The problem of the half-churched Christian

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I imagine many casual observers of the religious and political scene have been baffled by the news that self-identified evangelicals who support Donald Trump, sometimes called Trumpvangelicals, tend to go to church less often than those evangelicals who do not support Trump. Don’t all evangelicals go to church all the time?

Well, no. And it’s not just evangelicals. The definition of commitment to churchgoing has been changing noticeably. This is visible to anyone attempting to keep a church afloat. Though I will speak out of nearly forty years of Baptist church experience, the pattern goes far beyond my group.

It used to be that a committed Baptist was in church three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. Sunday morning offered Sunday School and worship. Sunday night included an evening Bible study and then another worship service. Wednesday night was church supper and prayer meeting. The seriously committed member often had another night of church: a committee meeting, visitation of church prospects, or community service. Total weekly time commitment: 6-8 hours, at least.

Today one still finds churchgoers who are in church “every time the doors are open,” which used to be one of our favorite Baptist phrases. Of course, those doors tend to be open less often. Many churches have entirely abandoned Sunday night services, Wednesday night church is fading, and some churches have even dropped Sunday morning Bible study.

But it’s not just that the doors are open less often. It’s that a smaller and smaller percentage of church members seem to be in church on the average Sunday morning. Regular church attenders are now defined as those who attend once or twice a month on a Sunday morning. The flock looks different every week because it is in fact a different group every week, a combination of die-hard weekly attenders, numerous sometime-attenders, and a steady flow of visitors.

There are indeed a lot of visitors. That’s because there are always people coming and going in the average congregation that I know. Commitment to any particular congregation often seems wafer-thin. People skip between multiple congregations or alight briefly one place before moving somewhere else.

This is about more than the mobile nature of US society. It’s about a weakening sense of what commitment to a church means, and must also be about failures on the part of many churches to be “sticky” enough to catch and hold people for any length of time.

I am wondering whether our virtual era helps people to feel like they are committed to a faith community even if they are rarely actually present. Podcasts, Facebook groups, email chains, and other means of communication seem to meet the church needs of some who rarely darken the doorstep of the church they say they attend. This is nice, I guess, but it’s hard to hug an internet connection.

So this is how pollsters can be finding a substantial group of “evangelical” Christians who are not often in church. Many, many people consider themselves Christians, or evangelicals, or Baptists, or even members of a particular congregation, but are in fact only very loosely described as active participants — at least by historic standards. They are not exactly what we used to call “nominal” Christians, because they are not just Christians in name only. They just define true Christian commitment more weakly than used to be the case.

This has multiple effects, most of them negative from my perspective. It becomes very hard to pastor a flock when the flock always changes. It is hard to feel deeply spiritually connected, hard to want to become vulnerable, to a group that is not stable in its membership. The mere whiff of conflict can terrify church leaders because it can accelerate the churn and potential loss of membership that is always a possibility anyway.

Perhaps most germane to the politics of the moment, it is hard for church leaders to teach anybody anything in a sustained manner if hardly anyone is present in a sustained manner. The more technical way to say it is that Christian spiritual and moral formation weakens because fewer congregants commit to that formation in any particular place. And pastors have reason to fear that just as soon as they say anything challenging — like about racial prejudice, greed, or violence — congregants who don’t like that message can drift out just as easily as they drifted in.

So, America has a whole bunch of half-churched Christians, some of whom would answer “evangelical” on a survey. This, I think, explains a lot about what is happening in our churches, and in society.

  • Jon

    For millennia, religions taught what was real – according to a society’s best understanding of the real world, and based on that, taught what was important. Those two things – what’s real, what’s important – have always been the role of religion.

    For over a century now, it’s been clear that the Christian churches are stuck in a bronze age understanding of what’s real. The Bibles clearly teache an outdated, and wrong, view of reality, with creationism, a worldwide flood, virgin births, flying people, talking animals, immortal & ghostly “souls”, magical crackers, and so on.

    As we understand the real world better, it can’t be a surprise that fewer and fewer people want to come to a place to hear fairy tales (and worse, are expected to pay people their hard-earned cash to support telling even more people those fairy tales). Thus, “what’s important” is lost too.

