There is an infographic below that I want to spend a few words thinking through (Source: Barna).
The question at the top is the important/not important question. Is church attendance important or not. Roughly 20% of millenials say yes. What I would say is that the millenials, compared to previous generations currently, are being truthful. Previous generations say yes at higher rates, but about 20% act in accord with answers. And that comes out in the next graphs. When asked have you been to church (just once) in the past 6 months – 52% of millenials said no, while 47% of all American’s said no. In actual life there is not much difference between the millenials and older Americans.
But the really fascinating bit of the infographic is the answer to why did you attend and why didn’t you attend. Not fascinating as in surprising, but fascinating as the answers align with theological expectation.
Why attend said: To be closer to God, to learn more about God and the church is the hands and feet of God in the world. This is 100% the teaching of the church. God has promised to be present in that gathering, and he is present in the sacrament. You want to be closer to God? Attend to Word and Sacrament. One of the missions of the church is teaching everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:18-20), so learning more about God takes place in that community. That also makes sense because if you want to learn more about something, go to where it is at. And the last answer is exactly the purpose of the church. We are the body of Christ in a sin sick world. Those who attend get it.
The why not attend said: church is not personally relevant, find God elsewhere, and teach myself what I need to know. Again this is exactly what the church’s theology would expect. First is the degree of narcissism, not personally relevant and I am self-sufficient. If you are not a sinner or lost, you have no need of grace. You will not find the church relevant is you find yourself ok. Man has always found god elsewhere and has always longed to find god on their own terms. The problem is that God has decreed where he is to be found – in the proclamation of Jesus Christ – and rarely grants personal revelations. When you think you’ve found god outside of the church, you’ve probably found an idol. You’ve actually probably found yourself posing as an idol, but it could be something else.
Jesus came to find the lost, bind the broken and eat with sinners. As long as you think you are relatively healthy, you won’t need that. And huge sections – a majority of the American public – thinks they are just fine. Now the Christian knows they are lost. And as the body of Christ offer a hand and a roadmap – come join me brother. But we shouldn’t expect an immediate answer. In fact, since what is probably needed first is a stark confrontation with the law that shows our shortcomings, we should probably expect to be despised first. The old self-sufficient man must die for the new man to arise.
The list of what has made your faith grow is just the classic Christian life: prayer, study and trial (oratio, meditatio, and tentatio). God is faithful, even when we are not.
The title for this post, and the deeper question of this survey, I would think is aligning the church’s actions with the external context. In Christendom, that time when you could assume the everyone was “christian”, the church focused on gospel alone and the shepherding of culture. In exile, law and gospel are necessary and the church has no claim on culture but is purely counter-cultural. There are times for gathering stones, and times to cast away.