I was born on a Sunday morning at 8:30, just in time for Sunday School. I’ve rarely missed since.
I love the Church; I even love going to church. I know it’s a professional requirement, but I loved going before I had to go. I love the people, the hymns and songs, and the confessions; I love the sermons, the rhythm of the liturgy, the cadence of the church year moving from Advent to Pentecost; heck, I even love the announcements. Alas, my passion is a shrinking commodity in the US, even among Christians.
A recent article in Mother Jones drew attention to the findings from the Pew Research group that indicate a significant rise in the number of people identifying themselves as ‘Unaffiliated’ with a religion. That also means a decline in people aligning with the Christian Faith or regularly attending worship on Sundays, and that’s especially the case among Millennials.
According to a new study published by the Pew Research Center today, the largest shift in religious demographics over the past seven years is in the number of Americans who don’t affiliate with any religion at all. The study, which started in 2007 and surveyed more than 35,000 people, saw this group jump from 16.1 to 22.8 percentage points—with young, college-educated Americans being the most religiously unaffiliated: While many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time. As a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaches adulthood, the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) populations’ median age of 46.4 By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the new survey is 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).
The findings had some disappointing news for Christians. While the number of people who identify with the religion has been waning for decades, the drop in the Christian population has been the sharpest of all in recent years with fewer Americans than ever before identifying themselves as Christians.
It’s easy enough to understand why those who reject the Christian Faith don’t affiliate with a Christian congregation or attend worship on a regular basis. What is a bit more surprising is how many people who do call themselves Christians also opt out of affiliation with a church and don’t see any value in such membership or regular participation in the gathered worship of that community.
There are many reasons for people leaving church communities, but a few do stand out, and I hasten to add that there are toxic churches people should leave – and I also understand why many conclude that the church is not a safe place for their souls. There are valid reasons and certain internal seasons that require people to withdraw for the sake of their well-being and discover new paths of following Jesus. These, however, by their very nature are not normative and are designed by God’s providence to lead us back to a healthy community of the Faith.
So why do people give up? There are probably as many reasons as there are people heading for the exits, but let me note a few:
Some people hang it up because they experience a rigidity that won’t allow them to ask the questions that come to their mind. They are ignored or offered half-baked, canned responses to earnestly asked thoughtful questions.
Some people hang it up because of the moral failings of the leaders, whether in sexual ethics, the abuse of power, the misuse of finances, or simply a lack of empathy exuding from the omnicompetent infallible celebrity messenger at the front.
Some people hang it up because they see through the shortcut version of community that builds identity through identifying and condemning who you’re not. They’re sick of religious shaming.
I understand and sympathize – no empathize – with each of these concerns. Moving on from a particular church situation is not, however, the same thing as leaving the Church altogether. Yet this is what many are advocating.
In her book How to be a Christian Without Going to Church: the Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community, Kelly Bean writes, “Here I am on a bright Sunday morning, curled up on my cushy orange chair, sipping tea, and loving Jesus. Its been quite some time since Sunday mornings meant getting the family spruced up for a church service… I am one of them, the non-goers …the great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ … Is anyone up for a pickle-making party or a living room song-writing session? Jesus will be there. If you want to start a church, just have a party in your house and see who shows up.”
More recently, popular Christian author and marketer Donald Miller wrote on his blog, “While I love the traditional church, I love it like a foundational part of my past, as though it were a University I’ve graduated from to join a much larger church those still in the University program are quite suspicious of.”
Both Miller and Bean give expression to a certain disdain for the historic Church, for the Church of the centuries, rejecting it as an outdated appendage, a dinosaur that belongs to a lost age. It is at best – in Miller’s case – a kind of University in which he learns the basics but then moves beyond it, something like a Saturn rocket jettisoning it’s spent first stage that lifted it into space. That view is, to be frank, arrogant in the extreme. Bean has the lowest possible form of ecclesiology: a kind of ‘me and my friends’ with no organization, no leadership, everyone for herself, no next generation concerns, no past generation continuity – and no idea that anything they do that vaguely resembles a Christian gathering for worship means that they’re living off the capital accumulated by their ancestors in the Faith. I can’t help wondering if they know they wouldn’t even have a Bible to open and read were it not for the Church they’ve decided they don’t need.
