Skip to main content

What this survey really tells us

The Barna Group recently released another survey, this one on church going in America. The numbers aren’t surprising, and I’ll leave it to others to mull all that over. The most revealing part of the survey isn’t even the reasons that people give for not/attending church. For me, the most revealing aspect is what the survey asks—and what that reveals about the way we understand “church.”
The survey focused on whether people attend church, how often, and why they do/don’t attend. According to the report, the results reveal that America is evenly divided on if church is important, and then goes on to explore why Christians think it is important.  

But perhaps the question shouldn’t be if or why church is important but even more basic: What is the church? If we start there, we’ll find a road that will lead to a new way of approaching church (and, perhaps, the surveys we use to evaluate it).

For this reason, I appreciated the inclusion at the end of the article of Jon Tyson’s approach of going back to the early church while reflecting on Barna’s results (but then, I do have strong Anabaptist leanings). That is an excellent place to start exploring what is the church.

Today, we commonly use “church” to refer to a building or place we go, but for early believers it means something different.  “Ekklesia” is a Greek word referring to a calling out of citizens. They are the called-out ones of the kingdom-coming, the people of God. In TheUpside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill says, “The church consists of the citizens of the kingdom… . The church isn’t a building, a sanctuary or a program. It’s the visible community of those who live by kingdom values.” And this church has a mission: “The church is not a place to which people go,” says Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement, “but a spiritual body that is on a mission to draw, as did Jesus, others to the One who sent him.”

In other words, we are the church—not a place to go but a people to be. And we are designed and called to live like a family.

Integral to Jesus’ kingdom movement, says Joseph Hellerman in When the Church Was a Family, was creating an alternative and surrogate family — one characterized by family-like relationships and bonds in which we’d be consistently and persistently loved, our physical needs met, our gifts nurtured. “People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed,” Hellerman says. “They converted because of the way in which the early Christians behaved … The ancient Christians were known for their love for one another.” And because they lived out church as God intended, “the whole Roman Empire ultimately bowed its knees to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.”

As God’s people today, we talk about being a family, but the reality too often falls way short of the early church experience. Yet we are called and enabled to live like this, too.

This has been part of God’s plan from the beginning, says Hellerman: “Biblical salvation is a community-creating event. We are saved not simply to enjoy a personal relationship with God; we are saved to community:”
…. when we get a new Father we also get a new set of brothers and sisters. In Scripture, salvation is a community-creating event…… To be sure, ours sin must be forgiven or we cannot enter a community inhabited by the Spirit of the Living God. But God’s overarching goal since Pentecost (as was the case in the Old Testament) is the creation of His group. And under the new covenant, God’s group is His church—a society of surrogate siblings whose interpersonal relationships are to be characterized by all the family attributes encountered in the previous chapters of this book.
What does “a society of surrogate siblings” look like? When we look at Scripture, says Hellerman, it is characterized by “intimate, healthy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” In the Roman world, says Hellerman, Christians “placed the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and “could count on support from the community to meet their material and emotional challenges that often came with commitment to Jesus.” Above all, Hellerman notes, Christians became known by what Jesus said they would be known by and even sought after: their love. God’s family becomes a living, breathing message of the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

Surveys like this one, however, still approach church as place to go and measure it in numbers and size (incidentally, the way our consumer culture views health and success).

It wasn’t surprising to me that community is one of the least cited reasons people seek church. I have a confession to make: I don’t “go” to church for community, either. The way we define and structure church today, especially Sunday mornings (and that is the core occurrence surveys like this measure) doesn’t make much for community or family. Like many others across  America, I walk in the door of a building, talk with a few friends,  sit in a row of facing a stage, sing songs of worship, listen to a sermon, stand in line to take communion with my kids and husband, sing some more songs, and leave. I find many of these activities very meaningful, but except in a very broad sense, there isn’t much of the family life Hellerman describes in that weekly event. (I know there are exceptions out there—and your gatherings may be one of them; I am speaking of church culture and experience as a whole.)

I find that family and community in bits and pieces throughout the week—gathering with others in smaller groups, serving side by side, working through messy situations and relationships, listening to struggles and rejoicing in celebrations. These are family-like activities; they reflect loving God, each other and those around us.

But frankly, I thirst for a deeper and broader experience of what it means to be God’s people. I long for the spread of missional communities who yearn and actively seek to live as the families that God calls and enables us to be. I long for a people that don’t see church as a place to go—one more activity in our week full of activities—but families who we gladly place above our own personal goals, desires and aspirations, families who live and breathe gospel rhythms, eat together regularly, are the first ones we pick of the phone to call in joy or sorrow, the ones with whom we love and serve side-by-side our neighbors.
To be fair, I’m pretty sure George Barna understands all this—after all, he coauthored with Frank Viola Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practice, which gets at a lot of this. And frankly, he has my sympathy; I’m not sure how one would go about developing a survey to measure church as a people to be instead of a place to go.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I fall in with those who observe that the reality of kingdom community is the exception rather than the rule, at least in this part of the world. And that breaks my heart. We are not only limiting our experience of the fullness of the salvation and redemption and transformation that God has planned for us from the beginning, but we are failing to live out the lives we were meant to live—to be the people in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.”