Four Ways Church Attendance Hinders Mission

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“Going to church” is one of the spiritual disciplines which forms us into Christlike people. As we meet with others, pray, engage in hospitality, encourage one another, and read God’s word together we are shaped into the people of God. James KA Smith in his article Alternative Liturgy: Social Media as Ritual, says that these kinds of rituals or liturgies shape our imaginations:

Liturgies are covert incubators of the imagination, because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts. Liturgies traffic in the dynamics of metaphor and narrative and drama; they are performed pictures of the good life that capture our imagination and thus orient our love and longing. By an aesthetic alchemy, liturgies implant in us a vision for a world and way of life that attracts us so that, on some unconscious level, we say to ourselves: ‘I want to go there.’ And we act accordingly.

As we practice the discipline of gathering as a church, our imaginations are meant to be fashioned and fueled. We begin to long for a certain kind of world as we engage in worship. Hopefully we long for the alternate reality we call the rule of God, expressive of shalom which is about peace, justice, wholeness, reconciliation, mercy, and truth. Then as we envision it, we begin to practice living a life in that reality.

However, this ideal does not always manifest. In fact, I think “going to church” can sometimes become counter to this purpose of transforming God’s church into a people who embody shalom.

I often wonder whether the practice of “going to church” is shaping Christians into people who flesh out the practices and posture of shalom in our world, or whether the practice of going to church inhibits that purpose. I know this sounds like a contentious statement. We know the benefits of church attendance but could there be pitfalls and temptations in the practice of “going to church” which can draw us away from the mission of God?

Four Ways Church Attendance Can be a Stumbling Block for Mission

We feel as though “going to church” makes us good Christians

Christians have been enculturated to think that if we attend church regularly, we are obeying a well-established rule set out for us that we might become good Christians. This is potentially legalistic and can take the place of meaningful relationship with God. The temptation can be to think that if we “go to church,” we are then doing enough to be followers of Jesus. The focus here is primarily on attending church rather than engaging with God’s mission. Of course the two things should not necessarily cancel each other out.

Is our focus on attending church or engaging in God's mission? Click To Tweet

When “going to church” keeps us busy and therefore satisfied

Churches have many programs, events and weekly meetings which Christians are mostly expected to attend. Our culture places a high value on busyness so sometimes it can feel that if we are busy, we are living meaningful lives. This attitude has infiltrated the church. If we are busy then we are hard at work for God at ministry.

Sometimes however, church programs are more about keeping the internal machinery of the church going, that is, survival. When this happens and Christians get caught up in this busyness for the survival of the church, it hinders God’s mission. We might feel satisfied that we are doing “God’s work”, but it can in fact be shaping us to be inward oriented rather than missionally focused.

Church can foster a sense of dualism

We are very good at discerning the Spirit of God in our churches but we are more ambivalent about what it looks like to discern God’s Spirit in the world. How is God active in our neighborhoods? Where is God in our workplace? Is church ministry elevated above the call God has place on the lives of doctors, cleaners, architects and technology consultants for example? Going to church can sometimes foster a sense that we are moving into, and then out of, God’s presence when we leave the gatherings. This stops us from participating with God’s mission in our neighborhoods and society.

Do we elevate church ministry above the call of God in the marketplace? Click To Tweet

Going to church can make us feel safe

Church can make us feel comfortable. On the one hand this is important for meeting together as Christians. We gather in order to practice the habits of an alternate world and we get a glimpse into the coming kingdom. That ought to fill us with hope, longing, and comfort. However, if we are not prepared as we gather to interact with a world that is broken and sinful, if we fail to see the brokenness and sin in the church, if we stop lamenting and crying out to God for a new universe, then we are being shaped into safe, comfortable Christians who will avoid the radical call to join with God on his mission.

We can turn into hearers not doers

When we attend church it can be a consumerist experience where we listen and receive doctrine. This fosters a passive stance. We evangelicals love our theology, worship songs, and doctrines however what produces transformation is taking action and putting into practice what we hear on the platforms of our churches.

We become witnesses to the gospel as we embody the gospel, not merely talk about it. In this way a watching world will point to us and say, “There is the gospel among those people. There is shalom. There is the reality of another kind of world.” An embodied apologetic is important in a world which is highly suspicious of the church today.

Am I saying that we should stop going to church? No. But I do believe that we could rethink what gathering as the people of God looks like, and the structure of our gatherings could reflect this. The practice and structure of church gatherings must not disable mission. The church is God’s light in the world and exists for the purpose of God’s mission, not for the sake of itself. When going to church becomes an end in itself, it frustrates mission.

When going to church becomes an end in itself, it frustrates mission. Click To Tweet

We need to gather as the church to worship God together but worship is always about being formed by the Holy Spirit who sends us out to mission as we leave where we meet. That’s what makes the heartbeat of the church quicken as it is motivated by self sacrificing love, so that our world sees the attractive face of Christ in the people of God. As we practice the values of the reign of God, we are transformed into those who truly see and hear.

As Sarah Bessey says in Jesus Feminist

We’ll practice the ways of Jesus, over and over, until the scales fall from our eyes and our ears begin to hear.

