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And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. – Hebrews 10:25 NLT
“We don’t go to church, we are the church” is at times a well-intentioned claim by some, and at others, a fig leaf for those who have given up on the church to hide behind. Either way, it is ultimately a damaging and self-harming assertion.
Human beings have been hiding away, withdrawing from God and one another since the garden of Eden. And, like Adam and Eve, we Christians are very good at making excuses for withdrawing, believing the lies we tell ourselves that underpin such backing away. The internal stories are often these: ‘I need a break, I need to focus on my kids/family, I want time to myself, I have to get this marathon/triathlon/course done’, etc. We then succumb to, and placate, any doubts we might have about our stories with more fabrications. ‘I can get back to church later’, ‘it won’t affect me’, and, even worse, ‘this is what’s best for me’. Such stories are, at best, fantasies, fairy tales and myths. At worst, they are mendacities that destroy God’s work in us and the world. Satan is indeed the father of lies, prowling around looking to devour us. His greatest ploy and tactic has not been a full-frontal assault on belief; instead it has been the insidious entropy of attendance. A lion secures its prey by first isolating it, so it is then free to devour it.
The lie of not going to church is the most destructive and isolating falsity of all. For at its heart is an ontological dissembling, with the separation of being and doing. The idea that I can be a Christian and that what I do has no immediate or long-term impact to who I become. This state of affairs, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, is not only untrue for Christian identity, but fails to hold true for any other identity-forming aspect of life. For everything else we give allegiance to, and all that we consider intrinsic to who we are, requires commitments and actions in support of those realities. In other words, non-attendance of church separates doing and being, in a way we do not apply to the rest of life. To belong to something requires action around that belonging. The really important things in life require even more attention to a taking part in them, with an intensity to our doing. It is hard to imagine a Father who fails to come home and take part in his family due to overwork, being able to get away with claiming, “I am my Family, I don’t need to attend and participate.” You cannot be something without doing something. Overly absent Fathers find other fig leaves to hide behind. Christianity is not just something you are, it is something you do.
The curse of Adam and Eve, and the symptoms of withdrawal, extend through history and into the early church. Hebrews 10:25 was written because some Christians had already stopped meeting with others for worship. The writer to the Hebrews knew something important, which is why it is in the bible. Attendance, showing up and taking part, was the most basic and key indicator of the Christian life. To attend was vital, and to not attend was deleterious. Participating in meeting with other Christians regularly is the most basic action and doorway into being a Christian. Attendance is the clearest indicator of identity, a relationship with the body of Christ, and the mission of God in the world. Whatever you participate in regularly reveals your mission in life and the world. What Christians are doing instead of attending reveals what they really think life is about.
Non-attendance has been the fastest-growing activity of Christians in the western world, and in recent history. The last 30 years has seen a great stepping away from the church in the UK, where church attendance declined from 5.2 million people to just under 2.5 million. In the USA, things are somewhat different. Some pundits lament church attendance falling to 25 per cent in some areas of the USA, while other places still see a 50 per cent connection to a local church. One of my friends in the deep Bible Belt of America told me he can’t do evangelism where he lives because no-one will admit to not being a Christian or to not belonging to a local church. Now, my friend knows otherwise, just as you and I do, that one of the safest places to hide from Jesus is in plain sight within a church. Many go to church for years with no intention of consciously engaging with Jesus and his claims on their life and the world.
Even the Devil can go to church, and that does not make him a Christian. Martin Luther said, “Whenever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel right next door.” By this, Luther meant that wherever God is working, the Devil will set up shop right next door to compete with God’s work. Perhaps the Devil found it easier to help Christians to stop going to church, to save the effort of building something next door. The Devil realised it was more strategic to just set up shop away from the church and entice Christians there. For sure, going to church does not guarantee you becoming a Christian, or growing as one. But not going to church guarantees you are much less of a Christian.
