A Gallup poll published this year found that Americans’ trust in clergy is at an all-time low. Doctors, teachers, police officers, and even funeral directors all ranked as more trustworthy than pastors.
While I’m not sure what shenanigans an undertaker would have to pull to lose this surprisingly lofty reputation, it’s clear that suspicion toward ministers isn’t merely an aftershock of recent scandals. It’s part of a much larger anti-institutional swing in American religion — one that’s left an unprecedented number of Christians convinced they can practice their faith just fine without the church. In reality, they’re setting themselves up to lose their faith and make their lives worse.
In 2016, I wrote about a LifeWay Research survey that ferreted out all sorts of unorthodox beliefs among American evangelicals. One such belief, shared by two-thirds of respondents, was that “worshiping alone or with family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.”
Since then, we’ve learned more about this group of stay-at-home Christians. Last year, Pew reported that among Americans who decide not to attend religious services, 37 percent skip out because they “practice their faith in other ways.” This cohort noticeably outnumbers those who sleep in on Sunday for a more obvious reason: They’re not believers.
What’s more concerning is how the view that church is nonessential has infiltrated the pews, even though the Bible is pretty clear, in both the Old and New Testaments, that Christians must “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” and “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
In a new survey, LifeWay reports that a mind-boggling 65 percent of churchgoers agree with the statement, “I can walk with God without other believers.” The same survey found that just 48 percent agree with the statement, “I intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith.” In other words, many of those who still go to church already see it (and apparently any other religious gathering) as nonessential.
The Rise of American Individualism and Consumerism
LifeWay Executive Director Scott McConnell attributes this partly to metastasized American individualism — a kind of me-and-my-Bible piety with unmistakable cowboy influences. But statistics show that our country’s spirituality in generations past was anything but the Wild West. As recently as 1999, 70 percent of Americans were on the rolls at a house of worship. Today, it’s barely half. There’s evidence that weekly attendance is falling even faster.
If the rise of “seeker-sensitive” techniques, rock-concert-like atmospheres, and narthex coffee shops are any clue, the consumer, not the cowboy, may best personify the anti-institutional swing in American Christianity. Pew reports that a hefty 28 percent of self-identified Christians don’t attend services because “they haven’t found a church or house of worship they like.”
Church shopping-and-hopping (a largely modern hobby) is frequently based on stylistic, rather than doctrinal or practical, concerns. I’ve already poked fun at some of the cringiest efforts by congregations to rebrand themselves, often evoking night clubs and spas more than houses of prayer. Recently, I received a palm tree-bedecked brochure for a local nondenominational church that I stared at for several seconds before realizing it wasn’t an ad for a resort.
Today’s churchgoer is often a customer who’s always right, and many pastors and worship leaders will practically drop to their knees and beg them to show up on Sunday. But the lasers and lattes are almost certainly a response to privatized faith, not its cause.
“I’m spiritual but not religious” has become the creed of a generation for a reason. What millennials (as well as younger members of X and older members of Z) mean by it is that they don’t need the institutional church, its gospel, its sacraments, or even other believers to have the experiences they feel faith is all about.
The more temperate-sounding version of this slogan popular in evangelical circles — “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” — scarcely differs in meaning. Both imply that what happens on Sunday morning is really optional — that true Christian faith is what occurs in private between God and an individual, in prayer, Bible study, meditation, or spiritual experiences too vague for traditional religious vocabulary.
Not Going to Church Deprives Your Kids of Faith
What should fascinate (and worry) us is how transient this phase seems to be. Back in 1992, Gallup found that 70 percent of Americans were members of a church or synagogue. Since then, it’s plummeted to half. The “spiritual but not religious” have seen a corresponding surge, as have the related and overlapping “nones” (those with no religious identification).
But the groundswell of unaffiliated Americans isn’t coming mainly from religiously observant families. We’ve known how and why people stop identifying as Christian en masse for at least a decade now.
Pew’s 2009 “Faith in Flux” report found that both former Catholics and Protestants who became unaffiliated were “much less likely” to have “regularly attended worship services as a child and even less likely to have attended regularly as a teenager.” In addition, they were “much less likely to report having attended Sunday school or having had very strong religious faith as a child or a teenager.”
In other words, it is precisely those who treat organized religion as optional who can expect to see their kids abandon their beliefs. The now-common belief that “I can walk with God without other believers” is a delusion that can be numerically demonstrated. Disengaging from the church — even with high hopes of maintaining that “relationship” with Jesus at home — is one of the surest methods of strangling your faith and the faith of your children. According to all the best evidence we have, do-it-yourself Christianity rapidly ceases to be Christian. That’s probably one of the reasons the Bible tells Christians to do the opposite.
But private spirituality isn’t just a halfway house to unbelief. It also plunges people into a spider’s web of adverse correlations that faithful churchgoers avoid. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam documents in his book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” children who regularly attend church are “less prone to substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, and smoking), risky behavior (like not wearing seat belts), and delinquency (shoplifting, misbehaving in school, and being suspended or expelled).”
He continues, “Compared to their unchurched peers, youth who are involved in religious organizations take tougher courses, get higher grades and test scores, and are less likely to drop out of high school.” They also “have better relations with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, [and] are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities.” Children whose parents “attend church regularly” are even 40 to 50 percent more likely to go to college than those whose parents stay home on Sunday.
God Knows People Need Formal Commitments to Others
Oh, and consistent churchgoers are happier. A Pew survey published in January found that 36 percent of actively religious people say they’re “very happy,” compared with just 25 percent of the unaffiliated. Other surveys offer clues on why.
It turns out, for instance, that the more closely connected people are to members of their church, the more likely they are to report being “extremely satisfied” with their lives. Again, these benefits are connected with religious participation, not mere identity. The trends are so clear that Pew concludes: “Societies with declining levels of religious engagement, like the U.S., could be at risk for declines in personal and societal well-being.”
For Christians familiar with the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the essentially corporate and organized nature of Christianity — and its social benefits — should come as no surprise. In chapter 12, he likens the unity and diversity within the church to the organs of a body:
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.
Paul does not bother adding that no part of the body can long survive without the rest. But it’s as true of individual believers as it is of eyes and hands, which is why do-it-yourself faith is doomed to failure.
Christianity is the greatest source of lasting happiness mankind has ever known because it answers our deepest longing and deals with our darkest problems. But Christianity was never meant to be practiced in isolation. It simply doesn’t survive in such conditions. That’s why those who persist in leaving the church in favor of private spirituality will need that funeral director they trust so much to bury their faith and their children’s.