Church attendance is suffering. According to Pew, 63% of Americans profess Christianity, but only 43% regularly attend religious services, presumably even fewer exclusively Christian services (Pew). These numbers have been getting worse for decades, and COVID was just a catalyst (Gallup). People are asking, “Why should I go to church?” In this article, I will answer that question, addressing some common reasons people do not attend.
Do you have to attend church to be a Christian?
There are two questions being asked here. 1) Must you attend church to be saved? 2) Must you attend church to live the Christian life? The answer to the first is no, to the second, yes.
Salvation doesn’t depend on church membership or any righteous deed for that matter (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, righteous deeds are the evidence of salvation (James 2:15). So, is going to church a righteous deed? Yes! The Bible says not to “neglect to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25). Now, a wise man once said, “Don’t build a theology on a single verse,” and it seems the only verse people ever cite about going to church is this one. Is this just a cherry-picked verse that’s been unfaithfully interpreted? Quite the contrary.
There are so few commands to gather with fellow believers because it’s implied by a whole category of other commands—commands about how to do church. Paul’s letters are full of instruction in church practice. He teaches about orderliness, discipline, requirements for leadership, the roles of men and women, and more. These instructions are useless if you don’t regularly gather with fellow believers.
What’s more, the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, corporate worship, communion, baptism, confession, giving, service– aren’t all of these commanded as well? Indeed, they’re the very fuel of the Christian life. Church is where all these things happen. You might say, “I can do those things elsewhere,” but where’s the sense in that? I can swim in the fountain that sits outside the water park. Surely, passersby will say, “Why are you in the fountain, which is not for swimming, when you could go in the water park, which is for swimming?” That’s what I say to you today.
Scripture is also clear that membership in the body of Christ is fundamental to the Christian life. When Christ ascended to the Father, He left His disciples to carry on His ministry to the world (Matthew 28:18-20). But how could sinful men carry the mantle of Christ? Of course, they could not. So, God gave His Holy Spirit to live inside them, so that with His help they might live like Christ (John 14:16). Being filled with the same Spirit, they became known as the body of Christ, the living embodiment of God in the world. Each disciple, now more commonly known as Christian or believer, is a “member” or part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Only when the individual members function as a whole will the ministry of Christ be done in the world.
“If you find a hand, just a human hand in the middle of a field somewhere, you say, ‘Whoa, hold it. This is not healthy. Something is very wrong here. This hand belongs to a body somewhere, or it needs to belong to a body.’ So are we. We need each other.”
This is no mystery. After all, could you live your life completely and effectively if your right and left hands didn’t work together? Much less if one or both were detached from your body completely! Imagine Jesus’ earthly ministry if every part of His body were strewn about, never coming together to complete a single action. Absurd, isn’t it? It is no less absurd to isolate yourself from other believers.
Addressing common reasons for not attending
With the overarching theological argument made, let’s get down to ground level. Why don’t people go to church? I’ll address the most common reasons below.
I can’t find a good church
Maybe it would be a good church if you joined. Let’s break it down. “I can’t find a good church” may mean two things. 1) Your local church isn’t filled with good Christians, or 2) your local church is poorly organized or led. What’s the solution to this problem? In the former case, either good Christians would have to join the church, or the those in the church would have to become better. In the latter case, someone skilled in organization and leadership would have to join the church and serve.
Assuming you consider yourself a “good” Christian (tread lightly), you could tip the scale towards it being a good church if you joined. Moreover, you could help the existing members grow through your example or any other means of edification you have to offer. And if you have the eye to see poor organization and leadership, you may be just the one to step up and help out. What is certain is that sitting idly by, criticizing your local church won’t help the situation at all. Rather, going to church is the solution to this problem.
Church has become a spectator sport
Church is only a spectator sport if all you do is spectate. What if you did something more? There are plenty of things to do at church; that’s not the issue. The issue is a lack of spiritual engagement. But don’t fail to notice that your spiritual engagement is largely in your own hands. All it takes is a willing heart.
Perhaps instead of greeting others with a habitual, “How are you?”, you ask, “What did God do in your life this week?” (Psalm 40:9-10) Instead of just singing the songs with your voice, you praise the Lord with your spirit (John 4:24). Rather than giving out of obligation, you give with a cheerful heart (2 Corinthians 9:7). Instead of just listening to the sermon and maybe learning something, you live it out the following week and beyond (James 1:22). If you go to church intending to leave closer to God and His people than ever before, you may be shocked by how engaging and vibrant the experience becomes.