As an aside, many of my British and European pastor friends cannot imagine what it would be like to lead a local church where even 25 per cent of the population were looking for a church home. My back of a fag packet/napkin calculations from numbers of my local churches and known attendance leads me to believe that where I live, we have less than 2 per cent of people taking part in Sunday worship. In secular London, the idea of Christians in any significant number looking for churches to belong to is just so incongruous to our context and experience. I have often marvelled at all the many places I have been to in the USA for Sunday worship. I have stood and stared at the church car parks that automatically fill up, and then entered a church auditorium, bemused to discover swaths of people within it, all of whom want to be there instead of somewhere else. Of course, like the UK, many churches in the USA are small, but you don’t have to shake a stick very far to hit the miracle of people who want to attend church. Yet, like the UK, the USA is seeing some of its fastest growth in irregular and reduced attendance.
Mind you, measuring attendance has become harder and harder these days. The way people connect to church, and how they connect, is changing, and is making things far more difficult to measure. We now have to track; the churched, unchurched, unattached, intermittents, homebodies, blenders, conventionals, nones and dones, to name a few. Underneath all the varying statistics, and the complexity and changing landscape, is a reality few deny. The church in the western world continues to decline in terms of membership, participation and most of all, attendance.
However, we may have reached peak decline in the UK, with a recent Times newspaper article charting a slight increase in Sunday attendance. Or rather, it seems that the number of those attending regularly continues to decline, while those who hardly ever attend have gone a few times more in the last year. The devil is in the detail. At any rate, there is much excitement, because people attending more means something, even if we don’t yet quite know what that something is. Even the secular press in the UK knows it is important. We instinctively and empirically know attendance gains and losses indicate something about the numbers, and also the health of Christian.
Now, of course, as Mark Twain – or it might have been Benjamin Disraeli – said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We must be careful with attendance numbers, with who reports them, and why they do so. For example, in my church movement, when we are asked to record our attendance figures every October, it is amazing how many special services, baptisms, and other attendance-inflating events have been held. We joke about holding car boot sales and pet blessing services to boost our numbers. Indeed, anything that inflates them is de rigueur for our counting purposes and for relieving our insecurities around attendance.
Several years ago, a theology PhD student undertook a survey of my church. It was a surprise to find that most of our members considered themselves to be weekly attenders, when in fact, we usually get less than 50 per cent of people participating each week. This discrepancy in surveys between reporting and reality is called social desirability bias, where people in surveys – even if they are anonymous – lie about what they really do, to match an internal self-image. When surveyed, we will admit to giving more money than we really do, to voting when we have not, and even to owning a library card when we don’t. From that survey of my church, I learned that people believe they should attend regularly, and probably think they do. Which is true when they are not on holiday, away for the weekend, taking part in sports, catching on up on work emails, doing some home DIY, and recovering from a late night, etc. In other words, when not doing something else, they do come every week. In any event, beyond statistics, overinflated surveys by church leaders, and lies from its members, we all know this to be true; that the church in the west has, and is, facing fast-declining attendance. I am suggesting this decline is the doorway, the gateway drug, to all other decline in the church.
BEYOND THE SECULAR
When I first became a Christian at 17 years old, I assumed there were fewer Christians taking part in church life in the UK for the reason that there were fewer Christians in the UK overall. Church decline can be correlated against secularism. That makes obvious sense. The more extant secularity is, the more non-Christians there are, and therefore the fewer people there are to participate in Christian life with others in local churches. The UK being more secular than the USA means we have fewer Christians. Fewer Christians means fewer people involved with the church. It was perturbing to then discover that people who called themselves Christians had stopped taking part in church life and worship.
My first attendance aged 17 at a group of God’s people in Sunday worship led to an encounter with Jesus. I could not understand why people who knew the God I had just encountered, no longer met with his people and family. In my more recent (and nearly 22) years as a church planter, I have seen attendance rates fall of a cliff. “See you Sunday”, at one time the most normal comment at parting by Christian friends, now seems a quaint and outdated phrase. Most of my church leader friends face and experience the weekly existential angst of wondering who will turn up this week. There are those goldilocks Sundays, with no public holidays, major sporting events, and it is not raining too much, nor is too sunny to deter attendance.
One of the fastest-growing reasons for non-attendance is not people losing their faith, but rather those who consider themselves Christian, and yet have little if anything to do with a church. These are the ‘nones’, the ‘dones’, and the ‘post-church’. Or rather, more accurately and demographically, it is mostly white middle-class Christians who have been reducing their attendance significantly. It’s a different story for immigrant populations in urban cities like London, for lots of reasons. In particular, how churches provide, as David Martin has shown, ‘islands of social care’ and cultural and social cohesion in a way that white middle-class people do not need, or want. For white middle-class people are living a different story around identity and relationships that shapes their church attendance.
