Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
-Hebrews 10:25-27 (NIV)
By almost every measure, people in America don’t go to church like they used to. Across every demographic group, denomination, and region of the country, church attendance is down, sometimes way down, and it’s long term. Folks aren’t in church on Sundays — or other days of the week — in the same numbers as 30, 40, or 50 years ago. (And there’s some evidence that the actual numbers are less than polls indicate.)
There are reasons for that, of course. For one, increased immigration from countries with smaller percentages of Christians, combined with a declining American birth rate, may mean there are just fewer Christians per capita in the U.S. (A Pew Research study from 2015 suggests that the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians dropped almost 8 percentage points in seven years, while those who call themselves non-Christians rose slightly, and those who say they are unaffiliated with any religion rose more steeply.)
That does not explain, of course, why regular church attendance among those who profess to be Christians seems to be down as well.
Youth activities, especially sports leagues, don’t observe the same general moratorium on Sunday activities that they did when I was a kid. The increased proliferation of travel teams takes up large amounts of weekend time for a lot of families. The fewer families who object due to conflicts with church, the more likely leagues are to schedule more Sunday games.
It’s not just youth activities, either. Concerts in the park, festivals, flea markets, car rallies: there are so many ways to spend a Sunday morning now. Add to that the time crunches that many families feel during the week, with dual wage-earners often working overtime, and it’s no wonder that people find a lot to do on Sunday mornings. Since businesses are more likely to be open on Sunday mornings than they used to be, Sunday can easily become a day to catch up on errands or take care of household projects. Some weeks, it just feels like the perfect time to be with family and decompress.
Then there’s the role of technology; some churches are discovering a decrease in attendance since they began live-streaming their services. (There are also other dangers associated with live-streaming!)
All that does offer some explanation, some context, maybe even some mitigation to the undeniable fact of declining church attendance. At the risk of oversimplification, though, I want to suggest that none of the factors above, nor all of them together, are actually the reason for declining attendance. I want to suggest that the real reason for Christians choosing to be elsewhere on Sundays has to do with the perception of value. In simple terms, if we don’t go to church on Sundays it’s generally because we feel like something else gives us — or our families — a greater return on our investment of time.
That’s why we go hiking or hunting instead. That’s why we let our kids’ sports leagues determine if we make it or not. That’s why we use Sunday as a catch-up day to do the things we can’t seem to find the time for the rest of the week. It’s why we encourage our kids to skip church to do homework. It’s not necessarily that we hate church, or are lazy Christians. It’s that church offers less value to us than some of the alternatives.
Maybe, though, we’re looking at the question of value the wrong way around.
Frankly, the Bible doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince us that we should go to church. In fact, that phrase “go to church” isn’t even used in the Bible, largely because the biblical writers didn’t really think of “church” as a destination at all. There wasn’t a church on the corner unless the church was gathered together on the corner. It’s kind of hard for us to get a handle on, but the early church didn’t think of themselves as an institution or organization, and certainly not as the tenants or owners of a building. They thought of themselves as a collection of people who were together because they had all come to faith in Jesus and were taking seriously the funny notion that because of him they had a life together. They were a community.
I guess that’s why meeting together wasn’t something that anyone had to spend much time insisting on. It was just sort of the nature of the beast. It’s hard to be part of a community if you never see each other. It’s hard to have a life together if you aren’t in each others’ lives.
That’s why the writer of Hebrews says we shouldn’t give up meeting together. We have value to each other.
I don’t think we’re considering that when we decide that being together with the church has less value to us than the other options. Honestly, aren’t we thinking about ourselves? I could get this off my to-do list. I could relax a little. My kid would rather play soccer. Since I have this work trip, I could get a jump on the week.
Look, none of those are bad things. I’m not saying you’re a terrible person or a bad Christian if you’ve ever done that equation and come out with the answer that making a run to the hardware store and then taking your family out to brunch makes more sense at the moment than going to church.
I’m just saying that you’re not including all the variables that you should in that equation.
You’re not thinking about that lonely brother or sister in Christ who loves seeing you and is so blessed and encouraged by your kind words and friendly hugs. You’re not thinking about that sister of yours whose cancer has returned, and who needs to share your strength. You might not be considering that student who’s coming to depend on your wisdom, or that widow who sees in you a hopeful future for the church. You might not have in mind what God could do when that stranger who hasn’t been to church in ages hears your voice singing the songs, or receives communion from your hands, or experiences your heartfelt welcome.
You just can’t predict at all how God might use your presence to help someone “hold unswervingly” to the hope of our faith, or to “spur [someone] on to love and good deeds,” or to encourage someone as we look forward to the coming of Jesus.
Point is, the “value” of meeting together with the church goes far beyond what you or your family might get out of a single Sunday morning. God’s work often happens over the long term, and it isn’t always readily apparent, and so it’s no wonder that sometimes we might think that time spent in other ways might offer more immediate and easy-to-quantify value. But we miss a lot when we think that way. And, more to the point, our brothers and sisters in Christ miss a lot, too.
Yes, churches could do a better job of making this value apparent. (I want to address that next.)
No, I’m not trying to send you into a guilt spiral if you’ve ever prioritized a camping trip over being at church.
I just want you to see that your presence with the church matters. That it has value greater than you might realize, and that it matters a great deal to people you might not even be considering.
See you Sunday.