10 THINGS THAT AIN’T CHURCH (SOME THOUGHTS ON IRREGULAR AND DECLINING CHURCH ATTENDANCE)
By Carey Nieuwhof
It’s never been easier to avoid church, skip church or exit church than it is today.
And it has a lot of church leaders and Christians scrambling to figure out what’s happening, why it’s happening and what it all means.
Those are great questions.
On the positive side, a lot of the social stigma associated with ‘missing a Sunday’ is gone…and that’s not a bad thing. Self-righteousness and judgment should never have felt at home in church anyway.
On the other side, though, what’s actually going on?
Is it a good thing for Christians to rarely/never/infrequently attend church?
If you watch online, does it count? If you do your own thing, is that a good replacement?
In the last few decades a whole new set of questions has arisen that we’re not sure we have the answer to. Church leaders are scrambling. People are coming up with their own answers. And I’m trying to figure it out too.
Complete bias here: I’ve spent over two decades as church leader. I’m hardly impartial. And we’ve been fortunate to see our church reach a lot of people in an era where most churches have plateaued or are declining. And at least half of the people we’ve reached didn’t used to attend church.
But all that said (this is hard to admit), I’ve felt the impulses to question the value of church attendance too (I wrote this post on that here).
And a few months ago, I missed weekend services three weeks in a row due to travel. Truthfully, at first, I was relieved to get a week or two off. I chose alternatives (church online, personal devotions etc), but by week three I was aching to be back.
I missed gathering together in Jesus’ name.
Sure, I fully understand that church is not something you go to, it’s something you are.
You don’t go to church, you are the church. But the “you” in you are the church is plural (we are the church), not singular. And church is bigger than you.
3 THINGS THAT ARE TRUE ABOUT OUR CULTURE RIGHT NOW
There are at least three things that are true about our culture right now.
SPIRITUALITY HAS BECOME AN INDIVIDUAL PURSUIT
First, spirituality is increasingly seen an individual pursuit, not a community activity.
Honestly, I get it. In a world that has gotten noisier, louder and angrier, there’s a part of me that wants to retreat into myself more every day.
Add to that the brokenness of true human community and unhealthy (or toxic) cultures, and it’s so much easier to say “I’m just going to figure this out on my own.” Which many people are trying to do.
I feel the pull too.
But I have to remind myself that for the most part, my desire to skip, pull away and do my own thing on my schedule isn’t solitude, it’s isolation. And while solitude is a gift from God, isolation is a tool of the enemy.
And there’s no faster way to render a community ineffective than to isolate its members.
ATTENDANCE MAY BE A NEW SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
Second, because of how withdrawn and individualistic we’re all becoming, I wonder if—in an age in which people are devoted mostly to themselves—the mere act of attending church is becoming a spiritual discipline.
Devoting yourselves publicly to God and to a wider community is a countercultural act.
DECREASED ATTENDANCE OFTEN EQUALS DECREASED DEVOTION
Finally, there’s a paradox developing that I don’t hear many people talking about publicly, and that’s spiritual growth.
In my observation, rarely does decreased church attendance produce increased devotion.
Sure, there are popular bloggers, authors and podcasters who might claim it does, but get out onto the streets and have a conversation with many people who used to go to church that don’t anymore, and you’ll meet a lot of people whose faith hasn’t grown.
If anything, it’s diminished.
10 THINGS THAT AIN’T CHURCH
So where does this leave us?
In an age where everyone is looking for alternatives to gathering together, here are 10 things that—helpful as they may be in some respect—aren’t church.
If it gets a bit feisty in the points below, just know it’s because I’m challenging the gravitational pull I feel sometimes in me and I see all the time around me.
So here goes. Here are 10 things that still ain’t church.
1. WATCHING CHURCH ONLINE
Watching church online has exploded in the last decade.
We have an online campus at our church, which I love, because for many people it’s a step into church can be if it’s a step back in if you’re out of town or on vacation, but for too many people people church online is a step out of church.
It’s a step toward lower devotion, not greater devotion. And to less mission, not deeper
Here’s a little exercise I want to propose. If you’re watching online because it’s easier (or honestly, you’re just lazy), get yourself into a real human community.
Yes, a real church is going to be worse than your online experience. You will have to sit next to people you don’t like and who aren’t like you.
You could get hurt. You’ll have to do something. And you may have to give.
You’ll get into awkward conversations with people as you invite them to come with you.
And you may damage the friendship as a result and feel all worried.
This is church. (Have you ever read 1 Corinthians? I mean really….)
Dating is easier than marriage. Especially first dating. But marriage is where the real reward is after you’ve disliked each other long enough to fall in love again and remember that in the midst of the mess God is writing a deeper, more powerful story than you could ever write on your own.
A C+ real life church experience is better than an A+ online church experience because real life is messy, and it’s going to force you grow.
So go find a real-life C+ church and get involved. And remember, you are not the solution to the C+ church’s problems. You’re part of the reason it’s a C+ church. So am I.
2. LISTENING TO A PODCAST
If you want to 1.5x speed God into your life while you’re on a run or driving to work, go ahead.
I love podcasting, but in the end, what it gives you is information and not much more.