As God’s people, this must be the purpose of our gatherings.

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10 responses to “Questions Leaders are Asking: And my quick one-liner answers

  1. OK, one point of clarification and one push-back.
    (1) Answering Q1 you say: “the church in N.A. continues to face the massive shift out of Christendom into a secularity that gives the church little room to operate.” I’m not sure I see this. Can you clarify how secular culture “gives the church little room to operate”? I’m almost inclined to think the church actually has more room to operate here.

    (2) I’m unsure of your answer to Q2. You state it fairly boldly: “We need to learn how to model team-based mutual leadership that relies on the authority of Christ as manifest in the gifts by the Holy Spirit. THEN the Kingdom shall break loose and the gospel go forth where we live.” Really? So, it’s a matter of organizing ourselves properly (in your view) and then once we get all that sorted out the Kingdom is finally able to break loose?! This seems off to me. For one, the Kingdom is not a human project. We do not build it, advance it, or set it loose. The Kingdom is a gift. We receive it, enter it, inhabit it. Furthermore, the church has been organized in a hierarchical fashion from the beginning! So what gives?

    We complicate these things in N.America. I think we do this because i) we are utterly full of ourselves (!), and ii) there is a huge market for this sort of thing here (see pt. i). What does the church need to do? The church needs to continue doing what she has always done, what has made her the church: gather to celebrate the Eucharist and submit to the preaching of the word, love one another, baptize.

    1. If we do not organize ourselves around God’s inbreaking kingdom, we organize around our own efforts. Things might get done, and God might use these efforts, but it will be a concession, a compromise, alot like moarchy was concession by God and he worked through it noentheless. The gifts of the Spirit, the 5 fold ministry, are the means by which we submit to Christ’s authority (Eph 4) and space is opened through that submission for Him to work, not us. How we organize therefore is very important.

      1. I think the hierarchical nature of church structures is never presented to us as a directive, but is often descriptive. The early church lived in a world dominated by an Empire and they structured themselves accordingly. Of course this led eventually to the creation of an emperor (the pope). In our days we have shifted to the dominant structure of our day the corporation. And thus we have a bunch of corporate churches who are more focused on product and growth than individuals because that is what corporations do.
        I agree with you David that there is a kingdom ethic underneath of structures that we should strive to contextualize for an increasingly post-Christendom context. I have been having a lot of conversations with church planters in Western Europe about this same thing. They are much further in this shift and that is a good place to learn about what we may face.

        1. It’s just striking to me that these sorts of questions only seem to bother a certain segment of Western Protestants. Within apostolic churches (i.e. Orthodox, Catholic, Anglicanism etc.) these sorts of concerns are less pressing. For what it’s worth, the hierarchical leadership structure of bishop-priest-deacon (ordered ministry) isn’t a form determined by context but by theology. At any rate, I wonder if the particular segment of Western Protestants that are consumed with these sorts of questions and write the books and blogs and so on, don’t know how to think about leadership because we don’t know how to think about the church (and this would be precisely why these quandaries seem less prevalent in apostolic churches).
          And so, in short, I agree, how we organize is very important. I just don’t think that hierarchical leadership per se is at fault here because ordered ministry is how the church has always been structured outside of a small (and fairly recent) segment of Western Protestantism.

          1. Or could it be (stunningly) that your understanding of history and the orders of clergy are largely determined within a Constantinian framework that from one point of view make hierarchical leadership look like the majority view, “the way it has always been.” That when the church has been forced into a situation of mission it has always been dispersed nonhierarchical forms of leadership … this includes the first couple hundred years of the church … times of monastic living … and various missionary communities around the world … but when within Christendom … established churches, hierarchy works more efficently. And FYI .. Anabaptists believe leadership is a profoundly theological issue …

          2. Who said immune?
            Look, my point is relatively simply although it should not be overstated. I think we should take note of the fact that these questions are predominantly asked (a) in North America (as David, I think, would readily admit, hence his latest book), and (b) in certain Protestant circles.

            Of course these questions are asked elsewhere. But, if you look at other areas of the world where the Spirit seems to be at work and if you look at other churches within the Western world these questions just aren’t as pressing, and I think it’s worth asking why that is. That’s all. Don’t get me wrong, I think these are important questions and I ask them myself, but the notion that hierarchy per se is bad because it wreaks of Christendom is misguided as far as I can tell. There’s something to be said about ditching “strategies” (be they missional or whatever) and simply gathering around the Eucharist each and every week because this, simply put, IS where the Kingdom is breaking through into the present. I contend that certain N. American Protestants have such trouble thinking about mission and the church because we have trouble thinking about the Eucharist. Let’s start here — If our community does not gather around the table of the Lord at least weekly we can’t be missional. And, incase you think I’ve gone too far off course here, this has implications for leadership.

  2. I think the answer to question to number two is spot on. Without strong, effective leadership the church can not have near the impact and effectiveness it otherwise could. As I look around at different churches, I see am extremely high correlation between the effectiveness of the leadership and the health of the church.

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