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Is Church Optional?

Joe Carter, an editor for The Gospel Coalition and of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, discusses why many Christians do not attend church, the importance of attendance, and how pastors and parishioners can better welcome visitors, particularly Millennials, into their congregations.

Joe Carter discusses church attendance

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Is Church Optional?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Thank you for joining us for this week’s Focus on Faith addition of Family Policy Matters, the weekly podcast and radio program of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. We’re right in the midst of the holiday season as you all know, and I certainly hope that in all the hustle and bustle, each of us are taking time for some all important rest, but even more importantly perhaps, to celebrate in the beautiful Glory of this season. I’m sure many of us notice an uptick in the activities of the church this time of year, and not just an increase in activity, but also in the number of attendees at services.

Well today, I’m excited to have Joe Carter here to help us explore why it is so important for us as practicing Christians to prioritize church attendance throughout the entire year. Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He’s the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and also author of the forthcoming book, The Life & Faith Field Guide for Parents. He recently wrote an article exploring a new Pew Research survey on church attendance that is entitled, “Why Christians Don’t Go To Church (and Why They Must).” Joe Carter, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

JOE CARTER: Thanks so much for having me on.

THOMAS GRAHAM: On this program, we like to focus on the personal aspect of how faith and public life intersect. So, would you give us a brief introduction on how you came to be a man of faith and what has motivated your work in this realm?

JOE CARTER: I came to Christ as a young boy and I grew up in a family of Believers. I went to church every Sunday when I was a child. But somewhere along my teen years I stopped going to church. In my early twenties, early thirties, I probably didn’t go to church that often. I realize now, I was a very nominal Christian, like a lot of Americans I thought all I needed was Jesus, and then Christ’s church, His bride, was optional. It wasn’t until I got back into church, I began to understand that if I’m not locking arms with other brothers and sisters, I’m probably not following Christ at all.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Joe, that’s just great, and I couldn’t agree more. As a pastor for 30-plus years myself, I’ve come to really value and appreciate so much the body of Christ, and recognize the importance of belonging to the body of Christ. But as we begin to explore this topic of church attendance, tell us about Pew’s recent findings about how, where, when, and why Americans attend religious services, would you please?

JOE CARTER: A new Pew research survey finds that the overwhelming reason why people attend church is because they want to feel closer to God. But the reasons they stay away from church are often more complicated. About one-third of all Americans don’t go, just because they are unbelievers. They just don’t believe in any kind of religious services. But a lot of people, who do believe, including a lot of Christians, also don’t attend regularly. And the main reason non-church-goers give for not attending worship service is because they say they practice their faith in other ways. And almost half of Evangelicals in this category say that this is the most important reason for them not going to church. The next most common reason—and about one-third of Evangelicals say this is why they don’t go—is because they haven’t found a church or house of worship they like. It’s mostly about preferences and what they think is best for them.

THOMAS GRAHAM: What do you think, Joe, are the primary factors that are motivating religious worship decisions and behaviors among Americans today? Perhaps you could expand on that.

JOE CARTER: I think all these factors can be lumped into what’s called “expressive individualism.” Expressive individualism is the idea that each one of us has our own way of […] and it’s our right and our duty to express that, our authentic individual self, however we choose and nobody else can tell us how to live and they can’t impose that on us. Now, many Christians don’t want to hear this, but this is the same motivation that underlies movements like transgenderism, the homosexual rights movement. It’s the same reason they give for not going to church. The person confused about the gender identity is being told by secular society, you know, you have to be who you are, you can’t let other people define you. And that’s also with Christians who don’t go to church are saying. They don’t want some institution telling them how they are expected to conform to their life, their faith. They don’t want to be told they are expected to submit to church elders. The command in Hebrews 13:17,to have confidence in the elders and submit to their authority, that’s deeply offensive to most Americans. They just don’t like that and so it offends them to think that God may have appointed some fallible human being to tell them how they can and cannot express their own identity.

