Easter is just a few days away, and churches will be filled to bursting with twice-a-year “Christians,” people that still feel some vague sense that they should go to church on Easter and at Christmas, even if they can’t quite articulate why, and don’t attend for most of the rest of the year.
That church attendance is in decline is no mystery. Sure, there are plenty of nominal Christians who attend church regularly for their own reasons—the social aspects, the opportunities for professional development and career advancement, etc.—who aren’t truly Believers, but since we cannot know the content of one’s heart, church attendance is a pretty good gauge for religiosity in the United States.
I live in the rural South, so there are churches on every street corner. There are tiny cinderblock buildings in the middle of nowhere with names like “First Church of the Holy Apostolic Prophecy” that look like tool sheds that have been converted into places of worship. There are decadent megachurches. There are churches that date back centuries, and churches that were planted a week ago.
Yet even here, Biblical illiteracy stuns me. Sure, I’m one of those guys who knows that something is “in the Bible,” even if I can’t always place exactly where it is (that’s what Bing is for). But when I write “Biblical illiteracy,” I mean that people lack a basic understanding of the simplest Bible stories.
I’ve related this anecdote elsewhere, but I’ll never forget teaching a philosophy class years ago in which we were discussing Danish Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard famously argued that attempts to prove the existence of God rhetorically, logically, or otherwise were the philosophical equivalents of building the Tower of Babel—man’s Gnostic attempt to “reach” God, not to be close to Him, but to challenge God’s Supremacy.
The Tower of Babel is Vacation Bible School 101—really, it’s Sunday School 101. The Tower of Babel would be Track 2, Side 1 of The Old Testament’s Greatest Hits, if such an album existed.
Despite that, none of my students knew the story of the Tower of Babel. Even a young lady who was a very committed Christian did not remember the story, and I know her parents, at the very least, had taught it to her!
National Review—once a respectable journal on the cutting edge of conservative thought, now reduced to hawking magic mushrooms unironically—has a piece by Daniel Cox that essentially offers two explanations: parents aren’t taking their kids to church, and progressives are leaving because Christianity is—surprise!—traditional.
Neither of these are particular satisfying answers. Yeah, parents aren’t taking their kids to church—duh! The explanation to the question “why aren’t people going to church” is the question itself—“people aren’t going to church because people before them didn’t go to church.” It’s a tautology that is true, but it isn’t logically satisfying: it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.
The other explanation is—let’s be honest—National Review‘s fixation with the idea that religious leaders who supported President Trump drove away progressive Christians. Cox doesn’t put it in precisely those words, but that’s certainly an implication:
More than two decades ago, a pair of sociologists noted that liberal and moderate Americans were disaffiliating from Christianity at far higher rates than conservatives. Liberals are now much less likely to belong to a place of worship, attend religious services, or believe in God than they once were.
But the growing perception among young people that Christianity is primarily about promoting a conservative worldview makes the entire enterprise less appealing to people who do not share that goal. When churches lead with politics, it not only alienates people whose political views differ, but also those who are not looking to engage in politics at all. If you exclude all young people who are liberal, moderate, or apolitical, there are not a whole lot of people left to fill the pews.
What does Cox propose Christian churches—the truly Christian ones, not the ones that just act as free struggle sessions for wealthy white liberals—do? Ordain demiqueer otherkins? Force pastors to apologize for slavery? Host a drum circle with the Unitarians?
The opposite is the case: whenever Christianity tries to make itself “relevant,” it loses people, young and old. People go to church to hear the Truth. They go for succor, yes, but they go—whether they realize it or not—to be challenged. They need to hear that they are lost, broken, and mired in sin—because it is True. They do not need to be told that they are just fine as they are, and that Christ winks at sin.
But they also need to be told that Christ washes away our sins. That He is The Way, The Truth, and the Life.
That message doesn’t have to be delivered with thunderous, Pentecostal theatrics from the pulpit, set to a Carmen soundtrack with high-end lighting effects. Jonathan Edwards delivered his famous fire-and-brimstone sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in a quiet, soft-spoken manner. But the message does need to be delivered. Indeed, Christ commands us to do so in the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-18):
15He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
The title of Cox’s piece is “Stop Blaming Young People for Leaving Religion.” Sure, it’s not entirely their fault (remember their evil parents who didn’t take them to church?): we’re all awash in an environment of constant noise and distraction and outrage. Most of my students spend the bulk of their school day plugged into a world of constant amusement.
And, sure, churches are struggling after The Age of The Virus. Who wants to put on itchy, hot clothes and sit for an hour when you can flip between the local megachurch’s sermon and the latest episode of 90 Day Fiancé while eating Utz cheeseballs on your couch?
Churches brought it on themselves: they bought into the world’s arguments, and instead of boldly ministering to the sick and needy in their greatest hour of need, church’s followed the script and told everyone to stay home and isolate—the opposite of what the Body and Bride of Christ should have done.
To be fair, I often find attending church to be an imposition. I was perhaps overchurched as a child, and I still maintain an aversion to attending Sunday night services. We would often spend the bulk of Sundays trapped in never-ending services with rambling sermons and emotionally-charged altar calls that could easily extend the whole ordeal another hour.
But what I tell myself is that it is not my church’s measly request that I show up at 11 AM once a week and hang around for seventy-five minutes; rather, it is the excessiveness of the world’s demands that make me feel the crunch come Sunday.
Churches can do more. We as Christians can do more. But the extreme imbalance modernity has forced upon us—work constantly for the vague promise that you won’t spend your life as a wage slave if you make every decision perfectly right and don’t have any slip-ups—now creeps increasingly into our Sunday mornings and evenings, demanding that we choose between the fellowship of a church family or taking that time to rest—or to prepare for another week ahead.
Church is worth choosing, but is it any wonder that no one wants to go, when we’re trapped in cubicles all day, our lives at the whim of an overcredentialed Karen in HR?
Even that, though, is a cop-out. Perhaps if we spent more time focused on God and lesson the Karens, we’d achieve that balance. We’d go about our work joyfully and not resent that time spent in communal worship.
Or, more simply: Go to church!
(The photograph at the beginning of this post is of St. James the Greater Catholic Church, located in Catholic Hill, an unincorporated community in Ritter, South Carolina; I took the picture when I attended the Yemassee Shrimp Festival in 2019.)