There was a time when going to church is what respectable people did. Two generations ago, every self-respecting citizen went to church, regardless of their desire to be there or not. When I was in middle school our family became acquaintances with someone at church. My parents ended up doing business with him only to learn later that he was far from ethical in his business dealings. Church, it turned out, was just a handy place for him to expand his business.
Long gone are the days of expected church attendance. And good riddance to them. I have no desire to have our society return to “the good old days” of church attendance insofar as that is merely moral behavior. What I long for are people to yearn for an encounter with a holy and loving God and to experience the warmth of God’s family.
A recent survey asked people why they do and don’t attend church. Those who attend cited reasons such as “to get closer to God,” “because I find the sermons valuable,” and “to be part of a faith community” as some of their answers. Those who don’t attend listed these as their top reasons for not attending:
1. I practice my faith in other ways
2. I am not a believer
3. I haven’t found a church I like
4. I don’t like the sermons
5. I don’t feel welcome
That’s a helpful glimpse into the heart of the non-church attender. You might notice that four of the five reasons don’t have anything to do with their beliefs. That means that the most significant objection you might fear from your neighbor (disagreeing with your faith) is unlikely to be the main reason they aren’t attending.
If we consider that in a town like Tucson somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% of residents very rarely, if ever attend church, each of these reasons represents a huge number of people. An argumentative approach is certainly not the way to go. Instead, lovingly addressing each of these concerns is far more effective.
So let’s address these reasons:
1) I practice my faith in other ways. Sharing with this person the benefits and blessings you have experienced from church is a wonderful way to gently push back on this belief. You can share what you’ve learned through sermons or how you have been challenged. You can share how blessed you are in worshiping alongside others. You can share how the family of God has come alongside you in times of need. You can also, more boldly, but just as lovingly, suggest that the Bible doesn’t have a category for Christianity without meaningful connection to other believers. Our witness is predicated on our unity (John 15), our spiritual gifts are given for the benefit of other Christians (1 Corinthians 12), and we are directly told not to forsake gathering together (Hebrews 12). While individual expressions of faith are important and purposeful, they are not the entirety of the Christian experience.
2) I am not a believer. While the main purpose of the gathered body is for the encouragement and upbuilding of believers, the church always welcomes unbelievers. In fact, it’s a great way to test out what someone has heard about Christianity. Some sects and cults don’t allow unbelievers in their worship. That is not so with Christianity. There are no secrets behind the veil. And doesn’t such a significant decision—what one chooses to believe about who God is and what we were made for—merit meaningful time, energy, and inquiry?
3) I haven’t found a church I like. The best way to find a church that is a good fit is to go with a friend. And you never know what you might end up liking if you give it a shot. What wound out being some of my favorite TV shows, I almost didn’t make it to the second or third episode. If your friend doesn’t like your church, maybe you know another church they might like, or maybe your pastor can suggest a church that might better fit their preferences. Ultimately, of course, our commitment to the church shouldn’t be predicated on our preferences, but rather our commitment to Christ and his people.
4) I don’t like the sermons. Why doesn’t your friend like the sermons? Because of a disagreement? Because they are boring? Because they are too elementary? Because they aren’t grounded in the Bible? Each of these reasons has a different response. If the sermons aren’t grounded in the authority of the Bible, then it is a good idea to consider a different church. If you disagree with the pastor, perhaps you can walk through those disagreements, or even encourage your friend to sit down with the pastor and walk through disagreements? If the sermons are boring or too elementary, perhaps digging into the Bible during the sermon you yield even deeper insight as the pastor preaches. Or perhaps there is a loss of thirst for spiritual things. Pray earnestly for a true spiritual thirst.
5) I don’t feel welcome. This is an easy one! There is no better way for someone to feel welcome than you driving with them to church, walking through the doors with them, and sitting next to them. In fact, it’s hard to imagine them not feeling welcome in that scenario!
Every church is flawed. I wish our church perfectly welcomed everyone who walked through our doors; I wish my sermons never left a single person bored, frustrated, or turned off, and I wish that we were able to play music that meaningfully connected with every person. I long for us to continue to grow to be the church God has called us to be. And we won’t ever stop challenging ourselves to have the next Sunday be even better than the last Sunday.
But I still believe in the church! Every gathering of God’s people is a place where God brings his transformative power, where God spills his love out over his people, and where he calls unbelievers to himself. Don’t stop believing in God’s church. And don’t miss out on your opportunity to invite the many who are disconnected from God’s family to come and see what God is doing.