It’s a really weird time to be vocationally in ministry right now. Most churches in America have radically changed in the last two years, and it’s really unclear how much our present experience should determine our expectations for the future. Nearly everyone in church leadership is wrestling with questions that have no clear answers as they try to chart a course into this new territory.
One of the major questions I’ve heard many leaders wrestling with is: will people come back? It’s a strange thing to have a pandemic chop your church in half and then find yourself wondering if the people you thought were a committed part of your church family are ever going to come back.
As I’ve interacted with different congregants and leaders, there are people all over the board with the present situation. There are plenty of people who have health concerns and need to continue to be quite careful during this COVID season. There are also plenty of people who have experienced vocational, or even geographic changes and are now prohibited from participating in church families the way they used to (a degree of that type of situation is a constant for any church family). All these are reasonable and expected challenges, but they aren’t the one that keeps church leaders up at night.
The situation leaders are wrestling with are those who have gotten used to sleeping in and watching church in their pajamas on Sunday mornings (or whenever they choose to watch). People who have disengaged from church because they’ve found it fits their life better to just not participate. Those are the ones that sting.
On the pastoral leadership side, having a conversation with someone who is taking that posture can feel like an invalidation of our whole profession. We spend an intense amount of time, energy, and emotion trying to create an environment in which people can meaningfully connect with God and one another. To have people treat what feels like a calling from God so indifferently is hard for anyone to stomach.
Because that invalidation feels painful it is easy to try and jump into action and fix the situation: what do we need to do to make church more appealing? How can we get those disengaged people to come back? I can’t tell you how many pastors I’ve talked with who express some version of that sentiment, and I understand why.
At the same time, I’ve often found that those areas where insecurity rises to the surface and threatens to drive us are the most important ones for our own growth. These are moments that are better teachers than most moments if we’ll press through the pain and listen. In this particular instance, I think that’s true on a personal growth level, but it’s also true on a theological level too. Push your insecurities aside and here is the reality, and in my opinion, it is a troubling one: apparently a high fraction of self-identified Christians in the US don’t have a theologically rooted answer to the question, “Why should I go to Church?”
Why Should People go to Church?
Let’s sit with that a minute…why should people go to Church? Suppose someone asked you that question, what would your answer be? I’ve noticed a few different common answers that fall into different categories.
The “Do the Right thing” Answer
The first kind of answer takes a kind of religious approach: going to church is the right thing to do. We should go to church because that’s the way God wants us to spend our Sunday mornings (or whenever we attend). There may be a degree of truth in this but it’s not going to be a very effective approach to take with people at all; the “do the right thing” angle of motivation isn’t in step with our culture’s value at all at this point. Worse than that, it may very well reinforce the typical Christian stereotype of being self-righteous and imputing our value system on everyone around us as if it is self-evidently superior.
The Economic Answer
Another common route to take is the angle that going to church is the best thing you can do for your life. Appeal to self-interest and suggest that church attendance is the best thing for them.
This angle also suffers from the threat of a tone of superiority. When we answer that way, we imply that we know the self-interest of the person sitting across from us better than they do themselves. While there are moments where indeed the Lord (or wisdom) may show us something that has been hidden from the other, I tend to think that most people are pretty good at acting in their own self-interest. (In fact, my experience is that a person who often instructs others in this type of manner can be projecting their own anxieties onto others and attempting to solve them externally.)
Perhaps the uncomfortable reality check here is this: maybe our church experiences aren’t as life-giving for others as we think they are. If they really were that great, we wouldn’t need to convince the other how great it is. If something is great and good for someone, they know it and they rarely need help seeing that.
But in all honesty, my thought about all of this is this: shouldn’t we have something better than resorting to the economics of self-interest when it comes to church? Shouldn’t we have a theological underpinning to why participation in church matters? Surely something as central to our faith as church should have a theological answer? That brings us to the last argument, the one we’ve lost in the last decades.
