Over the next couple of days I have articles inspired by our churches current series Church Reimagined. In it, we're looking at the ways we've mangled what church is supposed to be. How we've drifted from the original design and purpose, and how we get back to that.
For today's blog, I want to focus on a point our pastor made in the opening part of his sermon. He opened with an illustration regarding the start of Billy Graham's ministry and how that led to a great revival across the country and ultimately across the globe. In many ways, that being the last great revival our country has seen.
He discussed how there is often a desire to go back to that golden age of the 1950s. To back to a time when churches were full. A time when, especially in the Bible belt, it was the norm. Businesses closed on Sundays thanks to blue laws. People went to church and then gathered as a family to eat. It was just what was done.
I've long believed that one of Satan's greatest victories was making Christianity widespread, accepted, and mainstream. Making it no longer the underground, underdog movement that required dedication to keep it alive, but rather turning it, often, into the dominant social hierarchy of a community.
I've described this as "social churching." It's like social drinking - doing something because it's just what everyone else does. Attending for the social benefits, to be seen, because it is the power center of the community, and on and on and on. It's what is normal, what good people "do," and just the way things are done in America. Going to the building "church" for any other reason that a deeply held conviction and belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Religion is social churching. It's what has a person continue to go out of habit, although they no longer believe (or never believed). Where family members are forced to continue to attend, though they have no personal connection to the faith.
And, as we discussed on Sunday, it's what has us view evangelism as only asking someone to come to our church, letting the church do all of the work, instead of engaging in a conversation about faith, life, struggles, and everything in between.
It's what has us convinced church is something we come to instead of viewing the Church as something that goes out into the world to effect change. The Great Commission is pretty clear that we are to go to the world, not wait for it to come to us. "Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'” Matthew 28:18-20. This describes a people that are active followers, looking for new opportunities to invest in those around them.
This also manifests in the way we receive people in our lives and in the church. It means there will be rough, broken, hurting people that we are connecting with. Not expecting them to look or act a certain way. It means we have non-Christian friends. That things will get messy. That our social circles are diverse in race, age, gender, creed, faith-level, politic, etc. And that our churches might actually reflect this reality too, though that's a topic for tomorrow's blog.
Social churching is also what tints our memories to convince us that the fuller churches of the past contained nothing but devoted followers of Christ, instead of many people who just filled pews. That let's us forget that Jesus talked about the many different types of people who may fill a pew, but never have a true relationship with Him. "He said, 'A farmer went out to plant his seed. He scattered the seed on the ground. Some fell on a path. Birds came and ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky places, where there wasn't much soil. The plants came up quickly, because the soil wasn't deep. When the sun came up, it burned the plants. They dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and crowded out the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It produced a crop 100, 60 or 30 times more than what was planted. Those who have ears should listen and understand.'" Matthew 13:1-9
As today, there were a lot of people throughout history that sat in a church building and fell into one of the three first categories of soil that Jesus discussed. People that came and heard, maybe even came and heard the message every week, but the seed never took root. Seed on the path, eaten by birds.
Or maybe people who came and got really invested for a moment. But they were perpetual seekers. It never took deep root, just burned out quickly and led them onto their next spiritual quest. Rocky soil, always looking, searching for something, never finding.
Or perhaps those who came and appeared solid, but quickly became over committed. Running here and there, burnt out by activity. Choked by thorns.
When church attendance is a social expectation, a social obligation instead of a deeply held belief or conviction centered around a relationship with Christ, it is far easier for these first three categories to exist. For the preaching and teaching of the word an activity that they are looking to cross off their list instead of something that is seen as necessary spiritual encouragement and infilling. The message is something to be critiqued or appreciated on the style of the pastor, the timbre of his voice, the length of the message, the usage of illustrations or humor, instead of for the dedication to the Gospel.
Don't get me wrong, I do not want to downplay the decline in church attendance over the decades. The percentage of Americans who regularly attend religious services is currently at a low point. According to the Gallup Poll survey, only 36% of Americans answered "yes" to the question "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days, or not?" This is down from a peak in the 1950s around 49%. There is further a very likely probability that even this number is overinflated, due to a desire to appear better and maintain perceptions of being a "good person." In one study in the early 1990s, sociologists found actual weekly church attendance in one rural county in Ohio was only about 20%, whereas self-reported attendance was 36%.
My suspicion is that this decrease has more to do with social churching than a rejection of faith itself. Pew research shows that while Americans are getting less religious, feelings of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe have actually risen. And it's happening among both the highly religious people and the religiously unaffiliated. An indication that the decline in church attendance likely has more to do with the view of church as a place you attend, a service that is sat through, another program that is added, another ministerial position, opposed to a decrease in a deep spiritual yearning for the Truth. For Peace.
The last thing we need is churches full of people attending because of religion. Coming into the building and never taking anything in that space with them out into the world.
Give me a small group of people that are a part of something living and outward moving any day.
Give me the Church, meeting 24/7 out there in the world, gathering together on Sunday mornings to get encouraged, bandaged up, and sent out to do it again.