It’s hardly fair to blame evangelical churches for not teaching sound theology to someone who never darkens its door.
Last week I wrote a piece that highlighted the stunning results from Ligonier Ministries’ and LifeWay Research’s recent State of Theology study. It revealed some devastatingly theologically uninformed positions held by professing Evangelical Christians. I articulated some of my thoughts as to what could be at the root of the problem and why America’s churches are failing so miserably at teaching sound theology.
My article received some very productive and thoughtful feedback, with one reader positing a legitimate and important question: “I’d like to see a breakdown,” he wrote, “between those responding to these questions who attend church regularly versus those who don’t.” Anyone can self-identify as an Evangelical Christian, obviously. But it’s hardly fair to blame evangelical churches for failing to teach sound theology to someone who never darkens the door of that church.
The question became even more significant when Pew Research publicized their survey of why people choose not to attend religious services, like church. Despite our tendency to assume that people who don’t go to church don’t go because they don’t believe, that doesn’t appear to be the case. At all.
“Less than one-third (28 percent) say they don’t go because they are unbelievers. Among self-identified Christians, the predominant reason that non-churchgoers offer for not attending worship services is that they practice their faith in other ways. Almost half of evangelicals in this category (46 percent) say this is a very important reason for not going to church more often. The next most common reason evangelicals give for not attending services is that they haven’t found a church or house of worship they like (33 percent).”
Having operated an itinerant ministry for years now, and having spoken in several churches across the denominational spectrum, I can tell you that almost all of them could benefit from thinking about what this information says. So often churches assume that the reason people choose not to come to their services is because the church needs to do a better job being welcoming or hospitable.
But only 11% of people who don’t go to church cite that as a reason. What churches should be doing is figuring out how to express to people in their community who believe that they are Christians that they need to be part of a local church. Because they do need to be a part of a local church. That isn’t nearly as optional for Christians as what we often pretend. Of course salvation is not dependent upon church attendance. But Ricky Jones puts it as plainly as I’ve ever seen it put:
“I want you to understand that being a part of the universal church without submitting to a local church is not possible, biblical, or healthy.
“First, it’s simply not possible. To imply you can be part of the greater community without first being part of the smaller is not logical. You cannot be part of Rotary International without also being part of a local chapter. You cannot be part of the universal human family without first being part of a small immediate family.
“Second, it’s not biblical. Every letter in the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. The letters themselves are addressed to local churches. They teach us how to get along with other members, how to encourage the weak within the church, how to conduct ourselves at church, and what to do with unrepentant sinners in the church. They command us to submit to our elders, and encourage us to go to our elders to pray. All these things are impossible if you aren’t a member of a local church. (See 1 and 2 Corinthians, James, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and 1 Peter for references.)
“Asking where the Bible commands you to be a church member is like asking where the USGA rulebook for golf insists you be a human. The whole book is addressed to the church.”
This all sheds light onto that concerning “State of Theology” issue in America. Christianity isn’t a do-it-yourself, go-it-alone, walk-your-path journey. God initiated the local church for a reason, and true Christians will be a part of it. It is no wonder that people who reject it would have a confused theology.
So for those of us rightly concerned about the doctrinal answers of our fellow Americans, perhaps our first response shouldn’t be to blast the church, but instead start feverishly imploring our nominal Christian friends to attend one.
- Peter Heck – teacher, preacher, speaker, author, and servant of Jesus living in Kokomo, Indiana with his wife and three children.