17 June 2024

Here’s how we’ll fill up our churches again

Church attendances have declined in recent years. Picture: iStock

By Nils von Kalm 

9 April 2022

It is no secret that regular church attendance in Australia has been declining over the last 50 years. Data from the National Church Life Survey shows, the proportion of Australians attending church at least monthly has declined from 36 per cent in 1972 to 15 per cent today. 

All of this forces us to ask why we go to church in the first place. Of course there are many reasons, but is attending church just religion to us? Is it just something we do on a Sunday morning because that’s what we’ve done for so many years? Is that why some of us haven’t returned after the lockdowns ended, because we’ve gotten out of the habit? 

As attendance has declined, many churches have sought to become more relevant to people’s felt needs, to persuade them back to the fold. In my experience, the unfortunate result has been in many cases a watering down of the gospel in the name of relevance. I have seen churches run like businesses, with the pastor as a sort of chief executive and marketing guru. Worship has become entertainment where people no longer participate, but watch transfixed, like they’re at a concert, rather than worshiping God and participating with others. 

Australian pastor and author, Mark Sayers, adds to this. He writes that he has noticed over the years, “the disappearance of a mode of church engagement characterized by commitment, resilience, and sacrifice among many Western believers”. In its place he believes has come, “A new mode of disengaged Christian faith and church interaction … characterized by sporadic engagement, passivity, commitment phobia, and a consumerist framework”. 

What Sayers is describing is generally seen in large mega-churches, but he adds that he has seen, “The same bored eyes in liturgical-heavy high churches”. It leads me to ask, are we bored spectators in church or are we disciples? 

American pastor, Jay Kim, says that some Christians choose a particular church for the following reasons: 

  • What’s most comfortable? 
  • What’s most agreeable? 
  • What’s most entertaining? 

Kim goes on to say that, “Unfortunately, the underlying forces driving some church searches are the basic tenets of individualistic consumerism, born out of an assumption that ‘church’ is primarily a product package of goods and services, designed and marketed to achieve customer satisfaction.” 

Discipleship is the endgame of going to church as I see it. Formation as a community into Christlikeness, and then going out into the world to be Christ, is why we go to church. We are to be a light on a hill. Jesus called his disciples the light of the world. The early church displayed this impressively. In Acts 2 and 4, we see that the fledgling Christian movement ate and prayed together and shared everything in common, including all their possessions, living in community with joy and abandonment to Christ. Nothing else mattered anymore. 

This was generally the case for the first 300 years of the church. The Sermon on the Mount was their guiding framework. The poor were blessed, those who mourned were comforted, and the peacemakers were the ones who were the children of God. Social historian, Rodney Stark, says that the main reason for the explosive growth in the church in the first few centuries was their care for the poor and abandoned. In a society which literally abandoned many children on rubbish dumps to die, it was Christians who took them in and cared for them. That’s largely how the church grew. 

The radical exercise of love for others continued throughout the centuries. During several pandemics, Christians risked their lives to save the sick. The first hospitals in history were set up by Christians, and education became a Christian cause, to the point that universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the United States were set up by Christians because they wanted people to be educated about life and how God’s universe works. Harvard was called ‘The School of the Prophets’ and was originally a university for Puritan ministers. Similarly, the anti-slavery movement was almost entirely Christian. People like John Wesley and William Wilberforce gave their lives to the abolitionist movement. The beginnings of science were also initiated by Christians. All this arose out of Christian church communities who just wanted to follow their Lord. 

So I would ask again, why do you go to church? Do you go because it’s what you’ve done for many years and it’s become a tired habit?  

I suspect the reasons are varied. Many of us are of the generation that was raised on commitment and loyalty, so we want to live that out regardless of how we feel. 

Many of us also lament the fact that most people don’t come to church anymore. What about instead of just expecting that they “should” come back, we looked again at the approach of Jesus and the early church?  

That is how we will fill our churches again. That is to be our reason for going to church. When we come together as a community, knowing we are deeply loved by God, we just want to spread that love to everyone we meet. 

We commit ourselves to this every week when we recite the Lord’s Prayer. We pray “May your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. Is our religious activity each week empty or is it filled with vibrancy and passion to love God and our neighbour (and even our enemy) right here on earth? 

Ultimately, going to church is about growth into Christlikeness and then learning how to reflect that Christlikeness out into the world. Churches that look inward and focus on survival are the ones that die. Churches that come together as a loved and loving community and look outward into Christlike mission thrive. 

When we surrender to the will of God, both individually and as a church, pray for the Spirit of God to fill us with the love of Christ, and then go out into the world to be the answer to our prayers, then will the kingdom come on earth as in heaven. Speaking for myself, may that be the reason I go to church this week. 

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