Podcasting (and church online) should function like online dating. Everyone I know who met online and fell in love gets married. You rarely meet someone who says “We met online, have been married for five years but we’ve never actually met.” Of course you meet, that’s the point.
And I think that’s the point of church podcasts and church online…they lead to something greater: real human interaction around a mission bigger than you.
But 1.5xing a sermon podcast every week probably only gives you a .5 dose of God.
3. VIRTUAL PASTORS
Because there are thousands of churches online and thousands more who put their content online via podcasts, many people have multiple preachers they listen to and think of as their ‘pastors’.
It’s great that you’re listening, or that you follow 10 megachurch pastors or local pastors on Instagram, but that’s not church.
You may have a charcuterie board of favorite speakers and feel full, but true discipleship is not measured by how much you know, it’s measured by how much you love, and how much that love flows out of you and into the lives of others.
4. THAT CHARITABLE THING YOU STARTED
We live in an amazing time where it’s easy to start almost anything you imagine, including a charity.
Charities are amazing, but they’re not church.
When the church gathers in worship, prayer, community, joins together on a mission to baptize people and grow people into the likeness of Christ…well that’s church.
I have a company outside the church that helps produce this blog, my podcast, books etc. Guess what? I think of it as a ministry, and it has huge ministry implications, but it’s not the church.
It never will be. Sure, we think of it in many ways as a ministry. And yes, we’re on mission to help leaders. But it ain’t church.
5. COFFEE WITH FRIENDS
If you stop attending a local church, it’s easy to come up with substitutes for it, like having coffee (or meals, or whatever) with friends.
The early church didn’t change the world by gathering with friends for coffee.
By all means, be social. Hang out. Cultivate deep friendships. Hang out. Connect. But don’t fool yourself—that isn’t church either.
6. THE GATHERING AT YOUR
I understand that this one will be a little controversial, but most of the time, that gathering in your house ain’t church either.
Even if you gather to pray, study scripture, fellowship and celebrate communion, it may still not be the church. Why?
Too often house church functions as a community of people who are fleeing the church, who have been hurt by the church, or who are rejecting the local churches in their neighborhood.
Rarely (I mean rarely, it’s not like it never happens) do I see a house church really embrace the full mission of the church, which would include evangelism baptizing new disciples, community service, giving financially beyond itself and an outward focus that brings more people into the Kingdom.
If that happens—and occasionally it does—then that is church. The problem of course, is that when you embrace all of that, it won’t be long until you outgrow your living room…and you start gathering in public space because you can’t squeeze into a home anymore.
But if it’s just the eight of you year after year after year after year…it probably ain’t church.
7. A WALK IN THE WOODS/ON THE BEACH
I love nature. My wife really loves nature.
Almost all of us feel closer to God in nature. And some personality types feel extremely close to God in nature—maybe even closer than they feel in church.
But your subjective feeling is no substitute for a timeless mission. God didn’t just call us to feel him. He calls us to serve him.
8. FAMILY DEVOTIONS
I love my family. You love yours. And family devotions are wonderful.
When you’re on vacation, I get that you may do family devotions on a Sunday rather than a long drive into a local church.
But a steady diet of family devotions—even daily devotions—isn’t church because your family isn’t baptizing people, reaching out into the community, serving, or even moving beyond itself to engage the world for which Christ died.
Authentic mission has to go beyond you to someone else and embrace and include them.
Family devotions may be sincere and convenient, but they’re no substitute for the Kingdom of God.
9. CHURCH SURFING
Church shopping is one thing. But I’ve met a growing number of people who are doing what I can only call church surfing.
They may go to the 9 a.m. service at one church, and then sample the later service at another, and then they switch it up against next weekend, adding maybe a third church into the mix.
It’s like serial dating with no engagement, commitment or even investment.
Once again, it’s an expression of a consumer culture—take, but feel no obligation to give.
Of course, a significant life is rarely measured by what you consume. It’s measured by what you contribute.
Church surfing contributes almost nothing to the true mission of the church.
So let’s say you show up at the same church whenever you attend, but you sit in the back row, anonymously. You don’t engage, don’t serve, don’t invite, don’t join the mission. You just…sit.
That’s not much different than just consumption, except it’s analog, not digital.
It’s hard to build the future of the church on someone who consumes and never contributes. And it’s hard to build a meaningful, resilient life, when all you do is consume, not contribute.
So contribute. Serve. Invite. Give. Do community.
You’re called to be the church, not just attend one.
If you find your church attendance declining or evaporating, ask yourself:
Are my current patterns leading me to greater devotion to Jesus? Am I serving, inviting, giving and helping to make new disciples? Is this really about me, or is it about seeing the Kingdom of God flourish and expand around me?
If you’re a church leader, I hope this helped frame or at least spark some thinking on what’s happening around us, within us and in our culture.
In an era where everything is become hyper-individualist and hyper-convenient, it’s wonderful to get together and participate in something that inconveniences me, challenges me, stretches me, grows me, makes me uncomfortable and does something great for the world in the name of Jesus.
When the early church did just that, it changed not only millions of lives, it changed history.
Until Next Time...