Why We’re Not Going Back to Church

If the church was actually what they said it was — a hospital for sinners — then our sanctuaries would be full of bodies.

Sam Bush / 9.1.21

When hosting a party, it’s hard not to take a person’s absence personally, especially if the reason goes unmentioned. Without an RSVP, the host is left to assume the worst. Did the person die on the way over? Or worse still, did they have better things to do and never really like you in the first place? Such is the case, it seems, for clergy who are wondering where some of the pre-pandemic stalwarts have gone. I’m currently in my third year of seminary and, as someone who is hoping to be a future leader in the church, I went to a Sunday service four times this summer. (My kids went once.) I could provide a list of excuses, but none of them feel truly legitimate.

Why haven’t we gone back to church? The most obvious answer is no surprise. The Delta variant has kept at home those who are at a higher risk of infection. The pandemic is a good enough reason to explain someone’s absence in and of itself, but we’d be remiss to not explore other things going on beneath the surface.

One reason for playing Sunday morning hooky is that we’re exhausted. Getting a child dressed and out the door felt like an Olympic event long before the pandemic. For young families especially, church used to be simply another thing to be late to, but now it’s too much to ask. The spirit is willing but the flesh isn’t just weak; it’s depressed, it’s irritable, and it couldn’t find a babysitter last night. As Dan Sinker wrote in his essay in The Atlantic, “Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken.” Well, then, all the more reason to go to church, right?

Apparently not. I think an underlying truth is that missing church these past 18 months has been kind of nice. Our inner-introverts have thrived, our inner-extroverts have been tamed. We’ve been lonely, but Netflix has been helpful. The truth is, many of us have begun to wonder what church is all that good for.

These days, many Christians feel a general lack of urgency when deciding whether or not to get dressed whenever Sunday morning comes around. Self-discipline is a muscle that quickly loses its tone when not exercised. And it can be nearly impossible to get back in the groove once the momentum of a routine is lost. 

For many people, going to church just doesn’t seem practical. Since the early days of the pandemic, we have been channeling the spirit of Marie Kondo, mercilessly ridding our lives of clutter and excess. A year and a half later and we are still in the business of extracting rather than adding to our lives. After all, if one’s ship is on the verge of sinking, the sensible thing to do is to throw things overboard in order to lighten the load. Keeping that family heirloom is nice, but it’s not helping the boat stay above the water. Similarly, if we were only going to church for sentimental reasons to begin with, we may never go back.

The English philosopher Alfred Whitehead once said, “Apart from religion, expressed in ways generally intelligible, populations sink into the apathetic task of daily survival, with minor alleviations.” It’s an apt description for believers and unbelievers alike these days. What is Covid but the apathetic task of daily survival?

Sadly, the church has not offered a worthy alternative. It has not expressed Christianity in “ways generally intelligible.” It has led many of us to ask what good going to church is if it’s not going to help in times of crisis.

Two thoughts come to mind. The first is that we have forgotten the urgency of our predicament. Again, I’m not talking about the virus as much as I am talking about life itself. In the apathetic task for daily survival, we have forgotten that we were already dead in our sin and that in Christ we have been made alive again (Gal 2:20). We have forgotten our need for our forgiveness to be proclaimed and received over and over again.

Our current understanding of church is equally apathetic. It’s similar to flossing or dieting. It’s good for you, but its benefits are only long term. Many people see church as a place that leans more toward a health and wellness checkup rather than an emergency room. And now, quite literally for many of us, we are in the emergency room.

If the church was actually what they said it was — a hospital for sinners — then our sanctuaries would be full of bodies. Which leads me to my second thought, that the church seems to have forgotten about the only actual ace up its sleeve: the proclamation that Jesus Christ loves us unconditionally and has forgiven us everything.

Of all the things that are essential to life (community, a sense of purpose and belonging, etc.), the gospel of God’s love and forgiveness is the church’s unique offering to the world. It is, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “necessary for our life and our salvation,” the very thing that can lift us out of apathy. Unfortunately, it’s a card that we have generally refused to play.

As humans, we are forgetful beings. Thankfully, the structure of our Sunday service is mercifully built upon the act of remembrance. Every week, we take the Body and the Blood as the memorial of our redemption. While Jesus’ death on the Cross was done “once for all,” his Body and Blood are meant to be taken as routine nourishment for whoever is hungry. “Don’t forget that I love you,” Jesus tells us. Of course, we will forget, but, rest assured, he is there to remind us every first day of the week.

I hope the church can serve as an emergency room for people in crisis. I hope it can be a place where people who are struggling feel comfortable showing up late and in pajamas. I hope it can be welcoming to people who are exhausted and offer the life-giving words that all is forgiven. I also hope that we can grant ourselves permission to cease the apathetic task of survival; to sink into the deep waters of God’s love and die, that we might be raised up, any given Sunday.

I’m still quite hopeful about the church’s future. As the great hymn proclaims, its foundation is none other than Jesus Christ our Lord. Yes, it’s a faulty institution, but it is still and will forever be the body of Christ. I can only hope that those of us who haven’t been back to church will eventually do so when they’re reminded of their need for him and that the church will be there to receive them gladly. In such a difficult time for so many people, the hymn is good to remind us that as we cry out, now more than ever it seems, “How long?” we can trust that “soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”