    Perhaps a reality-based religion will arise, dropping the Bibles. We’ll see…

  • David Price

    Well said. As a pastor, I commend the reader to consider Process Theology which is a real approach to theological understandings

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  • CLCB

    The more we rely upon our intellect, the less we rely upon God. The more we try to negotiate the world as it makes sense to us the more we abandon trying to operate in a world relying upon God to make sense of it for us. God as gracious and loving as He is has innately blessed (I wonder sometimes if it really is a blessing) us with the ability to accept what He says or reject it outright – AKA Free Will. More of us are opting to reject Him. Period.

  • Mirecourt

    I must admit to reading this with fear and trepidation, because I live with chronic guilt that I’m no longer in church – and I sincerely don’t know how to get back there. I was sexually abused by a pastor, and it was a laborious, daunting process to bring charges. In the end, he was only suspended for 2 years, when he should’ve been defrocked. A few months later, I ended up at a different church in a different denomination where, after 6 months, it was discovered that the pastor was sexually abusing a congregant – and he WAS defrocked. My faith took a huge hit, although I’ve continued to worship in my own way. It’s too difficult for me to trust any pastor now, but I can’t shake this horrible feeling that I’m supposed to be a part of a church, anyway. Please help. What on earth do I do from here? I feel like the Church has been stolen from me.

  • Rachel K

    Do you have church-going friends who can support you in entering a new congregation? The pastor is an important part of church but not the only part, and for you perhaps should not be the most important part. That way if someone on the staff is compromised you still have “church” in the sense of a congregation you are part of and supported by. If it’s theologically acceptable to you, you might look for a church with a woman pastor — less threatening but still someone “authoritative” in ministry.

  • Mirecourt

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. The church I left after the pastor was discovered to be abusing a congregant had a husband-and-wife pastor team. The pastor wife was very aware of what was happening with her pastor husband and chose to live in denial about it. I can’t trust that dynamic, either.

    The problem with this kind of abuse is that the entire congregation is abused, as well, and if they don’t deal with it properly and thoroughly, it will always be an unsafe place. I have no way of knowing what church is safe any longer.

  • John

    I don’t think Gushee is referring to non-believers like you and me. His description of the Trump evangelicals are those people who have vague but unshakable beliefs in a creator and an afterlife of reward or punishment. They would quickly self-identify as Christian, although they know or care little about the details of the religion.

  • Christine

    Jesus did not concern Himself with how many followers He had. When He spoke, He spoke the truth of the gospel and let people decide for themselves if they want to accept or reject it. Once one accepts Christ, fellow believers (the church) must strive to keep the person fed spiritually; otherwise the person will fall away. The problem with churches today is they don’t provide enough spiritual food – it tastes horribly bland and doesn’t foster any real spiritual growth. Is it any wonder people stop going or remain as “babes” spiritually? I am happy to have found a church that promotes spiritual growth. Too many don’t.

  • G Key

    David Gushee’s turns of phrase in saying, “People skip between multiple congregations or alight briefly one place before moving somewhere else” [which] “must also be about failures on the part of many churches to be ‘sticky’ enough to catch and hold people,” makes me wonder whether trapping flies is a valid church concern.

    If the church teaches a truly sour set of beliefs, and if those beliefs are too sour to attract & hold such flighty-alighty pests, where is the religious virtue in scheming to distract the ensnared from the truth by covering those sour beliefs with ever-increasing coats of honey?

    People have the right to come and go as they please. I think that this freedom should be respected if not encouraged as a path to spiritual enlightenment and to empathetic respect for others’ beliefs.

    And I certainly hope this Dipteran concern isn’t based on matters of mammon, because that really would be a fly in the ointment of truth.

  • Fran

    I go to my congregation twice every week; and if I am sick and unable to attend, I can listen to to the entire meeting on a phone line that is accessible to all. ? We are also encouraged to read and meditate on the Bible on a daily basis.

