My latest column at Christian Week:
Dallas Willard, author of books about Christian spiritual formation, writes, “We must flatly say that one of the greatest contemporary barriers to meaningful spiritual formation in Christlikeness is overconfidence in the spiritual efficacy of ‘regular church services,’ of whatever kind they may be. Though they are vital, they are not enough. It is that simple.”
This drives pastors crazy because we know it’s true.
Regular church services are most of what some churches do. Close to half of my week as a pastor is spent preparing for services. Most congregations structure their buildings around space for services. When we say that we’re going to church, we’re really talking about attending a service. If we cut back what we do as a church, the last thing we’d ever cut is our regular church service.
For a long time, many of us thought that the world needed better church services. We produced services with better music, drama, and practical sermons. We built our entire evangelistic strategies around getting people to come to our church services. It hasn’t worked.
We have tried to build better services, but they still haven’t come. In 1946, 67 per cent of Canadians regularly attended a place of worship. Today, that number is 20 per cent.
We are even losing evangelicals. In a 2003 survey, 59 per cent of evangelical Christians agreed with the statement, “I don’t think you need to go to church to be a good Christian.” A British Columbia former pastor defended himself on this blog against charges that he hates church. “I don’t hate the church,” he wrote. “I happen to think it has some inherent problems and is somewhat sociologically irrelevant. The music is horrible and the ministers speak too long, but I love the church. I do not know if I will ever attend church on a Sunday morning on a regular basis again.”
It’s not that church services are unimportant. They are, as Willard says, vital. The problem is that we may rely too much on one main service a week, and not on other practices that are at the heart of what it means to be the church. In the process, we are not attracting unbelievers, and are not having the impact that we could even among those who attend services.
I’m still thrilled when unbelievers attend church, but I’ve stopped making it my goal. “The Come-To-Us stance taken by the attractional church is unbiblical,” write Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come. “It’s not found in the Gospels or the Epistles. Jesus, Paul, the disciples, the early church leaders all had a Go-To-Them mentality.” The church, they argue, should be missional, engaging the community outside the walls of our church building, including those who are never going to join the church.
Some question if we really have to choose between being missional and attractional. There’s surely nothing wrong with being attractive to unbelievers. I’ve come to realize, though, that most people are not staying away from church because of the seating, parking, preaching, or music. We’re not even on their radar. Perhaps our efforts will be better spent on equipping ourselves to be salt and light, living the gospel in our schools, homes, and workplaces, rather than hoping people will come to us.
The attractiveness of Christianity is ultimately not found in a church service. It’s found in a group of people who are living the gospel. Churches can be more than a service. They can be alternate communities that exemplify the Kingdom of God and its values.
Part of the appeal of the early church must have been the way that slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, and men and women overcame social differences and worshiped together. One could only explain this kind of countercultural community of love and forgiveness by the gospel. You can explain good music and preaching lots of other ways, but there’s no way to explain people who are living the gospel apart from the gospel.
Many churches are exploring how to move beyond a once-a-week event, and instead live as an alternate community shaped by the gospel. Thank God for that.