The so-called decline of the Christian church in America is a big topic of discussion among Christians nowadays. Many churches, and indeed even entire denominations, are facing marked declines in attendance. Even in my own church, simply maintaining, let alone growing attendance is a constant battle. And so you will find article after article attempting to explain the reasons why this is happening. Indeed, much of it has to do with a lack of faith and belief in our current culture. But in many cases, even people that do believe are failing to attend weekly worship. Why is that?
As a pastor, I have read many such articles, and while they may have some good things to say, and some good reasons for why it is so difficult to get people to come to church, they all miss one important factor. The majority of churches in the United States are non-sacramental. From Baptist to Reformed, they believe that things like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are purely symbolic, and therefore somewhat meaningless and unnecessary. I will tell you why I think this has such a huge effect on getting believing people into church.
If people see no value in church, if they see nothing at church that they cannot get either on their own or from somewhere else, they will not come. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a believing person say, “I can worship God on my own. I don’t need to do it in a church.” It is as simple as that. And there are more ways available to us to get the same things we used to get from church today than at any other time in history. Do you want to hear a good message? You can hear one online, or watch it on TV, or read about it on the Internet. You want to hear worship music? You can download it off of iTunes. You want a sense of community and belonging? You can join CrossFit!
Of course, those things are actually no substitute for the spiritual life we find when we gather together as Christian people to worship. And the Bible does say “do not give up on meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). But I think we actually have an even better reason for why we should gather together in worship. It is not just that it is a better way to get the things we can get elsewhere, nor is it simply that we are commanded to do it. The truth is there is something that we can ONLY FIND IN WORSHIP TOGETHER with other Christians gathered around someone in the Office of the Pastoral Ministry: the Sacraments. When you understand that things like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and while not technically a sacrament, we can include Confession and Absolution) are things in and through which God acts and which should be properly exercised together as the body of Christ, you understand there is something in corporate worship you cannot get by yourself or from some other place. It is something unique to the Christian church and Christian corporate worship.
I understand that there are biblical and theological arguments behind certain denominations’ rejection of the sacraments. And I would not expect them to suddenly change just to get people into church. But in rejecting them, they have deprived themselves of one of the prime motivating factors for people to come and worship together at church. Ultimately, this is not the reason why I am Lutheran or Sacramental. I would believe as I do based on Scripture even if it did not provide us with another reason to worship together. However, it does give us something to offer that other churches do not have. It does give us a reason why people should still come to church even when they can get so many other aspects of worship from somewhere else. I think we should remind people of that and celebrate it!