  • Wm. Carroll

    I am a retired Pastor and have moved around between different churches and different denominations (mostly Main Line) for over 12 years. Why? Mostly because: 1 – I never know what to expect when I go to a new church. For one thing it takes around 4 Sunday attendances in a row before anyone speaks to my wife and I. 2 – I am disappointed about the “new” pastor who is quite young, wears jeans, and a T-shirt. He plays a guitar. She does sacred dance. 3 – I find the congregation is exploring or in the process of changing to a new denomination. 4 – My wife and I are Elderly and subject to medical problems.
    Having been a “High Church” sort of guy, I’m not at all comfortable with nearly each Sunday Service changing around to something I’ve never experienced before – nor learned about in Seminary. Is it any wonder that we never went back?

  • Jane

    Dear Mirecourt, I am so sorry that you have gone through this. Many years ago I left a church after experiencing abuse at the hands of the pastor, sending me into a serious crisis. I ended up briefly in the community of a cult. Thankfully I was able to discern that this is what was happening, and though I was longing for the embrace they were offering, I knew it was not a place that was healthy. I also knew I needed somewhere. I feel strongly that you do too. For all it’s imperfections, a local congregation is absolutely where it’s at for discipleship.

    Eventually the pastor who had abused me got into more hot water and exited the church I had left. After much soul searching and prayer I chose to return. It was not easy. Several years had to pass before I felt at home again. But God was faithful to me and in the end it was totally worth it.

    My advice to you is: trust God and try again. He is mighty and will hold you. Don’t let your abuser steal any more of what is yours.

  • Michael

    I would almost agree. I am as “theologically liberal” as possible. I do believe that one must have a framework freed from the “biblical worldview” espoused by fundamentalists and the like. However, once a “reality based” theology is developed, the Bible can be reinterpreted in a very meaningful way–even the most gruesome and seemingly irrelevant passages. If the Bible is understood as a collection of writings of those seeking the truth and not those inerrantly expressing the truth, one finds beautiful insights into a shared journey. So, I would not “drop” the Bible. I would interpret correctly, with a “reality based” view.

  • Jon

    Yes, I’ve seen many take/try that approach, and thought a lot about it. I have to say that maybe it would work sometimes. I think that’s at least an honest and realistic attempt.

    Some concerns – with frequent mention/use of a Bible, frequent disclaimers are needed, or else it reverts back to propagating a fundamentalist view (since that’s what the words say). I’ve seen it also teach people (especially kids) that the Bible is good, and then they grow up and become fundamentalists.

    I guess it comes down to the fact that simpler messages are those that get through, and “believe this Bible” is simpler than:

    “this Bible has an incorrect worldview and many harmful messages, but if we interpret it non-literally, which means this…. this…. and this…. and don’t forget this… , then this Bible is OK. Oh and don’t forget this passage, which can be interpreted like this……”. . .. .

  • I think there is a lot of truth here. As a pastor for 40 years I have watched this slide away from deep commitment on the part of many church members to a more nominal connection. There are more of “tourists and fewer pilgrims” to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase. I like the insight that congregations are not “sticky” enough. And my impression of even vital congregations is that they have a faithful core of folks involved in serious Christian formation. I also have come to believe that the descriptor “Evangelical”, as used by the media in a political context, has been drained of any useful religious content. Thanks for another good post.

  • David Scott

    I couldn’t agree more. At times, it seems that the Bible has become the focus of Christianity and not the practice of living a Christian life. We have made the book an idol or a religious prop. In order for Christianity to “sell,” it’s got to be a product that gives people insight into living real lives and solving real problems. Church has also got to be a place that encourages people TO think and HOW to think morally instead of WHAT to think.

  • Jones

    Yep, we pretty much know everything there is to know or ever will be. Why have a God when we can be our own, right?

    So like Gamaliel said in 33 A.D., this whole Christianity thing will all come to nothing in a few years if there really is no living God behind it.

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  • Jones

    Didn’t the Apostle Paul skip between congregations and churches as well? My church doesn’t even recognize my ministry at the homeless shelter as “official church work”, putting a bigger premium on spraying weeds and finding a bookshelf.

