I with respect to the recent census results on religious affiliation, I recently commented that “I’d expect to see these numbers drop considerably as time goes on – because the headline figure of 52% of Australians identifying as ‘Christian’ vastly overstates the number of people heading to churches”, and I thought that this warranted some more comment.
The census results show that if prompted, 52% of Australians will identify as Christian (in some way, shape or form). In other surveys I’ve heard quoted, at most 15% of Australians attend a church ‘frequently’, although ‘frequently’ in those surveys is defined as ‘once a month or more’.
I’m very reluctant to take seriously any claims to be Christian from people who don’t attend a church regularly (and I’m not sure one a month could be counted as regular, or is even an accurate measure, for reasons I won’t go into here).
This is not to say that church attendance equals faith in Jesus. Faith in Jesus should be manifested in multiples ways – an expectation of his return, a desire and effort to convince others to follow Jesus, sharing communion (sacraments/the Lord’s supper), being part of the body of Christ as the Spirit gifts us, submitting ourselves to the revelation of God in scripture and the authority of the Body of Christ, loving others, praying faithfully, putting Jesus first in all things, and caring for those in need, among others.
When you choose not to attend a church faithfully and regularly, contributing to it as part of the body of Christ, you are choosing to remove yourself from the practice of Christian faith. Yes, being a Christian is about faith in Jesus, but its faith in Jesus on Jesus’ terms, not your own.
The Bible describes faith in Jesus as being like a marriage. You don’t get to pick and choose which bits of a marriage suit you, and you don’t get to pick and choose which bits of following Jesus you want. The idea that you can do this owes itself to a sinful and selfish part of individualistic and consumeristic society. Our sinful culture tells us that its what we want that counts, what suits us that is important, and we can opt out of anything for any reason. Which is not what the Bible describes.
What reasons do people give for not attending church regularly? I’ve heard plenty. There are the personal disputes which keep some people away – because they refuse to obey Jesus and forgive as God has forgiven you. There are those who don’t attend because their local church doesn’t do things they way they want (whether service, sermon, music or anything else), which puts their own personal preference above God’s people as a whole. There are those who find it inconvenient, or want a rest on Sunday – who would never dream of giving up on anything other than meeting with God’s people and effectively put Jesus last in their list of priorities. Then there are those who seek to impose their will on a church or pastor, and refuse to attend because they can’t get their own way, making themselves the ultimate authority in all things. I could go on and on, but the point is, it is usually only sinful and selfish reasons that people don’t attend church.
Sinful and selfish doesn’t describe faithful to Jesus (well, it does, but only because that is why we need Jesus). It describes someone in open rebellion against Jesus. The easiest part of obedience to Jesus is meeting with his people each week to share in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, heard the word of God read and proclaimed, pray together and sing God’s praises. Can you really skip the easiest part and do the more difficult things and remain in faith?