Sometimes, amongst my friends, we get to talk with Christians 20-30 years our junior about the ‘olden days’ of Sunday attendance. Those stories are so alien to today’s experiences, that I suspect those listening imagine them taking place, not 20 years ago, but a few hundred. For in those stories, we talk about how we and others went to church not just every week, but often twice on Sundays, and – shock, horror – even when we were on holiday.
Decline in attendance has been happening for some time, and there was never a time in history when all Christians attended church. The 1851 UK census was the first census that took into account age, relationships, and origins. It also detailed church attendance for the first time, revealing that 10.2 million people out of a population of 17.9 million took part in church services. Now, if we remember social desirability bias, the real figure may have been lower (unless of course people were more honest in 1851). The survey was a shock to many who assumed that all Christians were in regular church attendance, and gave rise to the question; what were the other 7.7 million people doing? Indeed, to be in work, and to gain access to much of society in nineteenth century British life required church participation in many cases. So, what were all those good Christian people doing instead of attending church? We have no earlier surveys to compare what sort of a decline was already taking place, if any (the first UK census was in 1841 and did not record church attendance). The Church of England responded to the noted lack of attendance of 1851 by starting or rebuilding 2,438 churches and multiplying clergy from 14,500 to 24,000 by 1875.
At the same time in the nineteenth century, there was much change that impinged on church participation, including the birth of commercial society as the newly-minted Christian leisure, music and entertainment quickly gave way to new leisured classes in society who wanted the entertainment, but not the Christianity. In Victorian England, ‘sermon tasting’ became a hobby for many, as people travelled between churches to hear the greatest emerging Evangelical teachers and speakers deliver the sermons that interested them the most, rather than those that transformed them. Alongside this, the nineteenth century saw the accelerated development of secular belief within the growth of modern scientific understandings and methods.
JUST GO TO CHURCH: WHAT NOT GOING REVEALS
There is a very simple reality. Attendance is still the single most meaningful indicator of the practice of the Christian faith, and of one’s relationship with Jesus. George Barna, the well-known church statistician, has the numbers to prove this. Even Carey Nieuwhof, who has written much about the need to move beyond measuring attendance and focus on engagement, knows a dirty little secret: that the increase in non-attendance by Christians is the biggest indicator of a decline beyond attendance. For, to not attend most often reveals a wider loss of Christian life and discipleship and has an especially pernicious impact on the next generation of Christians. The New Testament professor John Stackhouse puts it more bluntly; just go to Church. John Stackhouse can evidence that decline in church attendance is in direct correlation with a broader decline in Christian belief and practice. If you are going to measure one thing to track the decline of Christianity in belief and practice, attendance is the one to track. Mind you, it is a little chicken and egg-like. Does a wider decline lead to the symptoms of less attendance, or does less attendance generate a wider decline?
If you want to grow in your Christian faith and discipleship, not going to church will statistically have the biggest impact on your aspirations. As a pastor and ‘participant observer’, I have noticed that attendance is indeed by far the greatest indicator of Christian engagement. Show me someone who is regularly away from church, and I will show you someone whose active engagement in the Christian life is in decline, or soon will be. After three decades of observing attendance and its effects on others – first as a punter, and then as a church planter – there are a few domains that non- and lessening attendance cluster into, for a pastoral diagnosis.
For example, there are the people who tell me they are going to be non-attenders in the summer for several weeks, in order to have a ‘break from church’, only to later complain to me that they feel so disconnected from the church and from their relationships. They are unable to see the effects of their attendance choices. Then others, make well-meaning decisions to be away regularly for ‘family’ time. This has unintended consequences for them, and for their children, compounding the effects of their other non-attendance.
I have regularly watched as someone I have not seen for many months turns up, often after the service has started. I am glad to see them, but immediately wonder what awful thing has befallen them to impel their attendance. For them to attend is surely a sign of having run out of their usual resources to navigate life, and a Sunday service is their last resort for retrieving something they cannot obtain on their own. Invariably, on speaking to them, they tell me about their job loss, health scare, relationship breakdown, and worse. They attend for a few weeks, but once the initial crises have passed, they move back to their previous modes of non-attendance.
