Can you follow Jesus without going to church every week? There was a time when asking that question would cause people to look up for the lightning bolt from heaven that was sure to follow. In full transparency, there’s a part of me that feels a discomfort from asking that question. Of course you should go to church, right?
If you were to ask most church leaders whether weekend church attendance is crucial to spiritual growth, they would assuredly take you to Hebrews 10:25, “Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
These well-meaning leaders would confidently declare the author of Hebrews makes their case for them, therefore those committed to Jesus need to be present in the church building on a regular basis. I once heard a preacher proclaim the follower of Jesus should be in church 52/52 weeks a year, no exceptions.
We could go to the Greek New Testament and break down the original language to explore whether the original writers intended for you to apply Hebrews 10:25 to a weekly large group meeting but in the interest of holding your attention, let’s cut to the chase: that was not their intent. The verse is talking about those who stopped actively participating in the local assembly due to persecution. It is not speaking to those who sit in a building as a consumer on a weekly basis, though it’s convenient to use this verse to guilt people into a better attendance routine.
Lifeway President and CEO Thom Rainer notes how church attendance patterns have significantly changed over the past several decades. “About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week,” he says. “Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”
This means in today’s culture some of the most committed Jesus followers only make it to church three times a month. Over a year this would mean they miss 13 weekends of church. As online church becomes more prevalent, less and less people prioritize being physically present in church every week.
Rainer speaks of the commitment level believers should have, saying that “members of local churches need to have at least the same level of commitment as members of sports teams.”
Perhaps, but comparing church attendance to a commitment to a sports team seems off. The church should function more as a family than a sports team. If you missed a family dinner would your commitment to the family be suddenly questioned? That would be harsh. On the other hand, if you missed dinner, didn’t talk to your family, stopped managing your responsibilities at home, and were basically MIA from the basic functions of the household – then that would certainly suggest you do not value your role as a member of the family.
It’s as if we are saying the goal is to get people to show up instead of trying to get them to engage. Attendance doesn’t equal engagement, but what if we are just emphasizing the wrong thing? What we need to do is to shift our focus from attendance to engagement.
Attending church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than wearing Patagonia makes you an outdoorsman. Church attendance is merely a step we take to move closer to the goal of spiritual formation.
The intention here is not to give people another reason to miss a weekly church gathering. We have no trouble coming up with those on our own. The purpose is to ask are you engaging with the church?
Engagement is all about taking next steps. To be engaged in something involves relationship. This could mean being connected in a discipleship relationship such as a small group or spiritual growth class. When you are engaged in something you make contributions toward it. In the church that could mean you devote your time by having a regular responsibility in the church. It also could mean giving financial contributions as you give back to God what He has first given to you.
Perhaps above all else, engagement means you immerse yourself in the mission of the Church while pursuing Jesus, who is the head of the Church. You join in what he is doing while taking steps of obedience toward Him.
You can attend church every weekend and not grow spiritually or you can engage in the Church and be part of something that will transform you inside and out. Let’s spend less time trying to check the box of attendance and more time taking steps forward as we engage with Jesus, His mission and His Church.