This isn’t a phenomenon outside of Bible-belt Christianity. Barna Research Editor in Chief Roxane Stone makes the following observation as she analyzes the data concerning the departure of the faithful from church communities: “Particularly if you live in a more churched area of the country, it’s more than likely you have a significant number of these disaffected Christians in your neighborhoods. They still love Jesus, still believe in Scripture and most of the tenets of their Christian faith. But they have lost faith in the church. While many people in this group may be suffering from church wounds, we also know from past research that Christians who do not attend church say it’s primarily not out of wounding, but because they can find God elsewhere or that church is not personally relevant to them. The critical message that churches need to offer this group is a reason for churches to exist at all. What is it that the church can offer their faith that they can’t get on their own? Churches need to be able to say to these people—and to answer for themselves—that there is a unique way you can find God only in church. And that faith does not survive or thrive in solitude.”
And yet the Psalmist sang,
“I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the House of the Lord”
– Psalm 122
So let me ask, ‘Is worship on a Sunday in a congregation really all that necessary for people to grow in faith?’ While many people don’t think so, I nevertheless contend that those public services are actually the primary means of our spiritual formation and we need to embrace them with great expectation and joy.
I know many people dismiss as unimportant any regular attendance to a sacred gathering of God’s people for worship. Frankly, it’s a challenge these days to assert that such a gathering is the primary means of spiritual formation that God has given to us. In fact, even among those who would still support regular attendance to worship there is a tendency to subordinate it to small groups, Sunday School classes, or private prayer and reading when it comes to the way by which one grows in Christian Faith and conformity to Christ’s image.
Well, I am certainly all for small groups of many kinds and personal devotions as well, but there’s no getting around the fact that God ordained gathered worship as the first avenue for our growth in grace.
Does discipleship really begin with public worship? Yes, it really does. Even our baptisms are acts of public worship rather than moments of private spirituality. We can’t baptize ourselves! Communion is a shared meal as well. If you look at it, God has created community as the norm for being fully human from the very beginning. It is in the context of the community that the Scriptures were authored, heard, and affirmed. This is hardly surprising since God made us in his image and the Triune God is himself a ‘sweet society’, as the Puritans used to say.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
The Sunday School movement started in Britain in the 1780s, and these were actual schools, teaching impoverished children rudimentary education. It developed into a form of Christian discipleship during the 1800s. The small group movement is a relative newcomer as well, a focus of late 20th century emphases on church growth. What was the church doing for spiritual formation before 1800?
A look at the architecture tells the story. While the vast majority of modern Christian congregations wouldn’t build a church without a fellowship hall or education space, old church buildings had neither. The church building was for gathered worship, precisely because that’s what the church did. It gathered for worship and then moved into the world and society to conduct its mission.
Now again, I’m all for fellowship halls, education wings, kitchens, and youth ministry centers – the tools we use in our mission have changed along with the changes in our cultural context. I’m simply pointing out that for almost 2000 years the way the Church approached discipleship/spiritual formation was through the ordinary means of grace – prayer, sacraments, and Scripture read and preached – served in the Lord’s Day gathered worship of the congregation.
We also need to remember that for the vast span of Christian history most Christians never owned a Bible. Like our ancient ancestors in the Synagogues of Israel, our access to the Scriptures was in worship, hearing them read to us. There’s also remarkably little ‘private prayer’ in the New Testament; almost all of it is in a community of people, lifting their petitions together with one heart and voice. The same is true of Psalm singing, and confessing the Faith. Again, all for owning – and reading! – your own copy of the Bible… what a gift! But again, are we more spiritual today than people were 600 years ago because we print and own so many Bibles? Do you think we are more spiritual today? Ahem.
We also need to remember that the ancient Christians took Sundays a lot more seriously than we sometimes do today. They saw it as the first day of the week (not the weekend), the Day the Lord Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, the day of new creation, and consequently set it apart for gathering together for worship.
An Ancient Voice
We can’t forget Justin Martyr’s remarkable description of ancient Christian worship, written around 150 AD:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Sunday worship was both unique and full!
