Christians without a church or church without a steeple?

Unity Temple in Oak Park, Chicago, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

A recent Christian Century article asks the question as to whether someone can be saved without having to go to church.  Although the answer to this seems obvious–a person can be saved anywhere, lest the Gideons be out of business–this question is actually more compelling than it might seem at first.

Christians talk about the the “unchurched,” but what do we do about “unchurched” Christians?

The truth is that Christians are not flocking to church in droves.  Church, it seems, is more of a social commodity than a requirement (much less prerequisite) for the faith.  Since many churches are closing because of the bad economy, people are finding all the more reason to get that extra rest come Sunday morning.

This movement away from church is nothing new.  The half-way covenant of the seventeenth century saw a decline in church attendance to roughly half of the population in early colonial America.  George Barna wrote about the unchurched in his book, Revolution, nearly a half a decade ago.  Pew Research shows that over 60 percent of young adults leave the church never to return.  Gender plays a part: Males only make up about 39 percent of churchgoers.

The exodus from church proves to be a bane and blessing.  Eddie Hammett, writing for the Columbia Partnership, states that Christians who are not present at church are likely to be on mission outside the walls of the church, engaging in divine appointments in a variety of places and communities.

Others like Hammett contend that Christians without a steeple are not too lazy to go to church; rather, they represent the church wherever they go.  They bring the gospel to the “ends of the world” and model their ministry after the itinerant lifestyle Jesus advocated in the gospels.

Yet, others see the lack of church attendance as a perilous, downward spiral.  Christians who don’t attend church, the assumption goes, tend to be more isolated and self-centered.  It is the church, not the world, that teaches sacrifice and discipline, obedience and community.

Nothing in the world can replace the community of believers that meet on the Sabbath for sacraments, worship, and proclamation.  Even Jesus went to Synagogue once a week.

Most institutional churches don’t necessarily need to advocate one view or another; the goal is to spread the gospel and bring people to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  That means filling a pew so that a person can hear the word in the first place.  Churches have, therefore, become inevitable organizations that seek to perpetuate the institution, to market the need for community.

And it’s at that point that churches make some drastic decisions to try and bring folks back into its fold: Some incorporate a praise band to lead worship, while others rely on expository preaching (done best with a stool and open-collared shirt).  Churches boast coffee bars or an en vogue, color-coordinated “auditorium” (no sanctuary, thank you very much).  Many go for the Broadway-play-worthy lighting.

Perhaps it will help, however, if we started to see church not as the destination, but as a resource for the journey.   On the one hand, our goal is not to get people to church, but to be the church for people so that they meet Christ.  On the other hand, going to church is a necessary aspect of faith, no matter how peculiar, because we get to celebrate together what God is doing in our Monday-through-Saturday or (for our new Seventh-Day Adventist friends meeting in Trinity’s chapel) our Sunday-through-Friday life.

Church is like a party–it marks a special moment; in this case, the start of a new week in which we anticipate that God will move in our life because He moved in our life in incredible ways the week before.  Sharing that is certainly worth the time it takes to go to church!

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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