They’re inevitable conversations in the life of a pastor. You round the corner in the grocery store and encounter a church member who hasn’t participated in worship services or other ministries for several months, and he or she feels compelled to tell you why. You encounter the stranger in the waiting room or on the airplane, and the moment you reveal you’re a pastor, he or she rehearses the litany of reasons not to be part of a congregation. Let me be clear–I’m not talking about conversations with people who have physical limitations and yearn for the fellowship they miss in their church families. Instead, these are the stories of people who could be, but for some reason aren’t active in church.
For years, I felt a little awkward in these conversations, afraid that perhaps I had given the other person some reason to feel guilty or defensive. I’d say something innocent and casual like, “We’ll be there when you get back,” or “We’re open every Sunday.” Now, however, I relish these opportunities to share my perspective and compassion. Across the last fifteen years or so, I’ve heard a lot of reasons to stay away from church. You may have heard and attempted to address some of them. You may have offered some of them yourself. Regardless, I invite you to wrestle with them now.
I’ll start with some of the reasons church members (or former church members) often give when they haven’t participated in a while.
10. We can’t be there because we have to . . .
I hear this one very often, especially among families with active children, and they almost always use the word “can’t” and the phrase “have to” in their explanation, often because of some kind of sport or extracurricular activity. We can’t be there because we have to be at a soccer, swim, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, gymnastics, etc. tournament. Let’s tell the truth–when we say “can’t,” don’t we really mean “choose not to,” as in, “We choose not to be there because of the aforementioned athletic event.” Both as a former student athlete and as a father of four, I understand the lure. Nevertheless, we parents communicate value and priority by our actions that speak more loudly than words. At worst, we’re subtly telling our kids that sports are more important than faith–that games are more important than God. At best, we’re telling them that God can wait until the next season, year, or phase of life. This one is big, and it deserves greater attention, so I think I’ll address it more fully in a later blog post.
9. Sunday’s the only day we get to be together as a family.
Obviously, this one’s very similar to number 10, and again, people almost always use the phrase “get to,” as if we’re passive victims of our schedules. A more honest version of this one is, “We’ve chosen to overschedule our lives, and so we choose sleep or time at home over worship on Sunday mornings.” Again, we parents communicate value by the choices we make, and we’re subtly telling our families that all of that busy-ness of the other six days is more important than our families’ lives of worship and devotion on Sunday morning.
What priority can we expect our children to give their lives of faith if we parents communicate to them by our actions that speak more loudly than words that all the other things that occupy our time come first, and worship is for those Sunday mornings that we don’t happen to be busy or resting? On the other hand, what better way is there to spend “quality time” as a family than in a shared life of faith? Besides, wouldn’t we rather spend eternity together as a family than risk another eternal outcome because faith wasn’t one of the most important parts of our family life?
8. My kids just don’t like to go to church.
This comment is often followed by some statement about not wanting to “shove religion down their throats.” Hardly ever, however, do we parents have conversations with each other about whether sending our kids to school or taking them to doctor and dentist appointments is shoving education and healthcare down their throats, despite the fact that our kids don’t particularly like those experiences either. I often wonder where we Christians got the idea that we and our children are supposed to enjoy everything about following Jesus, who–by the way–told us that we should deny ourselves and take up a cross and follow him each day. Self-denial doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught and learned. Here’s an opportunity for us to teach our kids that it’s not about us and our enjoyment. It’s about devotion to the one who loved us enough to die for us.
7. I don’t like the . . .
The end of this sentence varies dramatically, according to a person’s individual preferences–and I use the word “preferences” intentionally, simply because I’m convinced so many of our dislikes are matters of preference rather than principle. For many, it’s the preacher. For many others, it’s the music. For still others, it’s the time or style of the worship service. It can be almost anything, including the sanctuary, the color scheme, the translation of scripture most commonly used, the decision making process of the governing board or council, the parking lot, the denomination’s stance on one issue or another . . . and the list goes on and on.
Nevertheless, if I may be blunt, Jesus never promised that we would like everything about his church. In fact, after he tells Peter that he will build his church upon this rock, Jesus only mentions the church once, and that is to tell us what to do when we don’t get along with each other! Somehow, however, we have gotten the idea that our participation in a community of faith should often or always bring us enjoyment, and we’re disillusioned when it doesn’t.
I have a running joke with some young people in our congregation. When they tell me what they don’t like, they expect me to reply with something like, “I doubt Jesus liked hanging on the cross, but he did it because he loves you.” Regardless of age, one lesson we continually need to learn is that our life together in a community of faith is (or should be) less about our likes and enjoyment than about seeking to love and serve Jesus and others.
Especially with our culture’s emphasis upon the rights of the individual, we tend to wonder what’s in it for us. And to be honest, the church has done little to discourage that perspective. Swept up in the prevailing consumer culture, we’ve marketed ourselves to the public, persuading people to become part of our fellowship because of all we have to offer to them or to their families. Like American Express, we’ve led people to believe “membership has its privileges.” But the church doesn’t exist to please its members. To the contrary, the church exists to engage its members in self-denying service in Jesus’ name, like it or not.
6. I’m not being fed at church.
I do not take this lightly. As pastor, two of my chief responsibilities are preaching and teaching, and like most pastors, I take those responsibilities very seriously. Because Jesus
asks commands us to love God with heart, mind, soul, & strength, it’s crucial that the church engage heart, mind, and soul with its ministries. If people aren’t being offered good spiritual food, the church should explore that very prayerfully.