Then there are those who inform me I won’t see them for a few months as they invest in some sort of sports training on Sunday mornings. Invariably, these people either never return or, if they do, attendance is a hiatus between the next sporting events. Then there are the parents who are under immense pressures, who face a world in which clubs, sports and social events are marked on the schedule directly against Sunday worship. They undertake for a few months to attempt the impossible: being present with their children in those events and maintaining connection to their church and the mission that flows from it. I know this one well, having tried to walk this tightrope myself with my children. It always amazes me – the immense investment of time and money parents will spend on their children’s sports and clubs, that they won’t apply to their children’s Christian life and formation. The demands sports, clubs and societies make follows naturally from involvement, and relegates Christian engagements to the leftovers, to something less than other associations and identities. Attendance and participation at other important things orient us into the habit of thinking that church is what gets the leftovers and is only a place for emergencies.
Every year around exam time some parents remove their kids from church participation, due to exam revision. The logic is that their kids need rest and sleep, and time for studies, and can participate later on in church life with others. In reality, those parents often do not seem to restrict access to other actives. In fact, there is often a doubling down on those things as being life giving for their kids, and if something has to go, it is church. And in this their kids learn that other things in life are what life is for and that church is there for emergencies or when there is nothing better to pursue. I became a Christian at seventeen, being almost homeless and looking after my mother and younger brother. I remember how contact in weekly worship, and engagement with church life and mission was the only thing that got me through that time and my exams. I remember the confusion of watching my new Christian friends, who missed church with the blessing of their parents, but then continued with all the other leisure activities they needed to make sense of life.
Someone with a declining attendance and absence often alerts me to how they are hurt, angry, upset, distressed and struggling. Those once at the centre of church life move to the edge and away, pulled there by emotions and pains too hard to live with in attendance. Then there are those whose primary Christian identity is the ongoing and forceful declaration to others about why they don’t attend. I can also spot someone who has found a relationship with a non-Christian, often confirmed when they resurface and let me know they have been investing in a relationship with someone who does not understand or support their Christian life. But it’s just for a season they assure me, before fading away into Christian isolation.
Finally, there are those who are perennially bored and/or tired. No matter how culturally relevant their church might be, with its compelling vision and life-changing opportunities, the habit of doing something more interesting, including sleeping in, overtakes them. Yes, large swaths of the church are stuck in the 1950s, but much of it is awake and relevant to today. I recall some stats from George Barna, compiled nearly 20 years ago, in which he surveyed people about the reasons they did not go to church. He then returned to tell those surveyed the good news; that all the things they wanted the church to be in order for them to take part, had been found in a church near them. The result was: no matter how relevant the church, people still did not and would not attend.
I am well aware that people have always been too tired and have often taken a Sunday off. But they never boasted to me about it. At least, until recently. I am now regularly told how someone missed being with us because they couldn’t overcome the lure of their mattress, and the previous night’s activities, as if I would understand this as a normal and reasonable state of affairs. Tiredness and business are the non-challengeable fig leaves in modern culture for avoiding church involvement. “Sorry, I’m too tired” seems to trump everything now. Christians throughout history have faced persecution, imprisonment, and even death in order to gather together for worship as God’s people, and in some places around the world, still do. There has been an almost instinctive biological imperative to risk anything to gather for worship, one that we have replaced in the west with a laissez-faire ‘take it or leave it’ and ‘I’ll take part if I have nothing better to do’ attitude.
On reviewing my last few paragraphs, I realise I might sound churlish. Indeed, I am sure I do, for I am questioning the socially unquestionable. Some will have prickled, if not bridled, on reading thus far, if indeed they are still reading, designating me as some rabid ecclesial fundamentalist who does not understand how life really works. But I believe something really is at stake in attendance, the impact of which we have been lying to ourselves about for far too long.