    Sorry, but I think real Christianity happens “out there” much like comparing the locker room to the actual playing field.

  • Anonychurchmouse

    Fostering guilt in those who don’t attend every service a Church holds doesn’t drives people away even further. Maybe we need to have an honest look at judging someone’s entire Christian commitment by their weekly, hourly Church attendance…or does that make me a useless worthless Christian to dare even suggest it? Maybe, but I might still have a point..speaking from experience…when I know that this is how you are evaluating me, silently but obviously (and I DO know), it doesn’t make the situation any better. I need help, not my scorecard marked (or not marked in this case).

  • RocksCryOut

    “The church’s defense of inerrancy rests upon the church’s confidence in the view of Scripture held and taught by Jesus himself. We wish to have a view of Scripture that is neither higher nor lower than his view.” -R.C. Sproul

  • G Key

    Unsure what you’re responding to. I said nothing here about “out there”. I said that learning about others’ beliefs & learning to respect them is a virtue, and that church leaders shouldn’t stress themselves or others out just because people don’t only & always go to their church.

    One pastoral policy my parents taught me was deference to other people’s personal, spiritual, existential boundaries. What lies within is private & precious; open-minded queries may be answered at the owner’s discretion, but unsolicited commentary is forbidden. Faith, fundamentally, is subject to personal boundaries. Contradictory claims presume inequality, advocate trespass, and sanction cruelty; they profane other people’s beliefs.

    Regarding “out there”, “locker room”, and “playing field”, if you are implying that others’ beliefs are merely a ball for you to grab and redirect in a competitive game, then I invite you consider how disrespectful that is of others’ beliefs.

  • Pete L. Godbey

    Amen, Pastor Floyd.

  • Kurt

    Lord have mercy. You must know that those who hold such positions in Christ’s church will be judged more severely. Don’t be a victim, be a victor! You are supposed to be part of a church. We all are. It’s dangerous for us to worship in our own way. We are self deceiving. All of us. After my divorce, I was broken and searching, Here is what I found:

  • Kurt

    High Church being liturgical among other great attributes? Have you heard of the Orthodox church?

  • Kurt

    God doesn’t force himself on us. He is waiting for us to come home to him. The parable of the Prodigal Son brought me to tears when I did not know where to turn. I found love and acceptance in God. I found God in the Orthodox church.

  • Stephen Pruett

    Many modern “evangelicals” would not have been recognized as such by members of the church in the first century. The descriptions of the early church in the book of Acts are quite remarkable and help us understand why evangelical Christianity swept across the world in a surprisingly short period of time.

    I think Dr. Gushee is correct in the basic premise that most Christians now are “half-churched”. This has diluted the distinctiveness and some of the positive attributes characteristic of first century believers that predisposed non-believers to be open to their message.

    An additional complication was abandonment of first principles by many in the evangelical community in the interest of political involvement. By associating closely with politicians, evangelicals conveyed the message that Christ was not sufficient, but that political solutions were required. If evangelicals do not believe and live like Christ is the solution to humanity’s problems, they really have…

  • Pastor Juan+

    Pretty good article… Lots of truth in it. On the other hand, it is pretty sad to see that both the article and the comments fail to address the fact that the main problem in our churches is that Christianity abandoned the DISCIPLIC MOVEMENT that Lord Jesus left (Matthew 28:18-20). Fact is, that the average Christian has no idea that his or her religion is a DISCIPLIC religion, and not just a “faith community” or “spirituality.” We have become a religion where everyone with a Study Bible and Google is a “teacher,” and where doctoral speculations take preeminence over the solid teachings of the Apostolic Fathers. (disciples of the Apostles). Disciples do not choose Teachers, but Teachers choose disciples. It is up to the Pastor-Teachers of our congregations to CHOOSE potential disciples and to begin to make a distinction between them and the general “Hearers.” We need to stop trying to be “sticky” for “Hearers,” and begin to build DISCIPLES.

