Drive down almost any of the roads in our counties and the chances are great that you will pass a church building. Some churches meet in schools or vacant units in shopping centers. Others worship in buildings constructed from a frame of wood sitting adjacent to their own cemetery, while some meet in places formed from cement blocks, or shaped with aluminum and tin. A few use modern technology and communication tools to proclaim their message, while others still post the daily hymn numbers in a wooden, slatted sign.
About a year ago, The Christian Century magazine proclaimed, “The church is made of people. But they need a home.” God certainly doesn’t need a beloved building, but people need a place they can cherish. The structure can be a Gothic cathedral or a coffeehouse that doubles as a sanctuary. We need the familiarity of our house of worship.
But our ideas about church today are changing. The opinions of Americans concerning the value of the church are as varied as the building materials that have been used in their construction. George Barna surveyed Americans about the church a couple of years ago.
Church involvement used to be one of the building blocks of American life. Growing up, church meant worship and Sunday school on Sunday mornings, a return trip later that day for evening worship, a Bible study on Wednesdays and a youth group activity about every other Friday. Today adults are evenly divided, with about half saying attending church is “very” or “somewhat” important and the other half saying it is “not too” or “not at all” important.
Future generations are not painting an optimistic picture for the importance of attending church. Millennials (those under 30) are least likely to value church attendance. Only two in 10 consider it important, while over a third (35 percent) will actually take an anti-church stand. Will they return to church attendance later in life? Only time will tell.
When asked if they went to church in the past week, about four in 10 Americans affirm that they did. The number has not changed dramatically in the past decade, but it is trending downward in a slow way. The truth is there are still tens of millions of Americans who attend church each weekend.
But the nature of church going is changing. Regular attenders used to be people who would attend three or more weekends each month. Today people who attend once every four to six weeks consider themselves regular attenders.
The number that is growing the fastest is the number of people who say they have not attended a church function at all in the past six months. While the number of Americans who have not attended in six months is now almost 48 percent, the number of Millennials who have not attended recently is about 55 percent.
Barna’s group asked Millennials why they were opting out of church attendance. Three factors seemed to weigh heavily in their decisions. Many found the church to be irrelevant; others pointed to hypocrisy; while some cited the moral failures of church leaders as the reason to stop attending.
Perhaps more important than the reasons for not showing up are the factors involved in attending church. Adults who believe the church is important cite two reasons above the rest: to be closer to God (about 44 percent) and to learn about God (27 percent).
But the survey indicates we aren’t doing well with that. Fewer than two out of 10 church goers feel close to God even once a month. Two-thirds of those who go to church want to learn about God, but fewer than one in 10 (only 6 percent) say they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended a service.
The majority of people (61 percent) say they did not gain any significant or new insights about their faith the last time they attended.
So why do you go to church? I pondered the question all week. The church I attend has adopted a contemporary approach to music and praise. The sermons are biblically based from a conservative theological perspective. While I enjoy both, I don’t go for either the music or the preaching. Truth be told, I am a much better singer in my mind than out of my mouth. Most of my biblical knowledge comes from seven years at a Seminary or by my own personal study.
I attend church each Sunday primarily for two reasons. First I go there to worship God. While I suppose that I could worship God anywhere, even in my own living room, I find I usually don’t. When exercising is important to me, I don’t do it at home, I go to a place specifically designed for working out. The place helps me focus and stay committed.
Second, I go to church because of others. Most of the things in life I do better with others. Faith is built to be that way. I love the way the Contemporary English Version translates Acts 2:42: They spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other.
I go to church because I need my family.
Jon Tyson, in his book, "Sacred Roots: Why the Church Still Matters," writes, “The early church leaders didn’t have the things we now consider essential for our faith. They didn’t have official church buildings, vision statements or core values. They had no social media, radio broadcasts or celebrity pastors. Christ-followers were often deeply misunderstood, persecuted and some gave their lives for their faith. Yet they loved and they served and they prayed and they blessed – and slowly, over hundreds of years, they brought the empire to its knees.”
The church still matters. Over the next several weeks we are going to look at what some of the churches in our area are doing to make a difference. Let’s shine a light on those being a light in the darkness.
— Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at email@example.com.