Growing up I always heard that it was better to be accused of committing a sin of omission than a sin of commission. That way, you could always chalk your sin up to forgetfulness, ignorance or thoughtlessness. The sin of commission was the bigger no-no since it appeared deliberate and calculated.
NON-ATTENDANCE: JUST A SIN OF OMISSION?
I fear too many Christians think that not attending church on a regular basis is a sin of omission; if it's a sin at all, it would be a little one. No big deal. "Don't bring that legalism over here!" Apparently, this is what many pastors, elders, deacons and whole congregations think, since they have done little to address the staggering numbers of non-attenders.
For example, in my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, just one-third of the formal membership of over forty thousand churches in the U.S. actually attend on any given Sunday. That means that about ten million so-called Christians are actually no-shows.
NOT ALL NON-ATTENDERS ARE ALIKE
Since not all non-attenders are the same, churches should treat different kinds of non-attenders differently. Here are four different kinds:
- Those who live in the area and are unable to attend: age or health prevent them. Such elderly or physically suffering members should be treated with special care. This article isn't about them.
- Those who live (temporarily) outside the area and are unable to attend: military or business assignments prevent them. Such (temporary) non-attenders should also be treated with special care since their travel for work places unique burdens on them and their family. This article isn't about them.
- Those who live outside the area and choose to keep their membership with your local church: distance prevents them. Such non-attenders should be encouraged to join a local church they can attend. This article is about them.
- Those who live in the area and sporadically, infrequently attend: nothing really prevents them except their own choice. This article is especially about them.
WHY NON-ATTENDERS ARE TOXIC
These last two types of non-attenders have a toxic effect on the local church because they render membership in the body of Christ meaningless.
In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul speaks of the body and its parts as a metaphor for the church:
"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body." (1 Cor 12:12)
"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." (1 Cor 12:27)
Between these two verses, Paul exhorts the members of the church in Corinth to see themselves as a part of the whole, in need of what every other member contributes. The parts have different functions (some are apostles, some are prophets, and so on), but they all come together to strengthen the whole. This is God's design for the body of Christ: when each member contributes something unique to the whole, God's own multifaceted glory will be put on display. Thus, when so-called members (parts) of Christ's body decide to detach themselves from the rest of the body, they threaten the body's integrity. If Christians are detached from a church body, what you have is no longer a body, but scattered limbs.
When I take the pendulum out of my grandfather's clock, it can still do certain things, such as open sealed paint can lids. But that's a mis-use of the pendulum. The pendulum (a part) was designed to fit inside the clock, join the other parts, and provide the weight to put in motion the cogs which turn the hands which allow us to tell time. That's how Christians are meant to function within the body of Christ. A Christian who cuts himself off from a local body of Christians is like a pendulum opening a paint can, not a pendulum that makes a clock run.
But non-attenders don't merely harm themselves; in fact they have a toxic effect on the local church to which they nominally belong. I would argue non-attenders have a toxic effect in four ways.
THE TOXIC EFFECTS OF NON-ATTENDERS
1. They Make Evangelism Harder
First, non-attenders make evangelism harder. Your church is called to be an outpost of God's kingdom in your community, a small but meaningful display of God's glory as you love one another and mature in Christ. Therefore, everyone who bears the name of Christ, as affirmed by your church, yet who willingly chooses to live their lives apart from the covenanted community of believers is practicing identity theft. They've taken Christ's name, but they don't honestly identify with his body, the local church.
To borrow Jonathan Leeman's metaphor, they wear your team's jersey, but they don't practice with or compete for your team. That confuses your witness to the unbelieving community around you. Non-Christians see your jersey on a guy who looks like he's playing for the other team. It's like a man who wears a Redskins jersey but who only cheers for the Cowboys, goes to Cowboys games, talks about the blue and silver and dreams of living in Dallas someday. It's inconsistent, confusing, and misleading. To go back to more biblical language, Christians have been adopted into the body of Christ. Non-attenders act as if they are orphans. This makes it all the more difficult for your church's corporate life to bear witness to the gospel.
2. They Confuse New Believers
Second, non-attenders confuse new believers. New believers are often a mess. Everything they thought was up is down, and everything they thought was down is up. There is great confusion in the first weeks and months and even years of a new believer's life. They need to be taught well.
But not only that, they need good models. When the doctrine they're taught doesn't sync with the models they see, they become confused. Non-attenders are not only reverse-witnesses, they're reverse models. They disregard and disobey countless passages of Scripture and fail to image God's character in even the most basic ways, even though they claim to be his adopted children.
In their arrogance, non-attenders are effectively saying to new believers, "All that stuff you're reading in the Bible isn't really necessary. You can live without encouragement from other Christians. You can live without sacrificing yourself to serve and love other Christians. You can live without teaching and preaching. You can live without shepherds."
3. They Discourage Regular Attenders
Third, non-attenders discourage regular attenders. Regular attenders sacrifice to keep their covenant with their local church. They give their money and their time to meet the needs of other members of the body, which is not easy to say the least. Non-attenders don't do these things, at least not with any regularity. So when a church allows non-attenders to remain members, they effectively gut the meaning of membership, which hurts and discourages the faithful.
Further, non-attenders rob the church of their needed service, which also tends to discourage more faithful attenders. Surely a church of 100 members, all of whom are laboring for God's glory with the gifts God has given them, is exponentially stronger than a church of 35 attenders and 65 non-attenders. Non-attenders unwittingly shift the entire burden to a few, a burden those few are not meant to carry alone.
4. They Worry Their Leaders
Fourth, non-attenders worry their leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account." In light of this verse, a faithful pastor or elder should feel responsible for the spiritual state of every member of his flock. Like a father worried about his son who hasn't yet come home late at night, a good shepherd doesn't rest until all his sheep are accounted for. Non-attenders makes this task nearly impossible.
While time and courage are needed to address the problem of non-attenders, every pastor or elder should feel a burden to remove these no-shows and cure the toxic effect they have on evangelism, on new believers, on the faithful attenders, and on the church's shepherds. The payoff? As the church's membership increasingly consists only in those who faithfully attend and contribute to the life of the body, the church will begin to resemble the body God intended: a display of his wisdom that brings glory to the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Matt Schmucker is executive director of 9Marks.
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