For example, parents often console themselves with the idea that their children can come back to church later in life and re-discover faith then. All the statistics tell us something very different. Secularism has infected Christian parents’ imaginations with its insistence on removing religion from everyday life and relegating it to the private. In the secular, Christianity is something private to come to later in adult life, when and if someone wants to. But this is a complete and utter lie leading to a lifelong impact that parents need to consider. In the UK, people from both ethnic and religious backgrounds who are non-practicing as teenagers and young adults often do return to the faith of their family of origin. However, for Christian white British people, almost no young people return to any faith of their parents. The data shows that if you are a white middle-class family who stops participating in attending church, your children will likely never return to, or practice, the Christian faith. Why is that? My theory based on my research is that children of Christian parents who only attend church in a crisis, from an on-demand needs basis, end up modelling something for their children. Their children do indeed adopt the faith of their parents. It is one where the church is optional, and something for emergencies. Where Christianity is self-help for getting something else in life. Children copy the faith of their parents. Moreover, there is no continuing ethnic connection for church with white Brits, unlike other religions where their ethnic identity is supported. Or perhaps, white middle-class religious and cultural identity has become one where church is for emergencies only, and for Christmas. Significant surveys and studies bear this out, revealing the anaemic and therapeutic self-help faith that young people are inheriting from their parents.
Aristotle said, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” The people at Orange in the USA know this, along with a related statistic. If a person does not experience Christianity when they are young, they will likely never do so when they are older. Orange remind us that there are 8,760 hours in a child’s year. The average parent has 3,000 hours per annum of contact for influence. The average child might only have 20-30 hours per year of church attendance contact. No wonder the imaginations for life, from anywhere other than the Christian faith, have the greatest formational forces by sheer volume. My wife belongs to a previous generation, who, once born, went to church twice on Sundays, with additional Sunday school and mid-week discipleship. By the time she was 18, she had had contact with the Christian faith, through her parents and others, for more than 5,000 hours. She to this day knows her bible and has an underpinning to her faith that I never had. Indeed, other pastors comment on the rarity of young adults who join our churches with such an investment and experience. We have young adults whose total church contact time is closer to 400 hours over 18 years at best. Their sports and hobbies and social lives will be closer to 5,000.
So, let’s stop pretending that our attendance does not impact our children and the likelihood of their being Christians. This is the bad news. However, if parents partner their hours of contact alongside the church, a leveraging and amazing multiplication takes place. Children need two main sources of contact with the Christian faith to have the best chance to come to faith and stay in that faith. They need their parents actively pursuing Jesus, and not in private God spaces, but with the people of God regularly. Then, children need Christian contact and relationship with someone other than their parents, at a church. This is the amazing partnership between home and church, to which attendance opens the door.
Christianity is a contact sport, not just for children. So, let’s stop pretending that our attendance does not impact us too. Adults also have 8,760 hours in a year, and if only 20 of those, the sum total of median regular church attendance, are with other Christians, it’s no wonder the volume of the rest of life sets the agenda, and not the Christian faith.
Everything I have written so far begs the question: what is the church, and why is attendance so vital to the Christian life within church? Finding the answer to that question is not just practical, it is also the domain of the theological. Indeed, much of the above already reveals and maps out some theological contours we should now focus on for a diagnosis of what is really going on, and why.
THE REFUSAL TO GO TO CHURCH IS THE REFUSAL OF CHURCH
The refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se – John Milbank, Stale Expressions
There is a current trend, appearing in recent years, of the missional. At its best, the missional reveals that to be a Christian, we as part of the church are to undertake God’s mission in the world. We gather distinct as his people for worship, and to feel his presence so we can go into the world and seek to be agents of his Kingdom in all the places we find ourselves. Church is not a club and a society in which we escape from the world. It is a staging post, and as Lesslie Newbigin puts it in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.*
So far, so good. But this wonderful missional imperative has instead been misappropriated. It has been engineered into a thin veneer, as a cover for the collapse of church into anything and everything other than mission. The claims that, “I don’t go to church, I am the church” align with the missional, and are then perverted and co-opted to support consumer lifestyle options: “I don’t need to go to church; I meet God on the golf course, in Starbucks with friends, when I am running’, etc. The only mission taking place in these private God spaces is the formation of material secular humanistic visions for life. We have fallen foul of thinking we can put something in front of the word church, and it will still be church: Cafe Church, Skateboarding Church, Messy Church. Many years ago, Stanley Hauerwas alerted us to the fact that, whatever qualifying word we put in front of church, completely sets the agenda, overwhelming and colonising what the church should be.