THOMAS GRAHAM: So then let’s talk about the atmosphere of a church community. We know how impactful it can be on the decision by newcomers to return to a church. What can we do as active members of our churches then to create a more attractive atmosphere, and should that even be a concern of ours?

JOE CARTER: I think the first thing that we can do to make the church more attractive is to love the people who are already there. Jesus said in the book of John, “By this all people will know that you’re my disciples if you love one another.” What do newcomers see when they come in on Sunday morning? Does it look like a family reunion where everybody’s excited to see each other, or do they see us rushing past each other to get to the parking lot so we can get to lunch after service is over? We often assume that all newcomers just kind of pay attention to how we treat them. You know, we should certainly greet them warmly, and welcomed them with open arms, but the people who have been in church before kind of know that’s how people treat visitors. What they really want to see is how we treat each other, because that’s going to be, if they stick around, that’s going to be how we’re going to treat them longer. If we don’t love each other, it shows that we’re just—all we care about is getting the newcomers in and welcoming them to the point that they start giving their tithe, putting them on the rolls, and after that we’re going to be as concerned as we are with other people. So I think it really has an effect on how newcomers see us. 

THOMAS GRAHAM: Joe, there has been a good deal of research and discussion in recent years about the desire younger generations have to encounter a more robust and perhaps even more intellectual and challenging faith in churches. Why do you think this is, and how can churches give young people the experience of faith that they’re really seeking?

JOE CARTER: I think a lot of them turn to the church because they run out of options. Outside of the church, they’re just few institutions that take them seriously or challenge them intellectually. Almost everywhere they turn, they’re treated as if they’re watching reality TV. That’s certainly true in the political realm, obviously, but it’s even infected our universities. You can take classes now on reality TV shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians at Ivy League colleges. So they’re just not treated as intellectual beings anymore. There are a lot of churches, and I think there’s a growing number of them, that have remained committed to the intellectually rigorous faith and they’re realizing that’s the way to truly attract young people nowadays because young people want to be challenged. Many of them are going to college, studying computer science or economics or some other rigorous field, they don’t want to come to church and be dumbed-down as if they can’t handle it. And even those who don’t pursue higher education are reading books, binge watching TV series that are very complex and in depth, and of course, sustained attention, so they can handle complexity. And when it comes to matters of faith, we just need to communicate clearly and avoid obscurity, but we don’t need to dumb it down. We don’t need to pre-chew the food for them. They’re smart and their intelligence needs to be respected. And I think when we do that, we’ll attract them to our churches.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Joe Carter, with respect to the church that you attend in Virginia there, what sort of percentage of your overall demographic would be this Millennial generation, for example, college age?

JOE CARTER: Almost all of them are under 40 years old. I’m 49 and I’m one of the oldest people in the church. A lot of people are coming straight out of college and they’re moving to the DC area to take a job, work in government or in the tech industry. They’re very intelligent people and when they come to church they come with hard questions. They don’t want to just be given pet answers, and that challenges us as pastors to really work hard to be up to speed ourselves on how do we answer these questions?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Indeed. And I think when these young people come and they have probably more questions than we could even imagine, to be able to be in a position to address those questions, those inquiries that they’re making about faith, about God’s kingdom and so forth, what an honor, what a privilege to be able to be in that position to be a spokesperson on behalf of Kingdom Truths. Don’t you agree?

JOE CARTER: Absolutely. What I’ve found is people don’t expect you to have all the answers on the tip of your tongue. A lot of times I have to tell them: I don’t know how to answer your question right now. Give me a couple of days. I’ll research it and get back to you. And they really respect that and appreciate it. It’s not that they couldn’t find the answer themselves, but they trust me to find where to go to find the right answers to the problem. So pastors shouldn’t feel like they have to have all this knowledge in their head at a moment’s notice. They just need to be honest with people and tell them here, I’ll find out the answers for you and we’ll get back to you and we’ll help you with whatever you’re going through right now to answer the questions you have. And that’s really, I think, what this generation needs. They need people to respect them enough to say: I’ll help you, guide you on your faith at as part of your intellectual journey.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Excellent. I think all across our listening audience now, there are a whole bunch of pastors that are probably just breathing a great big sigh of relief hearing you say that, that they don’t have to be the answer man, with their head filled with all this fabulous knowledge and be able to dispense it at any given moment in time. That’s great brother! So thank you for that. You have written that while it’s not necessary to attend church to be a Christian, those who don’t attend probably aren’t Christian. Now I got to ask, is that too harsh do you think? Or is that a truth that we need to speak more boldly about?