The Christian Teaching Answer
As recently as thirty years ago, there was a totally different angle that we could take to this question. We could appeal to the scarcity of Christian teaching: where else could people learn about God and grow as a believer than at church? For hundreds and hundreds of years, this type of approach was a pretty open-and-shut argument. In fact, until Christian publishing became an industry (which really began to rise to prominence after World War II), there was almost no other way to get Christian teaching at all. A handful of radio programs existed, but outside those, if you wanted to learn about God, you could only do that at a church.
My goodness, how times have changed! First, the proliferation of Christian books and magazines, followed by teaching tapes and CDs. Not too long after that the web births a world of video streamed sermons, podcasts, blogs, and more. Anyone who is interested in Christian learning has gone from being forced to engage with a church to an endless supply at their fingertips with the blink of a google search.
What’s fascinating to me about this moment is that this shift is really what makes this moment unique in the landscape of the church. There have been pandemics before, and churches had to wrestle with closings and so forth in those times as well. None of that is new: what is new is that in those periods people couldn’t turn to a flood of other resources and plug their spiritual walk into other things instead of a church. We are living in the first global disruption of church where a scarcity of Christian teaching isn’t going to force people who want to learn about God back to church.
What are we to make of this? Has the internet destroyed the church? I don’t believe so, but I do think it is putting its “finger” on a weakness in the way Protestants understand and talk about the church. I believe there is a great theological answer to the question of why people should go to church, but it’s one we tend to be blind to. To see why we have to turn to some history.
What is Church About?
One of the more important events that happened in the church is the Protestant Reformation, in which a group of people called “The Reformers” led a new church movement that left the Catholic Church and eventually split into thousands of different Protestant denominations. The Reformers believed that the Catholic Church had lost her way, and only by going back to the authority of the Scripture could the authentic faith be rediscovered. It is a period of time characterized by fierce stands, bloody battles, and chaotic change.
One of the things the Reformers pushed back on was the Catholic Church’s emphasis on church as an institution. Martin Luther, for example, resisted the idea that the Church had any special grace to mediate to believers (typically focused on the mass), and argued that all grace was resident in God himself and mediated to believers directly by Jesus, not by priests and church offices. At the time, there were a lot of squirrely things happening as a result of this idea of a top-down source of God’s grace, and the Reformers rightly resisted these abuses.
In this, the reformers recast the church in a distinct way: church as a specific group of individuals. Individuals are what have a relationship with God and individuals are what are redeemed and saved. Because God values us personally, the church is viewed as a collection of persons: those who are following Jesus. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “the church isn’t a building, it’s a people”, you’ve heard this sentiment.
Follow this thread through and you can see why our understanding of the benefits of church has played out the way it has. If faith is about individuals meeting God, then church exists to help individuals on their journey with God. It should function as a source of discipleship: teaching, training, and the like.
This all plays through perfectly in a situation where faith resources are scarce. You can only get them at church, so church experiences serve a vital function for the people of God. Everything fits together cleanly…until the internet undermines the scarcity of faith resources. Part of us wants to celebrate it: surely more faith resources is a good thing, right? Well, it is, but it also reveals our practice of church has been driven more by functional need (scarcity) than a solid theological grounding.
A Different Theological Anchor
Is it possible there is something in all of this that we’ve missed? I do think the change in focus that happened during the Protestant reformation was important, but perhaps there is something of the baby we’ve thrown out with the bathwater? Perhaps there is something important in the “us” of church that transcends the “you” and the “me” that our current understanding allows for?
I believe there is. To begin to explore that, we have to pick up the biblical thread of the Temple. In the Old Testament, the Temple was the dwelling place of God and the seat of his rule. It was simultaneously a building (and before that a tent) on earth, and God’s throne room in heaven. It was the place where heaven and earth met: the one place that wasn’t heaven or earth, but it was heaven and earth. For a brief biblical overview, check out this summary video by The Bible Project:
As this video articulates, God’s desire is to dwell in creation again, and that begins with indwelling his people. This does happen with each of us individually, as we are temples for the Lord’s presence, but it also happens collectively as well.
