I’m sure you’ve heard the statement: “I’m all about Jesus, but I’m not interested in church.” I’ve heard this many times and have even found myself saying it during certain periods of my life.
Church makes a lot of sense for people who grew up with it. However, for many, the concept is strange. Even among those who profess to be Christian, church is treated as something you could take or leave. When we look at attendance statistics worldwide, it seems culture at large is saying: “It’s not really that important anymore.” In America, 63 per cent of people say they identify as Christian. Yet less than 28 per cent attend church regularly. When you look at other countries, the numbers don’t swing much on either side.
There is a large sum of people who don’t go to church simply because their beliefs don’t align. Many have had negative experiences. Others believe it’s expendable, think they’ve risen above the need or have difficulty finding one they resonate with. Then some think the church is full of hypocrites and side with Gandhi, who said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” There is also a group of people who love what the church stands for—community, communion and connection—but for a multitude of reasons, still don’t attend.
With the rates of church attendance being lower than ever before and many people experiencing God and finding community elsewhere, it begs the question, Why church? Does it still serve a purpose? And if so, what is it?
What the stats tell us
The decline in church attendance is in line with the decline of Christianity in the West. The Pew Templeton Global Religious Project showed that in more than 95 countries asking nearly 200,000 people about their religious identities, beliefs and practices, people are overall becoming less religious.
For example, in 2007, 78 per cent of Americans identified as Christian. In 2021, only 63 per cent did. Western Europeans are less religious than Americans, and the same secularising trends are found in other economically advanced countries like Australia and New Zealand.
Religious observance has also fallen in surveys asking adults how often they attend religious services, how frequently they pray and how important religion is in their lives. Since 2000 there has been a 23 per cent drop in people who claim to attend a church. One in five members attend online, yet 57 per cent of those who classified themselves as churchgoers didn’t go at all in a given month. This means most “churchgoers” are not attending any services at all, either in person or online.
This is the first time Gallup polls have found that most Americans do not belong to a church. Yet the studies show that those who claim to “love Jesus but not the church” still experience God through practices like prayer, time in nature, spiritual books and meditation, and find community in places like pubs, sports teams and interest groups.
Part of the problem is in our conception of what church is. Typically, when non-believers think of the church, they think of a building characterised by straight-backed pews, where suits and ties are worn and angry preachers shout outdated messages. Meanwhile, many Christians see it as a vending machine of religious goods and services that should benefit them, sucking them in to a consumerist parasocial relationship.
Yet when we open the Bible, nowhere do we find a plea to “go to church”. The New Testament does not talk about it as a building. It describes it through metaphors such as a “body”, a “bride”, a “flock of sheep” and a “family”. We discover that it rests, has ears, receives edification, can communicate and can know and teach—all things that buildings in themselves cannot accomplish, but people can.
Getting to the root of it
In the Bible, the Greek word ekklesia translates to the word church which means “the called out ones”, or in another translation, “the gathered ones”. When the Bible was written, the word ekklesia had a secular, political meaning describing a community or assembly of people who met with a purpose. So, when the Bible speaks of it, it refers to a group of people with a common unity (community) in God.
The early New Testament Christians had a common belief in communion, community and commission (Acts 2:42–47). They gathered to eat, share, worship and encourage each other to love and do good (Hebrews 10:24). They gathered to foster their relationships with God, with each other and with the world.
During this period, family and friends were already living in deep, meaningful connection with one another. They met primarily in homes and, as they grew, met wherever they could: riversides, temple grounds, private spaces and mountaintops. But as time progressed, they yearned for a place[ big enough to gather. Had they been offered a building with toilets, a kitchen, a sound system for their message to be heard by everyone, a consistent meeting place they could bring new believers and a roof under which they could meet to pray when it was wet or cold outside, they probably would have been thrilled.
Getting it straight
Essentially, church was not about where they worshipped, but having a place to worship helped. Church was about who you worshipped and how your worship was evidenced in your life and relationships. Church was a gathering of people who came together to experience God, love each other and bring hope to the world. And that is what church is still supposed to be today.
When we substitute the church as a place we go for a few hours on the weekend now and then, we lose a fundamental piece of what it means to be Christian.
Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” That means church can look like a million different things. It’s going for a hike and appreciating the wonder of God’s creation with others. It’s feeding the homeless man down the road. It’s sitting at a café with your friend and discussing your doubts. It’s coming together to support an individual and their family after a death or accident. It’s having a meaningful conversation around a table of food.
And it is also coming together on the weekend to sing, pray and study the Bible. Hebrews 10:25 says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” So, while it’s not about the building, having a place where we can come when we are in need at a consistent time each week is a blessing. The early Christians longed for such thing.
In a world that is pulling apart, the church still serves a purpose. And by church, I mean communities of people who gather frequently with the commonality of God, love, faith, hope, purpose, service and mission. Chances are, you won’t find that if you are merely a part of a cycling club, a homemaking group or with your mates for an evening at the pub.
In his book Woven: A Faith for the Dissatisfied, Joel McKerrow said, “It will take community to get through things. True community. If you are from a Christian tradition, it takes a church that can help you walk the rocky path. Or if the church you are part of does not help you, there will be people within the church who may. Look for them. Talk to them. Be honest with them. When you find these people, when you come to know your tribe, do not let go of them. Sometimes this is the only thing that will get you through the desert.”
I get that the church isn’t perfect. I’ve seen and had a fair share of negative experiences. But I’ve also been blessed by it. I’ve done life with others who love God. I’ve witnessed people step out of the building and provide, sustain, accept and love those in need.
I have come to see church as a beautiful thing. An unequivocal, unqualified, universal invitation that rings true of Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And I’m telling you, it’s the closest thing to heaven on Earth that I’ve experienced. I hope you get to experience it someday too.
Zanita Fletcher is a life coach, writer, and an assistant editor for Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand. She writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.