Not Forsaking the Fellowship

Several years ago, LifeWay Christian Resources (a division of the Southern Baptist Convention) conducted a research study with the intent to determine why many professing evangelical Christians stop attending church. The results of their study—determined from a survey of 469 “evangelical Christian adults” who stopped attending a local church—are extremely revealing, and we can learn much from them. While I am often wary of research surveys and statistics, the results of LifeWay’s study are enlightening, not only due to the relevant topic of consideration but also because the results coincide with what I have experienced in fourteen years of pastoral ministry and a lifetime of observing people come and go in churches. Likewise, many pastors I have spoken to through the years have found the same conclusions to be true as well. What did the study find, and what are the answers to the problem?

According to the LifeWay study, almost 60 percent of adults who used to attend church but stopped attending at one point said they left their churches due to “changes in their life situation.” According to the study, the top two “changes” are as follows: “simply got too busy to attend church” and “family/home responsibilities prevented church attendance.” Brad Waggoner, president of LifeWay Research, offered some accurate and interesting analysis of these two leading reasons for discontinuing church attendance. He said, “It is interesting that the most prevalent reasons come down to personal priorities rather than an external change in the person’s life” (Baptist Press, 10-24-06). Sadly, this is so often the case today. Professing Christians, including those in Bible-believing, fundamentalist churches, claim to know Jesus Christ and claim to desire to fulfill His will, yet God’s will (which includes faithful church attendance) is not a priority in the life and home. Is this the fault of the individual, or is this the fault of the church leadership? Again, Waggoner elaborates: “In some cases, we’ve (church leaders) done a poor job of grounding people in their faith and making sure that their own understanding of Scripture and their own commitment to the local church is where it needs to be.” Waggoner cites author Greg Ogden to further support his claim that church leaders are partly to blame for this problem. “Christian leaders seem to be reluctant to [proclaim] the terms of discipleship that Jesus laid out,” Ogden writes. “What are the reasons for our reluctance? We are afraid that if we ask too much, people will stop coming to our churches. Our operating assumption is that people will flee to the nearby entertainment church if we ask them to give too much of themselves. So we start with a low bar and try to entice people by increments of commitment, hoping that we can raise the bar imperceptibly to the ultimate destination of discipleship.” As a pastor of a local church, I must admit that Waggoner and Ogden’s claims are sometimes true. Yet this should not—it must not—be the case.

Another author has provided an alternative answer to the question “Whose fault is it if people stop coming to church?” Peter Beck, pastor of an SBC congregation in Louisville, KY, wrote in a recent Baptist Press column, “Christians who stay away from church for any reason other than health or travel are living in outright rebellion against the revealed will of God. They are out of communion with each other. They are out of communion with Christ. Worse, their absence may in fact suggest that they’re not really children of God after all.” He continued, “Jesus said, ‘If ye love Me, keep my commandments’ (Jn. 14:15). Those who rebel against the most basic of commandments concerning church [attendance, Heb. 10:24-25] reveal a dysfunctional relationship with Christ. It’s time we start treating those people like lost people, not lost children who’ve meandered a little too far into the woods. These people may never come out of the woods. We need to stop waiting for them to return, stop treating them like members, and start treating them like unbelievers. We need to share something more than good memories with them. We need to share the Gospel” (BP, 10-23-06).

As biblical fundamentalists, we can learn much from considering these research results as well as these two responses to the problem. Church pastors/elders have the responsibility to shepherd God’s flock faithfully. This means they must not be timid about the importance and application of true discipleship—which includes exhorting each person who attends their local church to be faithful in church attendance. Yet each person sitting in the pew—those who do have a faithful, bible-believing, local church to attend—must also do his or her part to make sure, first, that he or she is truly saved, and second, that God’s will is the foremost priority in his or her life. Anything less on the part of church leaders or laymen is demonstrating a lack of obedience and faithfulness to God. Now is not the time to let up and grow indifferent or complacent in the Christian life. On the contrary, we must be challenged more than ever before to be faithful and obedient servants of Jesus Christ and earnest contenders for the faith once delivered unto the saints. Now is the time to stand behind faithful churches and ministries that are battling the many foes that exist in our age. We must not allow Satan to render us ineffective ministers of Jesus Christ. Rather, we need to be “stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Let us diligently press forward in faith and obedience and true discipleship. — Matt Costella