For decades pollsters consistently reported that 40 percent of Americans were in church on any given Sunday. But a long-term count of actual attendance in real churches suggests that good Christian people weren't telling pollsters the truth, and actual church attendance was only half of what was being reported.
So are fewer people going to church today than in the past? No, there are about the same number of people attending church today as were attending in 1990. But the population in the U.S. has grown by more than 25 percent since then, which means there are not fewer people going to church but there are more people not going to church. The overall percentage of worshipers has dropped significantly.
And according to some experts, the people who do attend church regularly are attending less often than they did in the past. One church denominational executive told me that it is now necessary for a church to grow by ten percent a year in order to maintain last year's average attendance.
People who once attended church weekly are now attending every other week. People who went twice a month are now attending once a month. This change in behavior indicates more than a lifestyle change. It reveals a theological shift. In the past these people saw church attendance as essential but they now see it as optional.
It needs to be said that this theological shift may not be all bad. If people thought of church attendance as a kind of extortion money paid to God to stay on his good side, losing that belief was a step in the right direction. Likewise if church attendance was merely a means to an end like social acceptance. Nevertheless, the idea that gathering with the church is merely one option among many is theologically unsupportable.
There are undoubtedly many factors driving this change in church attendance. One of those factors may be the rise of a new kind of spirituality in America, influenced by the spread of Eastern religions and New Age mysticism, and coupled with a robust American individualism. This rise in Eastern philosophies has coincided with a decrease in denominational identity and influence, and has manifested itself in a particularly American brand of do-it-yourself spirituality.
In do-it-yourself spirituality, church attendance is entirely optional. Such thinking betrays a serious theological confusion. Of course God's acceptance is not conditioned upon whether a person sits in a pew every week, but then sitting in a pew was never about God's acceptance in the first place. Christians don't gather with the church to raise their credit rating with God.
Theologically speaking, church is not something people do once a week or once a month, depending on preference. Church is something people are, or at least something people are a part of. The idea that a Christian can have Christ without the church disregards the biblical witness. Christ and his church are a package deal.
That's not to say that attendance is the sole mark of membership in the church. It is not. Some who are the church cannot attend its meetings. Some who attend its meetings are not the church. But when those who are the church do not want to gather with the church, something has gone seriously wrong.
The church - not the building or the organization, but the people united to Christ by faith and in consequence are united to each other - are being fashioned into the perfect instrument through which God can make himself known. This is what St. Paul was talking about when he wrote, "We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord ... a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."
This is not DIY spirituality. It's a fallacy for people to think they can encounter God on their own terms. It's more than a fallacy; it's idolatry. If they want to meet God, they would be wise to go where he has chosen to meet them. True, that does not mean a church building or church service, but it does mean the community of children, women, and men who are united to Christ and to each other by God's Spirit. It means the church.