In fact, this is exactly what we stepped through in the last article I wrote, Systems & Spirits. (If you didn’t read that article, I would strongly suggest you pause here and go read that one: in it I unpack a rationale for understanding the way the spiritual realm intersects the natural realm as a set of nested homes of varying scales.)
Translate this idea to God’s dwelling place among people and we have the idea that the Holy Spirit (the Spirit that exists at all of these scales at once) is eagerly working to indwell every temple of every scale. God himself is working to create a home for himself in each of us individually, but also in us collectively as well. This means that God does live within each of us, but God also lives in all of us together. In our churches, God joins the family (Jesus as its head), the Spirit dwelling in our midst, filling the spaces between each of us. The way that God dwells in all of us is distinct from the way he dwells in each one of us. In fact, the New Testament seems to use the word “church” to refer to any gathering of any size that God is living within. Whether it is two or three gathered in Jesus’ name, or the entire Church Universal, God lives in each collection in a unique and distinct way.
So Why Go to Church?
Let’s drive this full circle and return to our original question. Why should we go to church? Because that is the only way to experience being a part of a spiritual family that God is indwelling in that specific way. Yes, we can learn from many different sources – but there is a world of difference between learning from a podcast and participating in a spiritual family that God is filling up with his presence and rule. It is only by being an active participant in a church that we get the experience of being a part of that type of temple of the Lord.
That is what is unique and special: being a part of a dwelling place of God. Sure, in a different way we are dwelling places individually and that is important as well. Sure, God can (and hopefully does) fill the spaces in our families and other kingdom covenant relationships, but only a church gives us the unique experience of being a part of a spiritual family that includes and transcends us. One that includes people we know well and people we don’t; people like us and people very different from us – and yet we are bonded together by the living presence of God in our midst.
As I reflect on it, this answer has two important implications:
First, I think it means we can begin to carry a little more confidence with respect to the value of church. If we really believe this picture is Biblical (which I do), then we should be able to say with confidence, “What do you mean, ‘why should you go to church?’, don’t you want to be with God?” If the person then replies, “What are you talking about? I can be with God anywhere”, we can confidently respond, “That’s true, but not in the same way God dwells in us as a church. The way God is among us together is a different thing than what God does with us individually. But I mean sure, if you want a smaller experience of God in your life, that’s your choice. God will be okay either way; it’s only your life that will suffer.”
It isn’t arrogance to assert this. In fact, this is exactly what vocational ministry is: people who are working to cultivate a spiritual family as a place where God’s presence can dwell in the unique way it does in a church family. This would be a truth I think we would do well to reflect on and carry a conviction of, without losing the conviction that God just as much dwells in each of us individually as well. It’s both-and, not either-or.
Second, I think it means that churches probably ought to be able to point to indicators that God’s presence is actually dwelling among them. How do we know that God is filling the spiritual family up with his presence? If it really is God, there should be clear (maybe even measurable?) markers of God’s presence. The Israelites knew when God’s presence filled the Temple and when it left, and we should know to what extent God’s presence is filling our church as a kingdom family.
In fact, I might even go so far as to say that the presence indwelling the family is probably the single most important aspect of being a church. It’s easy for pastors and leaders to get caught up in the machine: measuring how many people are involved, the financial flow, leaders trained, and so forth. Hey, I’m a scientist and a systems guy; I get all of that, and it matters! At the same time, I can’t help but think that it’s much better to have a small family with a strong indwelling presence than a large family with a weak indwelling presence. A group of Christians that God isn’t living between isn’t a church – it’s a crowd. The point isn’t just the people; it’s the quality of God living between them. Maybe that ought to be a higher portion of our focus. It certainly was for the priests in the Temple. Their primary concern was keeping a place where God’s presence was comfortable to dwell, not how many people they reached.
Why Should I Go Back to Church? Because God is seeking to live in spiritual families that are houses for him to live within, and only by being a part of one can I know and walk with God in that way. Sure, I can opt-out and still find quality teaching on podcasts or worship on YouTube, but I won’t know what it is to be a living stone in a spiritual house. I will experience “God in me”, but not “God in us”, and as a result, both my life and the world around me will be poorer for it.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4–5
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman