In You Lost Me, Barna Group president David Kinnaman reports that as many as 6 out of 10 18-29 year olds leave the church as they reach this crucial age in their lives. Most leave, but still consider themselves Christians. Others leave, never to return. Some are still invested in their faith, but feel stuck or lost between culture and church. Kinnaman finds that this disconnection from church comes from perceptions among the young that church is overprotective, or fearful and detached from the world; shallow, or boring, irrelevant, and sidelined; anti-science; dated and restrictive in its sexual ethic, exclusive, and afraid to encourage and engage in legitimate questions of doubt.
While it is true that many of these issues may stem from bad teaching in churches, much of it is the idea of a little religion inoculating kids to the real thing. I wonder how many young people who are drawn away from the church aren’t drawn away because their parents engaged them too much in the life of the church, but too little. When being a part of a church community is seen as something we do sporadically, or a nice add-on to our faith, or something we should do as long as weekend plans or youth sports or other distractions don’t get in the way, or even something we do only on Sundays, rather than as a part of our family identity, the result is a weak ecclesiology (understanding of the church). We see our church community as something helpful and not necessary, rather than ourselves as a vital part of the Body of Christ, gathered together, banners high, praising God and equipping and re-arming each other for another week of assaulting the gates of Satan and hell for the Kingdom of God.
The quick reason to be a part of a church community is because God commands it, but here’s why it’s best for life:
Worship brings about heart change. Have you ever been in a worship service and felt so connected to the heart of God and to each other that tears came to your eyes, or you felt your heart soar? I’ve heard people decry worship because they say it shouldn’t be about ginning up some kind of emotional experience. That’s wrong. While I agree worship shouldn’t be about manipulating the emotions, worship is a deep, physical, spiritual, and, yes, emotional connection between you and the Creator of the universe and your brothers and sisters in that room. James K. A. Smith notes that human beings, as image bearers of God, are not primarily thinkers or believers, but lovers. We lead with our heart, and follow with our heads.
We always talk about wanting our kids to not only have head knowledge, but heart knowledge: to get their relationship with the Lord from knowing about Him to knowing Him. Worship is a huge part of inclining our hearts toward the Lord, of triggering all our beings, including our emotions, including our love, toward Him. When we neglect it, we are neglecting a significant component of this heart training, for our kids and for us.
Second, worshipping together is about being fully who you are. You are a worshipping being. You are not made to worship; you are made worshipping. You worship the way your cell phone sends out a Bluetooth signal (minus the ability to turn it off). It’s always on, all the time. You are always worshipping, all the time. That’s true for everyone, Christian or non-Christian, religious or non-religious. The only difference is what you worship. You’re either worshipping Christ, or worshipping something else: Allah, Buddha, fame, money, sports, some other person, or, ultimately, yourself, all of which is idolatry, wholly inadequate to bear the weight of your worship, and doomed to fail. You are also created for community, made to be with each other, made for each other, made to serve each other. That’s your default mode; it’s only Western individualism that’s convinced us that the Lone Ranger is our default. When we worship together, we fully express our humanity, our image-bearing capacities as God’s people. Worshipping the One we’re created to worship, alongside those with whom we’re created to worship Him. Life is as it was made to be, not perfectly, but very, very good. It’s life-giving, and soul-enriching.
Finally, being a part of a church community that we actively and regularly engage in teaches us to love. Community is really, really hard. The Body of Christ is full of hypocrites. It’s full of broken, hurting people. It is full of difficult people. That’s why we should all feel so at home there. Because when you don’t show up, there is one fewer of those people there. And, yet, God calls us to love each other by serving each other. Being part of a church community isn’t primarily about “getting fed,” or, “getting our needs met,” in the sense of being one more consumer service meant to fulfill our every whim. Being part of a church community means doing the hard work of encouraging and exhorting each other, confronting each other and holding us accountable, laughing and loving together, praying for each other, caring for each other, bearing with each other’s many faults, and persevering through their shortcomings and our own. In some way we don’t fully understand, we’re going to need to learn to love really well in the New Jerusalem, and being a part of a church community teaches us how. It also gets us outside of ourselves for a while; I find that when I am the most miserable as a human being, I’ve spent too much time inside myself.
Kinnaman says that kids from Christian schools are outliers, in that they seem more engaged with their faith, less likely to leave the church, more likely to care about making their faith relevant to their lives. I believe it’s partly because more of their parents are committed to a church home. Are you and your family committed to being in a vibrant, church community that really reflects an authentic gospel witness, while also engaging in some type of smaller community group, Bible study, or gathering that had as a part of its goal to care for each other, love each other and serve each other well? Are you modeling that for your children? Don’t use being a mess as an excuse; we’re all a mess. It’s not about you, anyway. It’s about us. We’re not all we can be without you.