  • Pastor Juan+

    Dear Jon, thank you for your most entertaining comment. First of all, since you are NOT a “Christian” of any sort, you really have nothing to contribute to my religion. Let that sink in for a moment….
    Second, your lack of philosophical discernment is exemplary of the detractors of Christianity. Think for a moment… If “reality” is always changing according to perception, then it is not “reality,” but rather an ILLUSION. This means, that you accept (at least theoretically) that your perception (at this time) can become “better” in the future, which would make your past understanding of so-called “reality,” to have been “outdated, and wrong,” (As you say)
    It would be best for you to stick to the use of the word “perception” rather than “reality,” since your “reality” is but a passing “perception.”
    …and by the way, since you are not a disciple of Christ, you know absolutely nothing about His Gospel nor the Bible.

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  • Mikehorn

    As a freelance musician that has made a good bit of money from church gigs, I can give a reason why some religions have reaped what they’ve sown: saving by faith alone. I’ve been to some churches that talk about helping people. Sometimes those in need everywhere, sometimes church members in need, but worthwhile action. But once the pastor was talking about a woman who, reading between the words of faint praise and backhanded compliments, was a truly terrible person. She died rich, mistreated most people, complained constantly, tried to run everything she was involved in, and never did a good deed for anyone, not a kind word. Not even the least she could do. But this pastor kept going on about she had such faith, such strong faith, never missed a church service or outing (no doubt making it bad for others) that her faith had saved her and she was eternally rewarded.

    When you preach that awful people have eternal bliss, that is really not helping.

  • cken

    All fairy tales and mythologies have a nugget of truth in them or they wouldn’t last so long. It is up to us to get past a memorable story and ascertain the underlying meaning. Given how bad our education system has gotten in the last 30 or 40 years and the amount of work it takes to uncover meaning, I can understand why many don’t try. It is after all much easier to believe the fairy tales cloaked in the garb of science.

  • cken

    I got shot by a kid just wanting to kill somebody to get into a gang, and I understand how hard it is to bounce back from a trauma, especially a trauma that includes both physical and psychological aspects. I would suggest you try a couple of very small nondenominational churches where it is easier to get to know people and you aren’t judged. I wouldn’t reveal my problem for quite awhile until you are sure at that church you won’t be told the solution to your problem is some religious platitude like pray and read the bible. Yes both of those can help but a good church is a support group not a judgmental group. Many times for those who suffer such trauma the most difficult thing is forgiving yourself and then forgiving the perpetrator. Only after both can you fully recover. I wish you the best. In the meantime hold your own church by yourself or with a friend to meditate, read, and pray. Who knows maybe you will start your own church where divine love and spiritual growth are the…

  • Thomas Didymus

    The Church has got to change—and not in the ways that clergy on the left as well as the right think it should change.

    (1) Recognize that instead of ‘church membership’ they should be thinking of ‘church use: church as a public facility, like a library, shopping mall or gym where people go to get the goods and services they need—or want. Some shoppers are loyal to their preferred shops; most not, and there’s no reason why they should be.

    (2) Recognize that churches don’t have the authority to teach. Lay people have the resources to get all the information they want and the education to understand it. The time for preaching is over. What the church should be supplying is just what people cannot get elsewhere: the cult and holy places, liturgy and church buildings.

  • rtcdmc

    You sound like one of those souls who wanders, and likes to complain about wandering.

    If Christianity doesn’t call you, there are plenty of other religious traditions and spiritual philosophies. Rather than complain that Christianity isn’t what you hoped, go forth and do the hard work of finding what speaks to you.

    I say this because your comments reveal an emotional need to believe in something.

    Or accept that you are an atheist.

    One last note: if you think that humans are significantly different than our bronze age predecessors, then you do not understand humans, history, or reality. Good luck on your journey.

  • Gregj

    Hebrews 11 talks about people of faith. All of them looked for something better. A “heavenly” something better. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. A lifetime probably defines who those faithful people are best.

    When it’s all said and done I want to look like one of those no matter what that might look like.

  • cken

    Not quite sure how you got those impressions. I just question everything. I have no problem with the basic tenets of Christianity held within the teachings of Jesus.
    I couldn’t be an atheist because that would be to deny the metaphysical, and I would have to accept pretty much all science at face value, which I can’t do.
    I agree humans haven’t changed in terms of their basic nature in over 10,000 years.
    I just think to accept everything we are told from either the religious or scientific community is to be naive or at least lacking in erudition.

