All Good Christians Go to Church; Or Do They?
By Amanda M. Oster
Good Christians can partner with God and not go to church.
Gallup, a research and analytics organization, has been following religious trends in America for many years, and one thing researchers have uncovered is a steady decline in church attendance. In fact, recent to the writing of this piece, Gallup published new data that reveals church membership has fallen to 47 percent—the first time the number has fallen below 50 percent since they started keeping track in 1948.
While this information might be new and possibly startling to some, for those who have been following the work of Gallup and other research organizations, this is not surprising. What is more, some expect this trend to continue. But, thanks to the research of people like Josh Packard, Steve Aisthorpe, and Alan Jamieson, we know there is a growing group of people that remain committed to their Christian faith even as they choose to be churchless.
“Dones,” as they are sometimes referred, call into question some of the preconceived notions many have within Christianity such as good Christians go to church. Growing up in a denomination that placed heavy emphasis on church attendance, we thought highly of those who were engaged in the activities that centered on the local congregation. In fact, near-perfect attendance was a condition of membership and a prerequisite to “lay leadership”—a person couldn’t lead a Bible study if he or she didn’t regularly attend church services, for example. So, if a person stopped going to church without requesting a membership transfer, it was assumed that he or she was turning tail and walking away from God. To abandon the institution was symbolic of abandoning one’s faith. It just wasn’t done. Good Christians go to church.
So what are we to make of those whose faith journeys no longer include the institutional church? How might we understand those whose relationships to the Divine seem antithetical to local church ministry? One concept that can be helpful in explaining and understanding faith apart from church is the concept of partnering with God.
As it relates to process theology, partnering with God means that humans are not only part of the created universe but that humanity also participates with God in the ongoing creation process. By partnering with God in thought and action, we not only hope to become the best versions of ourselves, but we also participate in life from the perspective and hoping the world realizes more of its potential as well. Partnership with God has a cosmic scope even if we often live it out in a local context. It is not confined to a church or a single institution and can include relationships and activities not normally associated with places of worship.
To be sure, partnering with God can include church participation and membership in faith organizations. In fact, these are often helpful in people’s faith journeys, but they are not a prerequisite. Nor are they helpful at all stages of spiritual growth and development for all people. For some Dones, they found that their expanding participation with God was instead being hindered rather than encouraged in the places and with the people they once worshiped. It was not for lack of faith that they left their churches but because of their growing faith that they made the choice to continue their faith journeys outside the traditional model that infers “all good Christians go to church.”
As a person who holds degrees in Biblical Studies and Pastoral Ministry, as well as an advanced degree in Practical Theology, I’ve spent a good amount of my adult life in the institutional church. I have served on various church staffs, preached from more pulpits than I can count, have logged many hours teaching from the Bible and other Christian texts, and have even dabbled in church planting and pastoral leadership. By some accounts, I have been that “good Christian” I keep alluding to. And, then, I became a Done.
I know the Bible verses that talk about “not forsaking the assembling of the brethren” and “being in the world but not of the world” (because, it is assumed, people in the world don’t go to church). I understand the concepts of biblical accountability and becoming like the company we keep with the idea being that if we remove ourselves from Christian fellowship, then we could lose our Christian edge, and “what good is salt if it loses its saltiness?” I get it; I really do. Those thoughts were not only generously passed around in the Christian church circles I was once part of, but they were things I had sincerely and earnestly believed and shared myself at one time. Now, I can say, I know better.
These ideas might be true for some people in some situations, but they are not true for all. For many Dones, these ideas do not ring true and, what’s more, they can be hurtful. They can alienate and divide, because they fail to acknowledge the partnership component of a dynamic life of faith. Even though Dones might no longer attend church, this does not mean the love of God does not motivate us to participate in the world. It does not mean we stop seeking relationships that are guided by kindness, compassion, grace, and love—the same virtues we believe come from God. Being churchless does not automatically equate to being faithless.
Let me provide two examples of how partnering with God looks in the life of a Done. I will use practices that are common in church life and show how they fit into a broader faith life. The first has to do with serving others and the second has to with stewarding resources.
Serving others is a key theme of the Christian faith, and in the church, congregants do this by volunteering to serve in various ministry positions, going on missions trips, and participating in outreach events sponsored by their local parish. Parishioners might take meals to homebound and elderly neighbors or form a group to help serve meals at the local homeless shelter. The possibilities of serving others are endless.
The same is true for Dones. The major difference is that for those who are churchless, the institution is no longer the overall motivating, coordinating, organizing factor when and where a person serves. For Diane, when she was an active church member, the majority of her Wednesday nights were spent attending and/or hosting a weekly Bible study. Now that she is no longer attending church, most of her Wednesday nights are spent sorting clothing at the local women’s shelter. She feels that the work she does there is as meaningful and holy as the Bible studies she used to attend. She sees her service there as partnering with God for the good of the local community and those whose needs are met there.
The second example is that of stewarding our resources for the benefit of others. In the institutional church, tithing is an important aspect of faithful living. It is important for various reasons but mainly because tithing is the primary source of income for churches so that they can pay their bills. It can also be an important way of encouraging generosity and practicing self-sacrifice. Congregants tithe their time, talents, and money to keep the church running smoothly and to enable Christian service in the world. This can be a worthwhile and beneficial system of exchange.
When Dones leave the church, one might suspect that former church members no longer “tithe” and that they stop giving to worthwhile causes. Yet, Larry proves that this is not the case. He has always cared about the natural world—about clean water, abundant habitat for birds, fish, and other creatures, and accessible terrain so that all people can enjoy nature without difficulty and great disturbance to the ecosystems they enter. Larry sees creation care as a divine activity and one to which God is intimately connected. Since he no longer tithes to a church, he uses his resources to give to organizations that affect the natural world in beneficial ways. He views his giving as a way of partnering with God for a better world and believes that the care of the earth is holy and worthwhile.
Diane, Larry, and I are three examples that prove not all Christians go to church. We are still motivated by the love of God to be and act in the world in ways that are for the flourishing of all creation—human and non. By partnering with God in the things we do, we show we are concerned with the kingdom of God, even if we do not attend church. While there is more research to be done, perhaps in the future Gallup and other research organizations might find that the Christian faith is more vibrant than ever, even if church membership is on the decline. Perhaps that is a good thing.
Questions: How might a more expansive teaching and understanding about partnership with God affect Dones and how they are viewed in the wider conversation about church decline? Could a more robust conversation about partnering with God change how church leaders view the church vs the kingdom of God? And how might that affect church leadership in the future?
Amanda Oster lives in rural North Dakota with her husband and two children. She is the founder and director of Lyra Ministries, a new ministry for Dones and people experiencing spiritual deconstruction; it is planned to launch later this year. She holds degrees in Biblical Studies and Pastoral Ministry, and earned her Master’s degree in Practical Theology, Missional Leadership from Trinity Graduate School.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.