However, my friend, colleague, and fellow pastor Alan Gray recently gave me a different way of looking at this problem. Who needs to be fed by another? Usually an infant. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.” Maybe part of the problem is that we Christians aren’t growing up. There’s a good chance we’re starving. Imagine eating only one meal per week. We hardly consider that healthy. Similarly, if we’re not nourishing our faith between Sundays or apart from our participation in the life of the church, there’s probably no way we can be adequately fed in one hour doses on Sundays. The significant difference between our being offered food and being fed is the extent to which we’re willing to bear some responsibility for our own nourishment.
5. Something/someone in church really hurt me.
I feel very deep empathy with and sympathy for anyone who feels this way. Because the church is a community of believers built upon love for God and neighbors, it is particularly painful to feel wounded by a congregation or one of its members. It is very difficult to return to that fellowship and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to subject yourself to the memory of pain or of the possibility of additional pain.
As we all know, some people have been deeply wounded by sexual predators who have violated the sacred trust that binds us together in the Body of Christ. I can’t imagine the depth of their pain. In their shoes, I don’t know that I would or even could return. We Christians need to dwell on their pain and let it inspire us to keep the church a sanctuary, a holy haven from the violence of the world around us. Trust is slowly gained and quickly lost. The church should be in the constant business of building and gaining trust by demonstrating love and mercy.
On the other hand, there are many who shun the church because of hurt feelings born of differences of opinion, poor communication, and a million other causes. Though we must take their pain very seriously too, we also need to hear Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 18:21-22 about persistence in forgiveness. Apparently, Jesus never expected us to coexist in his church without occasional friction. Many of us remember singing, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is people!” It’s true that I am the church, you are the church, and we are the church together. We’re human and broken, and we’re going to hurt each other at times. Rather than taking the path of least resistance and walking away from church, Jesus asks us to do the hard work of forgiving and reconciling.
Thus ends the part of this post that we might call preaching to the choir. The preceding are some of the most common reasons “church people” give for staying away from church, but many people have never been committed to or even approached the church at all, and here are some of the reasons they’ve offered me across the years.
4. Church people are such hypocrites.
I usually respond to this one by saying, “Well, we can always use one more, so come join us!” I’m not really joking when I say that. Of course we’re hypocrites. We see splinters in others’ eyes and fail to see the planks in our own. We complain about others’ sins and rationalize our own. We fail to practice what we preach. We need grace. There’s a whole lot of truth in the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
I do, however, understand some of the prevailing frustrations with and critiques of the church. It’s sadly true that we Christians can be most vocal about what we’re against. We can be perceived as people who are “anti-” in a variety of ways. At our very core, however, we Christians are (or should be) a bunch of people trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In pursuit of him, we’re trying to show his love to others by loving and serving our neighbors, and that’s not a bad mission. I dare you to come join us.
3. I watch a TV preacher(-s), and that’s my church.
This reason for staying away rests on the assumption that the church’s primary (or only) mission is to provide uplifting preaching. But the church strives to be–and is–so much more than a weekly sermon. The word translated as church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which means “the assembly,” or “the gathering.” Church necessarily includes involvement in a community.
Here’s another way in which the society’s emphasis upon the individual affects the individual’s view of faith. Our culture really seems to believe that faith is a matter between an individual and God, private from and exclusive of any involvement with other people. However, that’s a completely foreign notion in the Bible with its emphasis upon community, covenant, kingdom, and church.
Let me be clear–I’m so glad that churches and preachers broadcast their services and sermons. We need that little oasis of holiness in the midst of more typical secular programming on television. These broadcasts are very meaningful in many Christians’ devotional lives–especially, it seems, for older adults who are less mobile than they once were. But no television broadcast can replace participation in the ekklesia, the community of believers. The church is people.
2. I can be just as close to God . . .
There are probably thousands of ways to end this sentence. You’ve probably heard several of them. I can be just as close to God in the mountains, on the farm, at the lake, on the golf course, on my porch, in the garden, at the beach . . . and the list goes on and on. I’ll grant you this one. You probably can be just as close to God at other places and in other settings as you can in a sanctuary among other people. But you can’t participate in the body of Christ on your own.
Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” That can only be done in community! Again though, our culture emphasizes the individual, and we tend to think of our faith as a private matter between ourselves and God, but God created us to live in community. Jesus didn’t call disciples to follow him individually. He called them to follow him collectively.
1. I’m not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person.
This claim is as old as the church. Literally. Influenced by Greek philosophers of earlier centuries, some first century Christians tried to distinguish between the ideal and the actual. Schools of thought like Docetism rejected the idea that Jesus actually suffered death, because they believed to admit Jesus’ incarnation was to admit his flaws. For them, the spiritual was ideal, and the physical was necessarily flawed. Similarly, I often encounter people who claim to be spiritual rather than religious because they seem to think that religion is almost necessarily corrupt, while spiritual enlightenment is more perfect and sublime.
I think they’re on to something, but I think they’re missing something. The church is flawed, but it’s the Body of Christ in the world. The church really should be less about religious doctrine and more about spirit-filled movement, but it’s the instrument Jesus chose to share his love and grace with the world. By standing apart from the church, a spiritual person may position himself or herself above the church’s corruption, but at the same time, he/she also chooses to stand beyond its grace, fellowship, and maybe most importantly, accountability.
Your spiritual sensitivity is a gift from God. Jesus says so in John’s gospel–“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” But Paul points out in several of his letters that your spiritual gift is for the sake of the Body of Christ in the world. Rather than standing apart from the church because of its flaws, come refine the church by sharing your God-given gifts and strengths. You might find a surprising sense of fulfillment as you take your place within this Body of Christ animated by God’s Holy Spirit.
1b. I don’t believe in God.
Well, God believes in you, and the church exists for you. Our love, our prayers, and everything we do is for you. At least it should be.