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The problem of the half-churched Christian

On the negative effects of the wafer-thin church commitment that characterizes many self-identified Christians.

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.