I would rather meet in homes like they did in the New Testament
Indeed, there’s much more infrastructure in the modern church than there was in the New Testament church. However, what separates a home church from an institutional church isn’t a difference in kind, but scale. Think of any feature of a home church and imagine it with the number of people multiplied by ten or a hundred. Thirty people can fit in a home, but can three hundred? Thirty people can be organized with no paid staff, but can three thousand? Thirty people can maintain sound doctrine with no written orthodoxy, but can three million?
The point is, the New Testament model, when expanded to include billions of people, naturally develops into church institutions much like we have today. The only difference between the church you’re choosing not to attend and a home church is organization and infrastructure. Perhaps those are bad words to you, but any businessman will tell you that they’re what keeps the wheels turning when a lot of people are involved. The government is an institution. The military is an institution. Corporations are institutions. Unions are institutions. Basically everything that wields power in the world is an institution. Why would God’s people not also benefit from structure, stated boundaries, and a hierarchy of authority? Meeting in homes is the New Testament model, and there’s no reason not to do it today (indeed, many small groups in larger churches do). But having a church building, paid staff, and even inter-church organization is both natural and helpful.
I can attend church online
Live-streaming is no substitute for in-person attendance, and you already know this. It’s why a ticket to the Super Bowl is much more expensive than watching it at home. It’s why a concert ticket is more expensive than a CD. It’s why thousands were outraged at Southwest Airlines last Christmas when canceled flights dashed their hopes of joining their families. It’s why you would not have a wedding over Zoom, nor any other significant event.
Let’s get real. There’s an ongoing trend to move all our most meaningful experiences online, and we’re going to pay for it. We already are. COVID is not a good excuse anymore, to the degree that it ever was.
I just can’t stand to sit through a service
Though going to church should be challenging and uplifting, it’s often dull and discouraging. Maybe it angers you to see fellow attendees who brought reproach on God’s name the week prior. Maybe you bear one of the more visible scars of sin, and you don’t feel welcome. Maybe your lack of singing ability makes the musical portion of the service painful. Maybe you’re a trained musician who finds the music mediocre or worse. Maybe the pastor handles the Word poorly, making theological errors in his sermons. Maybe his jokes are cringe-worthy. Maybe you’re in the spiritual fight of your life and you feel the other members are not mature enough to help you. Maybe no one seems to take Christianity seriously. Or maybe it’s all of these every single week. Why should you put up with it?
Many find it difficult to tolerate family gatherings, with their judgement, tension, and arguments. And yet, most people go to them anyway. Why? Because that’s where they belong. If you’re a believer, you belong at church. Church is a family gathering. The only difference is, your spiritual family is of greater importance than your biological family (Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 14:26). People at church are imperfect; that’s why they’re there (Matthew 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32). Ask the Lord to give you patience for others as He gives others patience for you.
I’ve been hurt by the church
Many people experience church hurt. The fact that the church is supposed to be characterized by love and unity makes it hurt even worse. “Nothing cuts deeper than stained glass,” as the saying goes. It may be the case that the offense is so severe that it seems impossible to remain in fellowship with the offender.
In the days of the early church, one couldn’t simply hop in the car and go to the church down the road. Problems had to be fixed, not fled. Thus, there’s not much biblical instruction about leaving a church. There is, however, biblical instruction concerning reconciliation with other believers (see Matthew 18). Many will abandon an entire church or even the Church as a whole without the meanest attempt to follow these instructions. Do not let that be said of you.
I believe there are legitimate reasons to leave a church, but it must be done carefully and prayerfully. In any case, that which absolves you from a given church doesn’t absolve you from the Church at large. You should seek a different group of believers rather than no group at all.
In closing, I say this: You need to go to church, yes. But what’s more, we need you to go to church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” There’s something missing from every church gathering that you skip, and that’s you. God has given you something to offer which the church can’t have without you. The question is, what are you doing with it? Are you like the fearful servant who buried his portion in the sand? Or are you like the good servant, who multiplied his portion for his Master (Matthew 25:14-30)? There’s something going on in the Church that’s so much bigger than anything you could ever do on your own. Go to your local church, participate in its ministry, and you will see firsthand what God is doing in this world.