– There was the gathering, itself a sacred act, for in gathering together with others you are of necessity breaking away from every other claim on your life, whether work or play. In gathering with others, you are renewing your baptism by acknowledging that you have been consecrated to God, that you’re grafted into Christ and his people.
– There was the reading of the Apostles and Prophets, accompanied by the instruction from those passages. Remember this is how God’s people encountered the Scripture – not in personal isolation but in sacred community, and ready for instruction rather than just trying to figure out what it meant on their own.
– There was communal prayer with a congregational ‘Amen!’, followed by the sacred meal of Thanksgiving. The Greek word for ‘Thanksgiving’ is eucharistos, and that’s why this meal is sometimes referred to as the Eucharist.
– There was a community offering in which those who had prospered shared their material goods in such a way that the needs of others were met through this act of radical generosity.
Public Faith and Private Spirituality
Christian faith is a very public faith. Christian worship is as well. One is never a Christian ‘privately’, nor is worship something that is merely private, even if it is certainly personal.
When he was converted, CS Lewis thought that private worship was an adequate expression of his new faith. He discovered how wrong he was as he found his life transformed, not by astonishing private visions or study, but by very modest, plain, simple, Sunday worship in his parish church.
Lewis wrote, “My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag; and, of course, I found that this meant being a target… If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”
Lewis didn’t think much of the songs in public worship, and many people still feel the same way. Some don’t like traditional hymns and still others can’t abide new styles of songs. I’m all for chanting Psalms myself, but personal preference isn’t our guide to choices in church music.
Worship is far more than a song of course, though it certainly includes it. Justin Martyr doesn’t mention singing, but we do know from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians that singing ‘Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ was part of the gathered worship because it would lead to God’s word richly dwelling in his people’s hearts.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. – Colossians 3:16
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father… – Ephesians 5:18-20
It’s often true that we learn our theology first from the songs we sing. I know that was true for me growing up: I learned the hymns, like ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, and service music, like Psalm 51(“Create in me a clean heart O God…”) long before I could even remember a sermon. That’s why the doctrinal content of what we sing is so crucial!
Keeping the Feasts Together
Ancient Israel had worship that was deeply personal, familial, and national, the language of the Psalms reflecting each. There were Psalms of deep personal distress, songs of war and celebration in the great congregation, and Psalms for the family. All three – personal, family, and congregational – need to be cherished in our hearts as well, and given their rightful place. Personal worship is vital, but it isn’t the same kind of worship as public, gathered worship; family worship is a beautiful grace too, but sacraments are given to the Church, not the family: dad and mom don’t have the authority to excommunicate the kids!
Israel followed a pattern of God’s redeeming acts through the year in their sacred assembly, and so do we. Israel celebrated three great Feasts (hey, don’t forget it’s a FEAST!): Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. These great festivals kept before Israel’s mind the amazing acts of God that saved them and secured them. That happens with us each week when we come to the Lord’s Table, and through the year when we come to Advent, Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. In each of these great seasons – these Feasts! – we see again the great acts of God to save and secure us. You might celebrate Easter and Christmas at home, though you’re probably at church as well; but I’m sure you don’t do Advent, Ascension, and Pentecost on your own. This pattern of celebration shapes us in the life of Christ and the narrative of our redemption.
Reclaiming Our Worship
Our spiritual ancestors wrote ‘The Westminster Directory for Public Worship of God’, a remarkable guide for what they hoped would be included in beautiful, God-pleasing, church-edifying worship services. We find in it instructions on the right attitude to have as we approach worship, the content of our prayers, the way sermons should be delivered – and heard! – and the way baptism and communion should be administered. While this document isn’t binding on our churches it is certainly a document with great wisdom and lessons to teach us, and it deserves our study.
Great attention was paid to these things for the reason that the way we worship leads us into our view of God and his relationship with us. The old Latin proverb is Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi – ‘the Law of our Praying is the Law of our Believing’. In short, shoddy worship leads to a shoddy faith; an immature and lazy worship leads to an immature and lazy faith; robust, Biblical, and serious worship leads to a really deep and abiding faith.
We can and must reclaim every aspect of our gathered worship, deepening it, broadening it, and giving serious attention to it, knowing that the way we worship is going to form our lives. What a gift! I hope to see you in worship next Sunday.
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