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FIRST-PERSON: 3 factors that lead to unchurched Christians


According to Lifeway Research, among Protestant pastors in the United States, 3 in 5 consider someone in their congregation a regular churchgoer if they attend church at least twice a month. Come to church every other Sunday (26 times a year) and you’re now considered a regular in the American church. To say that infrequent is the new frequent is not an exaggeration.

The local church has lost its prominence and priority in the life of far too many professing Christians. According to Lifeway Research’s State of Theology report, 54 percent of evangelicals believe worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.

Believing one doesn’t have to go to church to be a Christian is as commonplace as believing Jesus was born in a Bethlehem manger. This is the new normal, and church leaders cannot pretend this is acceptable. The Scriptures have no category for the unchurched Christian.

I believe three factors are at play in creating the far too large category of “unchurched Christian.”

1. The “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis of 1990s youth ministry

Growing up as a teen in the ’90s, it seemed every sermon was about a “personal relationship with Jesus.” It was centered on you and God. Your relationship, your “quiet time,” and Jesus functioning as your close friend. Certainly, the Bible communicates that the children of God have a relationship with their heavenly Father and should grow in that relationship.

This emphasis has had long-ranging effects we’re experiencing as those 1990s teens are now adults, raising families of their own. If it’s all about a personal relationship, why not have church on the golf course, boat, or Sunday brunch?

As Christians, we’re a corporate people who are not to neglect gathering (Hebrews 10:25). We have a personal faith we live out corporately as the family of God in the context of local churches. That’s the design and framework of the New Testament, and that sovereign plan has not changed.

2. Indifference

It’s easy to get out of the habit of regularly going to church, and before you know it, you’re not going at all. A shoulder shrug is one of the biggest obstacles to local church attendance today. Other happenings and the busyness of life take priority. With that indifference comes no longer believing the church is relevant or even needed for one’s faith.

Years of hearing, “You don’t go to church; you are the church” and, more recently, that “circles are better than rows” – undermining the significance of the gathering and preaching and suggesting a small group conversation is more important – have aided the indifference.

3. Affluence

While church attendance being a priority goes beyond economic class, I’ve noticed in my context that when one moves up in income brackets and has more disposable money available, church commitment lessens. A local pastor once told me, “When someone gets a beach house, kiss ’em goodbye.” I’ve found this to be true.

In the state where I live, the beach, Disney World annual passes, and travel sports have made church an afterthought. For many, having the means to participate in those things changes the priority of formerly committed church members. More money often equals more options.

It’s easy to point to the hypocrisy of Christian leaders and scandals in the church as to why church has become less of a priority. That doesn’t add up, however, because the study from Lifeway Research isn’t about leaving the church but rather about church being less of a priority and seldom attending becoming the new regular.

We must see church attendance as part of the discipleship process. There’s more to Christian growth and discipleship than being at church on Sunday morning, but there’s certainly not less. Pastors must preach and teach on why the gathering matters and how it’s part of the blueprint the Bible gives believers for their faith, relationship, and witness to the world.

Yes, the church is people – but a people regularly gathered in worship. The local church may have lost her luster in the American eyes but not in God’s. The church was His idea, after all. How amazing that we get to participate in God’s grand design for His people, the local church.