  • cken

    You should define the DISCIPLIC MOVEMENT. Without your definition to explain otherwise I would assert discipleship was abandon before the religion was consolidated and organized in 325AD. Furthermore I would assert nobody today is willing to make the sacrifices Jesus required of his disciples. Not even the most pious among us.

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  • David,
    Thanks for this. I have a hunch that among people younger than 45 ‘miracles’ are now being done by technology not by God or apostles, and ‘inclusiveness’ has become the ‘global’ virtue that keeps people from feeling ‘at home’ in any tribal environment. So younger generations are enjoying ‘miracles’ and ‘love of neighbor’ in a general ‘spiritual mode’ that requires no affiliation commitment.

    The price is wafer thin community experiences. Same goes for economic employment–very little loyalty to a company. We could go all the way with this and say marriage and children rearing are now also ‘optional’ respectable ways of living. We can change spouses and family relations without being scolded.

    The term ‘relationship’ now is ubiquitous. It is an ambiguous way of avoiding specific long term commitments to friendship, marriage, membership, discipleship, etc. The lack of trust between us and with God is evident as we keep our options much more open…

  • cken

    So in other words what you are saying is technology is a major factor generally in people having commitment issues. You may be right but I think today’s religious organizations rather than developing a scapegoat like technology should look at what needs to be renovated in their own house.

  • yoh

    Well that was a long winded way to tell someone to buzz off. Full of apologetic nonsense and bile.

    If your reality changes because you perceive more of it around you or perceive it clearly, it is called learning. Its called evidence. Its how we acquire evidence and information in ways not having to do with supernatural visions and faith. Learning more about the world around you is not something to be derided, its to be lauded.

    Your post drips of arrogance and maliciousness. Something one has come to expect from people who claim to know God’s will to the letter.

  • G Key

    ” ‘inclusiveness’ has become the ‘global’ virtue”, yet
    “The price is wafer thin community experiences.” ?

    How are “inclusive” “community experiences” “wafer thin”?

    Why would “people younger than 45” (or older, thank you) want to belong to any organization — religious or corporate — that uses “tribalism” as an excuse to treat some people better that others?

    At least corporations don’t claim to be moral.

    And at least all religious subgroups under that same religious name don’t consider it moral to respect some people & disrespect others.

    Internal moral conflict doesn’t befit any religious organization. I wish the various religious subgroups would get together and decide once and for all, under their one God, whether it’s moral to be “exclusive”.

    Especially before taking it outside of their ranks and letting the public have it.

  • Joseph M

    James 1:5New International Version (NIV)

    5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

    God knows where you should be. Ask Him.

  • Joseph M

    The issue is that it’s really hard to build a community with people who are only there once a quarter. The Church is to be the “Body of Christ”. Consider the shape you would be in if your fingers and toes (or spleen) were only there once a week.

  • bret

    After reading this article and especially the comments, I thank God for leading me to orthodox Catholicism.

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  • Clint Miller

    Thank You Pastor Juan! You’re accused of arrogance and maliciousness when being bluntly honest. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is documented. So it seems some reality is to be accepted and some is not.

  • cken

    Pastor Jaun The bible has many great life lessons which need to be applied to today’s world. Fortunately human nature hasn’t changed in at least 10,000 years so the lessons are very relevant. However for those who insist on taking everything in the Bible literally they run into a myriad of problems with consistency and contradictions. Some of the Bible should be taken literally and much taken allegorically. What is difficult is discerning which is which. When it comes right down to it Christianity is based on faith. We have to have faith in things like God, soul, heaven, hell satan, and the Holy Spirit. They are all things we can’t comprehend. Man has created images and stories to aid us, but we don’t know what they are made of. We don’t know where they are. We can’t define them in any definitive sense of physical reality.. And we can’t perceive them with our five senses. In essence we have to have faith in the metaphysical and things unseen. Some day we may understand now we…

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