Every Sunday morning in the hours before church services start all over our city there is a real and deep spiritual war taking place. It is not overt. It is not remarkable. In those hours, committed Christians are deciding whether or not to attend church. Many will be at church rain, hail or shine but, for an increasing number of us, there will be a pause to think, to question if we’ll go to the beach, to kids’ sport, to the car club outing, to the family party or to church.
The list goes on. I think Satan is at play here.
Good things are interfering with our commitment to the public worship of the Lord.
Nominal Christians have left the church in droves over the past decades. At the same time many ministers will tell you that committed Christians are attending less frequently. Anecdotally, the committed Christian used to go to church twice a Sunday, whereas now it seems the same group averages about twice a month.
Is this a new malaise in Christian discipleship? Or is it that the world is so much busier than before, and we need to go with the flow a bit? Or is it something else?
Let’s look at what the attendance figures show, explore what might be behind them and then conclude with some pointers to begin to address the situation.
How often are we attending church?
Before you read any further, take a moment to reflect how often you’ve been to your church in the past month – not at all, once, twice, or three or four times? Now think a bit further back into the past three months. How many weeks have you missed (out of 12) and why?
In my doctoral studies on the issue I surveyed a number of Sydney Anglican parishes. I asked a good number of committed Christians (not new converts, who consider parish X to be their church and serve and/or support the ministry in a range of ways) to report how often they were at church in both a one-month and three-month period. They self-reported the following:
Church attendance by committed Christians
When I asked the rectors how often the same people attended church, the average attendance rate fell to 67 per cent of all possible opportunities. Not an insignificant difference.
In every case, the rector reported that the people in the survey were at church less often than their self-reported figures. In other words, we always have a positive bias or inflated opinion about our attendance rates.
I suspect this is due to the commitment in our hearts that we have made to our local church. We’re in, we’re committed, we give, we go to Bible study and a failure to attend church once in a while is not because we don’t want to be there, but that something else got in the way of attending. At one level this is good. However, the reality is that we are not attending church as much as we think.
There is a correlation between lower church attendance and lower spiritual growth.
It stands to reason. If you are not consistently placing yourself under the sound of the gospel or in the fellowship of believers, you’ll notice a spiritual impact. Notice, too, how those who experience much spiritual growth attend more often than the average. It’s interesting that the only passage in the New Testament to directly address the question of church attendance is immediately followed by one of the strongest warnings of the whole book:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Hebrews 10:24-26
The point is that church attendance is one of those necessary spiritual disciplines – not for salvation, but because of salvation, so we may continue well in the faith. Therefore, Hebrews exhorts us to not give up meeting together. This is much more than friendly advice.
We need to be at church – we really do. Not to merit grace, but as a means by which we continue well in the faith. So, here is a tip for ministers and concerned laity. The pastoral approach to those under pressure to not be a church is not a Sabbath commandment or rule (not legalism), but an exhortation with appropriate warnings of what will happen should the habit continue.
We need to recover this in our congregations today. We need to teach one another of the cost of discipleship. We need to do better at living lives in contradistinction to the non-Christian world around us. We need to have devotion to Christ as the motor driving our lives, rather than the individualism that drives the lives of our age.
We need to learn to say “No” to the world more and more. We need to understand the cost of discipleship again. I rarely hear Christians today echo the sentiments of Ps 27:4:
One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.