Recently a blog post from New Zealand’s Bible Society CEO got me thinking. Rev. Mark Brown says that “research shows a majority of Christians don’t regularly attend church and stated that the usual solution of attempting to make church attractive is only part of the answer.” His sources include the National Church Life Survey and the Gallup Poll. What interests me is what definition of Christian is being used in such research?
Let me say at the outset – clearly one can be a Christian and not attend church. Some are not able to attend.
Let me also say, so there’s no confusion, that it’s clear that, as part of being a Christian, there is a personal response to the good news appropriate to the stage one is in one’s life.
Let’s also be clear that “church” is not primarily the building. “Church” is the Christian community, the body of Christ – the church building is there to stop the church (the Christian community) from getting wet and cold when it gathers 🙂
But I wonder if behind the definition being used in this research is a presupposition that one becomes a Christian individually and then “goes to a church” seeking support for the individual’s Christian journey. The Christian community, in this view, is little more than a support group for the individual. The individual may not find a group supportive enough and may find more individual support on TV, the internet, or reading alone,… From this approach one would not be surprised to hear “a majority of Christians don’t regularly attend church.”
There appears to be no challenge to individualism – already so strong in our culture. The three top reasons given in the research appear to bear out my critique. These Christians don’t go to church because
- it is boring
- they don’t agree with or don’t like what is being taught
- they don’t see it as a priority
All three appear to be primarily about “me” and “my needs”
The other side of this Christian coin is a view that sees God uniting with God’s creation in the incarnation of Christ, and then drawing us, who have been created by God, into this divine life through being incorporated into Christ through becoming part of Christ, Christ’s body, the church, the Christian community. We become part of Christ through baptism – not through something that we do to ourselves, but through something that God, through the Christian community, does to us.
A helpful image might be that of a team sport, football, cricket,… I am a football player if I am a member of a football team and play football! I am a Christian through being a member of the Christian community and participating in the Christian community. I am a member of the Christian community when gathered – and also, of course, when the Christian community is dispersed. Sometimes I am unable to be present at the Christian community gathered – but the gathering continues – the football game can continue. I continue to be a football player as I will be playing with them again soon.
This communitarian understanding of the gospel critiques individualism, challenges self-centredness.
It is the language we use when we worship, which is normatively in the plural: “United in Christ with all who stand before you in earth and heaven, we worship you, O God…” In this approach it is not merely my individual prayer, but I pray in Christ’s prayer, the Holy Spirit prays in and through me – through us together. Even when I am praying alone, I do so as a member of the Christian community dispersed, “Our Father…”
Certainly the individual still gets “something out of it” (even though this is not the first focus as the self-centred Christian definition has it). The football player “gets something out of” being a member of the team. One joins the community/group/team/church as an individual and finds the participation in the group’s activity transforming and fulfilling the individual.
This is no excuse for allowing church to be boring or irrelevant.
[Update: this post is presenting such useful responses, I have, as promised in a previous update here, produced a follow-up post entitled Choosing a church]