Dave Tomlinson pioneered new forms of church in a pub, back in the 1990s. Yet, he told me a few years ago, that the reasons he became an Anglican priest after all his post-church explorations, was because he could gather people to drink beer and listen to ideas of what Christianity could and should be, and what the church ought to do. But those people did not want to practice Christianity and be the church. It seems it’s far easier to gather together around lifestyle interests, and to pontificate on what the church ought to be, with no intention of ever being the church. For the activity that precedes and qualifies the word church becomes the logic, the social imaginary, and the force that co-opts and forms what action we take. Cafe Church becomes about drinking coffee. Pub Church about drinking beer, Water Skiing Church about water skiing, etc.
John Milbank takes a swipe at this state of affairs with an insightful diagnosis. The church is a thing in and of itself. It is not one thing to support something else, some other reality for life. I put the claim this way to my students when I teach ecclesiology; that the church is not the perpetuation of homogenous self-interest groups. It is not the formation of church into smaller and smaller activities around personal self-interests. Church is what happens when the water skiers, surfers, motorcyclists, knitters, footballers, chess players, cribbage teams, runners, and walking groups meet together and have something in common that transcends their self-interest. It is the worship of Jesus Christ, and the engagement together around the mission of Christ in the world. It is the thing that binds them together in action and identity in a way utterly contrary to the self-interest associations of consumer life. We are bound in different relationships through our beliefs and imaginations, and commitments around our interests. What the body of Christ is, compared to our other arrangements for our deepest aspirations and identity, needs more unpacking. In particular, how we have ended up at this place where we are isolated consumers, pick-and-mixing what we need on demand, the effects that has on us, and its subsequent undermining of our relationship with the church. There is an invitation into something far more glorious and life-giving, through belonging to and participating in the body of Christ, that is the antidote to the anomic isolation of modern life.
So, the refusal to go to church, to attend and to participate with the church, is indeed the refusal of church itself. Or, to draw on and paraphrase the leading academic ethicist Oliver O’Donovan, the church is not one choice among many.** It is the ultimate choice to bring order to all our other choices. What we see taking place is the opposite to that, where church is the lesser choice, the thing to support our other choices in life. To choose Jesus is to choose to be part of his body and his people. It is to choose to participate as part of his body, and for that to determine all our other choices. Those who regularly plead that church is more than a Sunday service are often those who have reduced church to just Sunday attendance. There has been a pathological manifestation of thinking that less attendance will lead to more time for, and more of what the church should be. Instead, it is the doorway into other imaginations and ways of life. Far too much of church has already been me centred, an assemblage and resonance with worship where the measure of church is ‘what I get out of it’, for another way of life away from the church. The logical conclusion to this mode of attendance is to stop going at all and migrate into an on-demand for what I need’ mode of participation. I’ve heard many times the claim by some that they don’t need to attend on Sundays because they are accessing another group within the church that meets around their self-interests. There is a cannibalistic logic here of which they are not aware; the things they enjoy around the church would not exist if others were not attending. The commitment of others generates the things they get to consume and enjoy. In fact, it is only those trained through regular church attendance for many years who are able to make a move away and conduct a pick-and-mix approach to church. Ordinary people who want to find out about Christianity seem to stubbornly want to go to a church service to discover more.
The embarrassing statistics for those who think that being post-church will lead to more people finding faith, is that attendance of a church remains one of the biggest ways that others find faith in Jesus. People do want to talk about Jesus, and they expect the act of going to a church to be a primary way of finding out more about Jesus. In my 22 years as a pastor, I have seen people find and come to faith in our church. I have seen others find faith in the churches of my friends around the world. I have also seen statistics on those who find faith in churches all around the world through attendance. I have not seen the same outside the church. Nor any statistics or evidence from the gathered groups of those who meet to perpetually talk about what is wrong with church, and about what the church should be. The texture of conversations by those who plead the need to remove attendance of church in order to be the church, seems akin to Orwellian socialists. George Orwell, on investigating the plight of the poor, realised that the middle-class socialists who claimed to care about the poor, didn’t really care for the poor. Rather, they hated the rich and the privileged backgrounds they themselves came from. I often wonder how those who are almost psychosomatically and pathologically opposed to church, in particular, attendance, reveal more about their animosity towards the church than any desire to reach those who do not know Jesus. A kind of crony ecclesiology, living vampirically off the body of the church can ensue, where to be the church is about telling others how not to be the church. I have also wondered at the incongruity of some, who make a living by writing and speaking to church attenders about why they should stop attending. Again, a particular mode and logic to modern Christian life is at work here, one where using the body of Christ for something else, comes to a logical conclusion for ongoing consumption. Dallas Willard warned us about being vampire Christians, taking the blood of Christ for life after death, but refusing to participate in and as part of the body of Christ in this life.
In the western world, where we are overwhelmed with choices for lifestyles and investments of our time and attention, we are finding more of a lack of identity, unhappiness, and isolation. Fear of missing out leads us to keep options open, and unable to make the thick and substantive commitments that lead to the authentic community that our souls crave. Choosing the church and the people of God to order our lives, our week, and all our other commitments, might be the radical choice we need to make to bring the life and relief we need. The best things in life come from centring other choices around our primary choices. We know that any friend who is engaged in a lifestyle pursuit will say no to many invitations, even exciting one, due to their participation in what is more important to them. It seems that being part of the people of God for the mission of Jesus in the world has become an optional extra when nothing more important has come our way. I wonder if there is almost no invitation to which we won’t say yes, and abandon attendance for. When I think of, and look at, the Christians who inspire me, who have walked with Jesus for a long time, with a long obedience in the same direction, they have many things in common, but regular attendance is one of them. They will say no to other invitations because their choice for the body of Christ orders all their other choices. That gives the primary shape to their Christian lives, and to all the other Christian things that flow into them.
CALL TO ACTION: THE BEAUTY OF ATTENDANCE
So, attendance for some has become optional when no other invitation is at hand, or for when life’s burdens overtake the usual things, we rely on for making a life. Or when what is advertised as taking place in a service piques our interest enough to overcome the thresholds of our boredom. Ultimately, for many, attendance is about having somewhere to go, a place for entertainment, needs, and for self-interest. The diagnostic of such orientations is always, ‘what did I get out of it?’, and ‘was it worth my time in attending?’ Church becomes as Dan Kimball notes, about dispensing religious goods and services to those attending.
If that is attendance, no wonder people only go sporadically, or just don’t bother. Worst of all is the person shut away from attendance in a cage of animosity and resistance, defined by what they are not doing, instead of what they should, and could, be doing.
Modern western culture despises the ordinary. It entices us, siren-like, to gain our constant attention and imagination, in order to then devour as much money and time as we have and more, caring nothing for making us overdrawn in every area of life. We gladly and habitually pour who we are, and all we are, into the gaping maw of invitations to escape the ordinary. One more trip away, another sporting event, a new hobby, one more binge-worthy box set, indeed anything to escape. Escape from the ordinary is just a click away.
Attendance, then, is a doorway; a doorway of the ordinary into something extraordinary; akin to the wardrobe in a dusty attic that opens into Narnia. There is an adventure waiting on the other side of this ordinary, by which we can be thrilled and transformed. But it requires a different orientation. Some places of worship have rooms that require you to bow, in order to enter, lowering your head and bending over to gain access. There is something similar and key to attendance. Like Alice in Wonderland, we must become smaller to enter the doorway into the beautiful garden. Our diminution is a yielding of the self, and submission of needs and self-interests, in order to experience the beauty on the other side. Otherwise, we blunder around as self-obsessed giants, unable to see what is before us and trampling the beauty all around. Once inside, something exquisite and beyond the ordinary is available, a world parallel to the one rushing around us with all its distractions and frustrations. As I recall the texture and map from my attendance of 30 years, this is the garden and beauty I have seen.
And what of the new person, who wonders if they might find God, unknowingly stirred by the Holy Spirit to learn if there is more to life? I sense, as I talk to them, the apprehension, the fears and worries of what they might find on attendance. I say to them, “you are welcome, we’ve been waiting for you, you are safe here, you are brave for coming.” I never tire of seeing their shoulders relax, of how they start to breathe; then their adventure begins. They leave with a smile, struggling to find words to explain what they cannot, but one day will after finding faith in Jesus. I imagine what it might be like to see them baptised, and what story they will tell about meeting Jesus, and use this to fuel my prayers for them. And I love it when they say, “see you next Sunday” For, those attending, seeking Jesus, cannot wait to return, and declare it openly as a statement of intent for a new ordering of their lives.
