Church attendance in the United States has always waxed and waned. It is not accurate to say that church attendance in America was excellent around the turn of the nineteenth century and has declined ever since. Instead, there have been various tendencies in attendance: sometimes attendance trended upwards, sometimes it trended downwards.
R. Kent Hughes, pastor, author and professor, wrote a helpful list of anti-church Evangelical trends back in 2003. These developments, he said, show that many who call themselves Christians have a very low view of the church and of church membership. Hughes’s discussion of this topic is very insightful; below I’ll summarize, explain, and expand on his insights since they are still relevant today.
A hitchhiker is a person who wants a free ride for a limited amount of time. He doesn’t take ownership of the car, maintain it, or help with its repairs; he simply wants a ride and will bail if anything goes wrong or if he’s finished riding. This is how many people think of the church and church membership:
You go to the meetings and serve on the boards and committees, you grapple with the issues and do the work of the church and pay the bills—and I’ll come along for the ride. But if things do not suit me, I’ll criticize and complain and probably bail out. My thumb is always out for a better ride.
Many Christians today have the mindset of just coasting in a church for a time and then leaving when they feel like it. They don’t get involved in the life of the church; they don’t donate their time and energy; they never ask what they can do to help; and they don’t invest their lives in the church. They are irresponsible and immature in this aspect of their lives, and have little concept of duty or service.
ecclesiastical shoppers [that] attend one church for the preaching, send their children to a second church for its youth program, and go to a third church’s small group. Their motto is to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
The consumer mentality “encouraged those who have been influenced by it to think naturally in terms of receiving rather than contributing.”
These are the kind of people who want to take from the church but never give. Church for these types of people is a commodity that exists to offer them something they want or need.
This view—a consumer view of the church—is a characteristic of the entitlement mindset of our culture. Everyone—especially younger Americans—believes they are entitled to certain rights and benefits, as if they are royalty to be served. The customer is king! This view has crept into the church: “If the church doesn’t serve or suit me, I’m out. If my needs are not met, I’ll go somewhere else.” Church shopping, consumerism, and entitlement all go together to be part of this anti-church Evangelical trend. To be sure, there are churches that make this trend worse by using consumer-centered church growth methods.
Spectator Christianity feeds on the delusion that virtue can come through viewing, much like the football fan who imagines that he ingests strength and daring while watching his favorite pro team. Spectator sports and spectator Christianity produce the same things—fans who cheer the players on while they themselves are in desperate need of engagement and meaning.
These are the people who like sitting lazily in the bleachers, but do not want to get in the game. The bleacher seat is good enough for them, thinking (implicitly or explicitly) that the Christian faith can be “caught” by watching from the stands and not committing oneself to stepping on the field. In other words, these are the people who are content with watching others follow Christ, but never really doing it themselves. They watch others to feel good about life or themselves, but not to learn how to die to self and live for Christ.
The fast-food drive-through means you can get (unhealthy) food in no time and with no effort. Since we’re in a hurry, we just want to quickly eat something that tastes good and then get on with our urgent business. The result of this kind of lifestyle is not good: it leaves unhealthy and typically overweight people who are stressed out because they have such busy lives.
Something similar happens when a person views the church like a fast-food restaurant: People with this view
get their “church fix” out of the way by attending a weeknight church service or the early service on Sunday morning so that the family can save the bulk of Sunday for the all-important soccer game or recreational trip. Of course there is an unhappy price extracted over time in the habits and the arteries of a flabby soul—a family that is unfit for the battles of life and has no conception of being Christian soldiers in the great spiritual battle.
Despite the Bible’s emphasis on Christians regularly assembling to worship and fellowship, today some people say “the best church is the one that knows you least and demands the least.” This goes hand in hand with the trends already mentioned. People want to hitchhike through church life—making small talk with the driver but never really getting to know him personally. To many people, the soccer game or vacation are more important than the people at church, so why bother to start relationships within the church?
This becomes evident when people balk at the idea of membership. Few people appreciate church membership today because it goes against their selfish desire to be on their own, it means they are accountable to others, and it means they need to share their lives and help others when needed. For most people, it’s much more fulfilling to go to a movie Friday night than help the needy church family move into an apartment down town.
This trend is also common, since many people today think that they can worship God alone, on their own, when it is most convenient and beneficial to them. Why wake up early on Sunday and go to a place where there are strange people when I can just sleep in and worship God while I watch the football game alone? Although this line of thought is completely unbiblical, it is quite common today. Hughes put it this way:
The current myth is that a life of worship is possible, even better, apart from the church. As one person blithely expressed it, “For ‘church’ I go to the mall to my favorite coffee place and spend my morning with the Lord. That is how I worship.” This is an updated suburban and yuppie version of how to spend Sunday, changed from its rustic forebearer [namely, Emily Dickinson, who said 100 years ago], “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—I keep it staying at Home.”
Hughes is right-on with these trends; I’ve seen them myself since I became a pastor some years ago. The ethos of American culture (consumerism, individualism, narcissism, dislike of authority, lust for entertainment and fun, busyness, and so forth) directly contradicts the ethos of the biblical view of the church. They are quite at odds.
It’s helpful to think about the above trends for these reasons: 1) so we ourselves don’t get caught up in them, 2) so we can understand the mindset of those who are caught up in them, 3) so we can patiently dialogue, discuss, teach, rebuke, and preach to those struggling with these trends, 4) so we can help keep the church from catering to these trends, and 5) so we can better preach the gospel that frees people from all these “isms” (narcissism, consumerism, individualism, etc.). Since this is the cultural air we all breathe, every one of us needs to be constantly reminded of the biblical view of the church, and of the loving, patient Savior who is her head, husband, and redeemer.
 R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 128.
 Ibid., 129.
 Ibid., 130.
Shane Lems serves as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, December 2016.