It’s Sunday morning. You wake up, prepare a hot beverage, eat breakfast, and finish your morning routine. Now what? Go to church? Maybe, maybe not. May depend on what else is going on. Or what I feel like. Attending public worship services has become optional for a growing number of professing Christians, as has commitment to the visible, institutional church.
It has been widely reported that a number of high-profile evangelicals only rarely attend church. They may have “accountability” groups, or prayer groups, or small-group Bible studies, in which they participate. They may watch church on the television or listen to sermons online. However, the local, visible church is optional for them and many, many others. “A gated community in the evangelical world,” USA Today announces. “Many of the nation’s most powerful believers . . . won’t be found in the pews . . . creating a growing gap between them and ‘the people.’”1 Julia Duin sees a wider problem involving low profile evangelicals as well, prompting her book-length response, Quitting Church.2
Popular pollster George Barna all but proposes the abolition of the local church in his book Revolution, as he attempts to convince the Church (large “C”) to ride yet another cultural trend to success.3 Having already provided significant demographic fuel for the megachurch phenomena of the 1980’s and 90’s,4 he has introduced yet another re-creation of the church, presumably to correct the failures of the market-driven approach he championed. The problem with the church (presumably the purpose-driven, market-driven church he helped create), he says, is that while it “can be instrumental in bringing us closer to (God) . . . the research data clearly shows churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.”5 He speaks breathlessly of “the Revolution,” of “an unprecedented reengineering of America’s faith,” of “the most significant recalibration of the American Christian body in more than a century,” of a movement “to advance the church and to redefine the church.”6 He announces the emergence of the “New Church,”7 which in fact is no church at all. Church, as “traditionally” understood, was for Barna a human institution, not a biblical one. The new church, as he construes it, is without structure, organization, clergy, officers, accountability or discipline. It has no location, commitments, or physical presence. It is merely an informal, ad hoc, uncovenanted association of believers. For “revolutionaries” the local church ceases to exist. The requirements of Hebrews 10:25 (that believers assemble together) could be fulfilled, he says, “in a worship service or at Starbucks.”8 His revolutionaries affirm, “I am not called to attend or join a church. I am called to be the church.”9 But the result, he assures us, will be the robust spiritual life, ministry, and relationships that have eluded us thus far.
The eccentricities of the highly influential Barna are matched by the commonplace practices of the growing numbers of unaffiliated and non-attending believers. Overall church attendance rates have been declining since the early 1960’s, a trend that has accelerated in just the last decade. Church, for many, is like the local gym, except one actually has to join the local gym and pay fees. It’s good to go there to exercise, but sometimes one can do just as well at home. Or maybe somewhere else? Or where one’s “needs” will be met. Attend when it is convenient. Attend elsewhere or nowhere when it is not convenient. These are the commonplace comments that we hear.
No doubt the church, for its part, has in no small way contributed to its perceived irrelevance. Its hypocrisy has undermined its moral integrity; its legalism has forfeited its pastoral role; its forays into politics have diluted its mission; and its pandering to the culture has compromised its message. “Churchianity” is the contemptuous term many serious Christians have used to describe formalistic religion. No wonder scores of sincere believers are looking elsewhere. Still, the question that should be raised is this: can this dismissive outlook be squared with that of the New Testament? Even more specifically, can it be squared with the outlook and intention of Jesus?
D. Michael Lindsay, “A gated community in the evangelical world,” USA Today, February 18, 2008.
Julia Duin, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to do About It (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008).
George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005).
As in his books Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You about Church Growth (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1988); User Friendly Churches: What Christians Need to Know About the Churches People Love to Go To (Ventura: Regal Books, 1992).
Barna, Revolution, 36.