The author is Carey Nieuwhof. You can find out more about him here. He is a church leader, a blogger, a podcaster, and a high impact sort of guy. He is part of the greater evangelical/non-denominational movement. Read what he says. . .
The trend is practically universal: fewer people are attending church every year.
You might have even asked the question yourself. Why bother?
There are many reasons why that’s happening (I outline 10 here), but I think it’s increasingly evident that it no longer makes sense to attend church.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the church. But I get why more and more people have simply stopped attending. Let me explain.
In the fall of 2015, I transitioned out of the lead pastor role at our church and into a Founding and Teaching Pastor role (Here’s a piece on why and how I did it). I still carry about 30 Sundays a year of teaching and work on some senior level projects, but that leaves me much freer than I’ve ever been on a Sunday morning. Sure, sometimes I host the service or have other roles, but more often than I’ve ever experienced before, I’m free on a Sunday. Which means I’m often an attender. So I feel what the culture is feeling more than ever before.
And on those Sundays when I have no official role, I’m plagued with the question “Why go to church?” After all, our church streams our services live online. I could literally watch live on any device I own anywhere. Plus we share the services on demand, so I could watch or listen any time during the week via our website or catch the message for free via podcast. If your church doesn’t have an online experience, no worries, about a million others do. You can access almost any church you want, anywhere, anytime. Free.
Which brings us back to the question: Why attend church?
Increasingly, I’m convinced there’s no point to merely attending. You drive all the way in to connect with three or four songs, hear the message and then head home. All of that you could almost do by yourself in a much more convenient way. Slip on Spotify and grab the message via podcast or on demand and boom, you’re covered.There is one other thing about him. He is right. Why go to church if all there is can be found accessible on the internet and watched in the privacy of your own home or listened to while driving to something more fun than church. Why bother? That is the question facing all those churches whose worship echoes the entertainment style of the day, whose message is a mirror of a positive gospel of self-discovery found almost anywhere, whose ethic gives cover to the sexual attraction du jour, and whose sacrament is technology itself. Why go to church?
A neighbor church had a satellite service that featured live music but a digital message (pastor on a screen). Eventually the people stopped coming because the live music was not enough to justify attending since the screen was the same as the one at home -- only bigger.
Lutherans tend to be rather envious of other churches and we seem to be self-deprecating to the point where we would exchange our identity for the identity of any other church if it appeared they might be more successful than we are. I am not certain why that is -- perhaps it is a weakness of seeming to be a via media between Rome and Zurich. I don't know. But the end result is that we tend to sacrifice the very things that make going to church necessary for the things that make many question why bother. In the face of a pop-Gospel style Christianity, we de-emphasize the sacramental presence of Christ in the Supper, the vocation born of baptismal gift which makes us the children of God, and the liturgical pattern of a life lived not as a loner before God but a people set apart by Him to live together the life of worship which is their purpose.
Apart from the God who comes to us in His flesh and blood in the Sacrament and the identity we have as the baptized people of God set apart together to live our life of worship, witness, prayer, and service -- why bother? It is this sacramental reality of the Word that is His voice and the Supper where He is host and food that is the reason why we gather. He beckons us not with the promise of feelings or reward but with His presence. Without this, all that is left to compel us to gather together in church is personal preference or desire -- neither of which is all that compelling in a world filled with other choices.
If Lutherans want folks to come to church, the answer lies not in marketing but in the means of grace. These bid us and in them we meet Christ. Apart from them, why would anyone go to church? We need to keep the focus on Christ, on the means of grace which deliver Christ to us. Then we will have a reason why folks should sacrifice comfort and choices and assemble on the Lord's Day, in the Lord's House...
This is why outreach in the form of casual, laid-back so-called worship services is a disservice to the unchurched and unbelieving. If we as Lutherans subscribe wholeheartedly to our confessions and liturgical legacy, doctrine and practice, at what point do we share them with the unsuspecting “lounge lizard” checking out this God/Christianity thing going on in the movie theatre or the local bar and grill? We lure them in with the promise that, “Hey, church isn’t so different from what you’re used to. Besides, we cut to the chase and give you the bottom line, that being Jesus.” At what point do we tell the spiritual seeker about the means of grace, word and sacrament, the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation? Is there ever a catechetical graduation from the church plant locus to the high church realm? Inertia is not so easily overcome. Seekers by nature are careful and critical, watching everything the church leader does not wanting to be misled, measuring everything with their reason and therefore ready to bail when their intelligence is insulted. Beyond that, as Pastor Peters’ post queries, why would anyone travel to gather in a casual setting to hear marginal rock music on a Sunday morning maybe repeating what they did the night before? Music and a message? Why indeed? Hoping to meet someone to date? Looking for people who are more ethical or moral than average? Music and a message? Those two alone have no staying power. Only when people believe they’re meeting God in a theophany, Christ’s body and blood, do they hunger and thirst for the righteousness they afford. Music and a message? Do either inspire itinerant seekers or the curious to tithe or give alms? Why does the church require so little of unbelievers and give them the full counsel of God? Do church plant pastors confront them with their sin and preach the Law enough to make them understand they’re in danger or are they too busy answering anonymous text messages sent during the worship “service?” Contemporary, culture tainted, experience driven, so-called worship services may attract a few wanderers but without the gifts of God through the means of grace to sustain them, they will soon drop off and fall away, preferring the fellowship of the interweb to that of real live people worshiping in spirit and in truth.
For what passes as worship in many churches on a Sunday morning, there is absolutely no point in attending. An hour of quiet prayer and reflection alone would be of greater value to many than what is happening in church.
What cannot be conveyed other than in church is Holy Communion (unless someone brings it to a homebound individual). Neither can the sense of community, of mutual support, of being loved as one of the many who are chosen, none of these can happen a home on your I-phone.
"Seekers by nature are careful and critical, watching everything the church leader does not wanting to be misled, measuring everything with their reason and therefore ready to bail when their intelligence is insulted."
People hurt by the megachurch experience: They are wounded by other members of their small groups; they are upset after finally realizing that the pastors really are "making things up," for shock value and to reveal "special insight" that the early church fathers allegedly did not have; or they burn out from hearing shallow, law-pounding "how to" sermons every week. Those factors would make anyone bitter. They would conclude that pastors are all frauds.
"Hoping to meet someone to date?"
Well....for many people, yes. Young people tend to shy away from joining small congregations. Big ones tend to have more eligible single people. The success rate from pursuing such a strategy is another story.....
"Do church plant pastors confront them with their sin and preach the Law enough to make them understand they’re in danger or are they too busy answering anonymous text messages sent during the worship “service?” "
My former LCMS church planting pastor once told me: "Hynmals are for old people." The language in the hymnal is too 18th century archaic, and who wants to sing along to a paper book that feels like a dictionary?
A sister-in-law once told me that she does not need church if she has a bible at home to read. The problem with that method is that it is too easy to be distracted by other things (the dog, the kids, the dishes, surfing the internet). I seriously doubt she reads her bible on a regular schedule.
I too am guilty of relying more on Lutheran podcasts for my theology than on the Sunday service. The Sunday service is only one hour a week. I listen to at least three hours of Lutheran podcasts every week. However, in addition to the call for repentance at holy communion, the traditional divine service (Gottesdienst) provides the kind of structure that I cannot make for myself at home.
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