JOE CARTER: I think we need to say it boldly, otherwise we’re misleading people into believing they’re Christians when they’re really not. If you’re Christian, then you should be in a community that is regularly gathered around Jesus and his Word. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are many believers in Muslim countries they may not have a church to go to. They’re shut-ins, who have no way to gather with others. But for the rest of us, for those were able bodied and living in America, we just don’t have an excuse why we can’t get it together and worship Christ with Christ’s Bride.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Well, that’s stating it quite plainly, and I think you’re right. We do need to be able to speak about this more boldly. I think oftentimes people are searching for excuses just to be well, lazy for one thing, with respect to their Christian life. Church leadership has a responsibility to help get them out of any kind of a laissez-faire approach to living the Christian life. Would you agree?

JOE CARTER: When I grew up in Texas, you know, Sunday was reserved for church. Nowadays, Sundays you have these sports leagues on Sundays. The parents are taking their kids to sports. If you can take kids to sports, you can come to church. You can find a way to get them ready and bring them to service and worship God. I’ve got a daughter who’s 24 and at that age they always find something else to do on Sunday morning. If you start them off when they’re younger, they may fall away for a while, but they’ll return the church just like I did that. You plant that seed and it will grow later in life. 

THOMAS GRAHAM: Hey Joe, what is the biblical mandate regarding church attendance and membership, and why is it so important to be part of that community?

JOE CARTER: A lot a nominal Christians think they’re off the hood since there’s no single verse that directly states: Thou shall attend church. Although it is clear that the expectation in every letter of the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. For example, earlier I mentioned the commanded in Hebrews to submit to one’s pastors. In the book of James, it tells us that if we’re sick we should go to our pastors and having pray over us. How can we do that if we don’t even have pastors? How can we follow any of the numerous other similar commands, if we are not part of a church? Scripture just makes it clear that the only way we can be obedient to Jesus and become more like Him, is to regularly attend church because that’s the only way we could follow the commands He has, related to the local church. 

THOMAS GRAHAM: So we’re just about out of time for this week, Joe. I’d like to take a few more minutes, but we are limited here, but before we go, where do you recommend listeners who are not currently regular church attendees, where do you recommend that they begin their search to find a community of believers to join and become part of?

JOE CARTER: At the Gospel Coalition we have a church directory where you can search for churches in your area. And on the website for most every denomination, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, you can find a way to search for churches in your area based on those denominations. Another great way is to simply ask people on social media. And don’t ask whether it has a good Sunday school program, ask if the preaching the Gospel-centered. Don’t ask if they have great worship music, ask if the people with the church love one another. Make it clear to people that what you’re seeking is not to join a social group that will allow you to express your individual preferences. You want to find a community where you can grow to being more like Jesus. 

THOMAS GRAHAM: Well said. Joe, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today, and for your witness and encouragement to each of us to join and engage in the community that is the body of Christ. So if people wanted to get to know more about what you’re offering there at the Gospel Coalition, wherever should they go to find you online?  

JOE CARTER: Just go to the Gospel Coalition. I write twice a week so you can usually find my stuff any time on the homepage.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Oh, great. Just go to The Gospel Coalition. Is 


THOMAS GRAHAM: Okay. Very good. Well, I’m sure our listeners are going to be tuning in and checking you out. Thank you again, Joe, and God bless you for all that you’re working to do in the body of Christ today. 

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