluvian days who insisted, “I have faith in God, but I won’t go into that boat that Noah made. Noah is a drunk hypocrite while his family is a bunch of homophobic bigots.” By refusing to enter, that poor doomed fool would prove he had no faith at all.
We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We have to make rhetorical commitments that are consistent. How we think, preach, pray, and talk about the Church is of great importance. If the church is spoken of as an ornamentation, add-on, or obstacle to what it means to be a Christian, then we shouldn’t be surprised that the young throw it off as a useless bauble in a streamlined age. However, if the Church be essential and the very barque of salvation as being one with Christ, she shouldn’t be the scapegoat for spiritual grievances. We must choose wisely, for both Babel and Jerusalem are watching.