The Largest Body of Professing Christians in AmericaOct 28th, 2013 | By Jeremy Tate | Category: Blog Posts
The Largest Body of Professing Christians in America
In August I wrote a short post titled Why Evangelicals are Getting High. The goal of the post was to argue that a solid Reformed upbringing does not decrease the chances of conversion to Catholicism. Unintentionally, the post generated significant discussion about the trends within Christianity in America. Are more people leaving Catholicism for Protestantism or vice versa? Are those who leave predominantly nominal Catholics or are the well catechized leaving as well? Are Reformed Christians leaving for Catholicism in increasing numbers? If so, why? All of these questions are worth considering, but after a few months of reflection it occurred to me that the entire discussion ignored the largest group of professing Christians in America today.
According to the Pew Forum 78.4% of Americans are confessing Christians. Yet, according to Pew, only 29% of Americans go to Church on a regular basis. This means the largest body of confessing Christians in America (49%) are the non-Church goers. It may be easy to write this group off as nominal “Christmas and Easter Christians,” but I think such a dismissal ignores the common experience most of us have had while talking to those who don’t attend Church. Many of these non-Church goers have genuinely internalized the gospel. Many of them are fully conscious of the reality of sin and the truthfulness of God’s provision in Christ. I’ve even had seminary friends who don’t attend Church. They still set time aside on Sunday for prayer; perhaps listen to a John Piper sermon on i-tunes, perhaps rock out to some Derrick Webb, all habits that feel churchy enough without all the inconvenience.
(This late-19th-century Baptist church in Watertown, Mass is one of hundreds of historic churches accross the U.S. converted into condominiums)
I recently challenged a non-Church going friend about the issue. He responded by reminding me that all that really matters is Jesus. All the goods one may find at Church, he pointed out, he was still getting. Worship, solid preaching (Keller on i-tunes), prayer, Scripture reading, fellowship, and more, could be found elsewhere and often in much better quality. I realized I had little to argue back with when considering these five aspects of Christian nourishment often found on Sunday. But to be sure, there was one major exception.
The Eucharist. The Eucharist, from a Catholic perspective, cannot be recreated outside of the Catholic Mass. The Eucharist, from a Catholic perspective, is Jesus Christ himself. There is nowhere one can go to find a more immediate encounter with the risen Lord. With nothing left to appeal to my friend’s decision I found myself echoing his words. All that matters is Jesus…which is why I beg you to come back to Church, because that is where we find Him and partake of His own body and blood.
I am interested in presenting this question to our Reformed brothers; how do we get the 49% of professing Christians who do not attend Church back? Or does Church attendance not really matter after all? The Reformed tradition has always maintained the importance of Church membership, but, when pressed with the question of why it matters, how would this response differ from the Catholic response?
As I put forward this question to Reformed readers I can anticipate some responses by recalling how I processed this question as a Reformed Christian a few years ago. Perhaps I would have appealed to the rich language of WCF XXIX where believers “receive and feed upon, Christ crucified” in the sacrament. I believe I would have also appealed to the simple command in Scripture to not forsake the assembly (Hebrews 10:25). However, even as a Reformed believer I remember thinking these were weak arguments. First, there’s nothing in the Reformed dogma of the Lord’s Supper that suggests that the grace received through that particular sacrament cannot be found elsewhere through other means of grace. Secondly, the provision that only an ordained man can consecrate the Lord’s Supper seemed somewhat arbitrary in light of the rejection of Holy Orders as a sacrament. Put simply, Reformed theology provides no principled reason why my friend can’t consecrate grape juice and saltines in my living room.
What options are left? The Reformed believer conversing with his friend may be forced to realize that the non-Church goer often hears better sermons, reads more Scripture, has more time for prayer, can worship in their car and everywhere else, and has a very deep fellowship group. At that point the Reformed Christian can either appeal to the command to assemble (which may be dismissed as legalism) or finally, he may appeal to the Lord’s Supper. But if the Lord’s Supper is only offered once a month this appeal becomes difficult. When pressed with why the Lord’s Supper has to happen at Church, with an ordained minister, the response gets even more complicated.
This post is not intended to gloss over the major problem Catholicism itself has as our Church continues to suffer from the loss of millions of parishioners just in the United States. The reason for the losses, however, as Fr. Barron explains often concern practice rather than doctrine. Watered down preaching and poor catechesis are often cited as the chief causes. The good news is that this is starting to change. Fr. Barron himself is an excellent example of the revival of dynamic and robustly biblical preaching within Catholicism. He is one who points us and the seminarians he trains to the fullness of Christ in the Eucharist. Ultimately, I believe that only Christ alone, found in the Eucharist, can reverse the trend of staying home on Sunday.