Then, there are moments, on speaking with those who are so very different to me, that I find awkward. Those who are hard to understand, prickly, obtuse, and with whom I am in conflict. I remind myself of something I said many years ago that continues to be true of me; we are all somebody else’s weirdo. I feel my armour; the instinct that wants me in the first instance not to talk to them, and if I do, to be on guard. Instead, I try to let my guard down, to be present, to watch how my inner self wants to protect me from hurt, misunderstanding, and, at times, just from the inane. Vulnerability is beautiful; it allows my false self, my armour, to be removed, and in those difficult conversations, I realise I am closer to the cross than before I arrived.
As an introvert, I move around, struggling with the desire to keep my head down to get to whom I need, and to what I have to do. Instead, I choose to lift my head up and engage. Attendance for me is a series of catching eyes, smiling, many quick touches on the arm, counterpointed with embraces, hugs, kisses, and snatches of conversations that mine the depths of life. It is amazing how, over coffee and a doughnut, a simple “how are you?” can open a door into the beauty of someone’s inner landscape, and the textures of their life before God. Attendance for me, from my entrance and the walk to the hall for worship, is an opportunity to run my hand over the tapestry of the lives of others. Where the threads and colours I touch are the stories and images of cancer, job stress, failed marriages, anxiety and depression, concerns for children’s university applications, care for ageing parents and disappointments with self, and with life. Woven through all this are stories of God’s love and care. It is as if I can see His Spirit holding all this together, as he weaves us into His life. The threshold of a doorway for attendance has indeed become the doorway into Narnia. I would not trade any activity for the captivating and arresting beauty of these moments, these experiences Sunday by Sunday.
And then, there is worship; words to bring into contact with the imaginations and commitments I have for life. If I go beyond deciding whether I like the words and music, or if I am enjoying the production which is taking place, I find a way to measure my life and actions against the things I am singing. And when I do that, I realise how far I have come, and how much more I have to discover. And at the end, when we pray for each other, the most stunning and arresting thing takes place. I see the conscious opening-up of shared lives before God. It is like time and space dilate, and the eschaton, the Kingdom of God, breaks into reality. In place of lies about isolation, lack, anxiety and despair, truths about acceptance, identity, presence, relationship, and hope rush in. Tears are cried, fears allayed, hopes kindled, peace descends. And there is risk in the praying for others, to overcoming my fears and inadequacies that I am not enough, or do not know enough to pray. In the praying, my self-protection is put to death again.
There are some Sunday mornings when I am in despair over what is happening in my life, over what is happening to my family, and where I am beyond being overextended. I want to hide and withdraw. Sometimes I wish I could sleep in and then ride my motorbike. The allure to not attend often grips me greatly. Yet, on these challenging Sundays, I rediscover the doorway of the ordinary into something beyond my troubling circumstances. I find, upon leaving, that I am filled with something other than my consternations. God has shown up, and I have stopped worrying about myself for just a little while. My fears and self-obsessions have abated, sometimes wonderfully, sometimes just a fleeting amount, such that my burdens feel slightly lighter. The plenitude of God has interrupted my life and touched my fears and feelings of lack. And from time to time during attendance, I have had others come to me with words, pictures and encouragements; precious things that become the warp and weft of my life and unconscious textures to my identity in Jesus. Those moments are made possible via the volume and regularity of my attendance. The Kingdom of God is indeed at hand, if we will step into it.
Attendance would lead to the greatest revolutionary act of our modern age if everyone who calls themselves a Christian turned up and took part. So, choose a church that offends the least, and is less boring than most, mark the calendar and attend. And, upon entering, be a person who welcomes, serves, gives, cares, prays and participates. It could lead to revival. It’s in our grasp. Just go to church and take part.
Ps. My next article will dig deeper into why this state of affairs around attendance has arisen, and the antidote to it. Under the symptom of non-attendance is the disease and pathology of belonging to false stories and imaginations, around which we order and organise our social relationships. In short, we are living the wrong story. Instead of the Gospel and Kingdom, an alternative story has infected our imaginations and drawn us into to social arrangements and ‘bodies’ that directly compete with the body of Christ
* p. 232-233