Choosing Church: The Odds Against are Many


Several of you sent me an article that appeared this week in the New York Times. It was the last in a series by Jessica Grose in which she examined the general decline of religion in America and specifically the increase in the “Nones,” i.e. those reporting “no religious affiliation.”

Forgive me, but I am weary of reading such articles. Given the constant reports of their demise, what seems to me remarkable are the many thriving congregations that do actually exist. Or, if not “thriving,” then at least those that are, against the odds, continuing with grace and imagination.

“The odds” against church are many. The basic one is that in the latter half of the 20th century we ceased to be a society where participating in/belonging to a church was built into American society. At one time, for the majority of Americans being a part of a church was just something you did. No more. There are probably some regions of the U.S. where such a church-going culture still exists, but by and large church, like most everything in a consumer society, became a choice. And not a choice for which there are a ton of incentives.

So, with so many other choices of how to spend your time, energy, and money, fewer choose church. We’re an affluent society, with lots of choices, so that fewer are choosing church is not really surprising. What is surprising is how many DO choose church and the shape those churches are taking in a new time.

The theme of the final article in the series by Grose is that the one thing church offers that doesn’t seem to replicated by other groups or experiences is community. I don’t totally agree with that, since I kind of think the one thing we offer is God, the strange and surprising God revealed in Jesus. But for now, we’ll go with Grose’s observation about community. “The one aspect of religion in America,” writes Grose, “that I unquestionably see as an overall positive for society is the ready-made supportive community that churchgoers can access.”

She cites a women in Washington state who responded to her survey by writing, “I was raised Pentecostal and went to church three or more times a week, so I desperately miss the community. It was where my friendships came from. I have very few friends now.” (Note the correlation to another much-reported aspect of contemporary America, a big increase in reported “loneliness.”)

Grose says that what churches offer that people aren’t finding elsewhere is a “ready-made supportive community.” But here’s the thing. “Ready-made supportive community,” doesn’t just happen. Such a community asks things of people. Sometimes that apparently much-longed-for “ready-made supportive community” asks a lot of us.

Grose says that such church communities are characterized by “wrap-around support.” It’s true, from birth to death, and for all the countless challenges and changes between, good churches hold, comfort, and carry their members. (I always thought churches did a lot of preventive mental health care. Church decline may be a factor in the current “mental health crisis” as in “the loneliness epidemic.”) But doing that requires effort, commitment, consistency in habit or practice. At times that means prioritizing what’s good for the group (congregation) over self-interest, and putting up with one another.

We tend to get all romantic about “community,” imaging something that looks like a beer commercial where everyone is young, fit, attractive and fun to be with. Or at least “community” means people who I like and who share my opinions. Is that really “community”? Community, like family, is not always just who we chose. Sometimes it is who we are given.

I think it was Parker Palmer who observed that “true community is where the person you least want to be with always is.” Even if that’s an exaggeration, there’s truth in it. And the point, again, is that community doesn’t just happen. It requires effort, investment, and no small amount of just hanging in there. I’m interested in the places where people are putting in the effort. What is motivating them? What sustains them?

As a minister, I always thought that a big part of what I was up to was “building community.” And I worked hard at that. But, truth is, I got paid to do it. The people that impressed me most were the steady, mature, caring lay members of the congregations I served who put in the time and effort, who kept showing up.

My hat’s off to them. They were often amazing people. And part of my job as a pastor and leader was to support them, care for them, honor them, and see that others were nurtured for such roles.

My point is, if we want what Grose says we want, it doesn’t happen without effort, even — dare I say it? — sacrifice.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. I wonder if anyone, centuries ago, looked at a society building itself around an institution that depends on faith in the preposterous, and foresaw the problems when faith was no longer sustainable?

    Maybe there just isn’t any other way, but what I’d suggest? Sun worship. Yes. The sun is in fact vast, more or less inconceivably vast and powerful, and it gives us everything we have. The fact that it’s real, shouldn’t get in the way of a certain worshipful reverence, and while it of course means there’ll be no Santa Claus type blessings, no one believes we really get those from any of the many gods either. The sun is kind of a `helps those who help themselves’ type figure, while handing out her life giving benefits to all without distinction. Build community around that, with some fairly obvious and pleasant rituals, and you have something that could be plenty healthy and robust.

  2. I suppose I need to learn more about the ‘nones’ and the questions to which they reply with that response. But until, or if, I do that, I wonder if they reject the idea of ‘church’ because of the ideas or beliefs they think, or even know, will come with ‘church.’ If those ideas and/or beliefs precede community, I’m not surprised they consider themselves ‘nones.’ I also wonder if they’ve had unpleasant experiences in ‘church’ as young people or children and cannot bring themselves to consider ‘church.’ Then there’s the response of churches, as denominations or individual churches. I don’t have any answers, only questions.

  3. “Church” mainly offers three things: social support for belief in the supernatural; imposition of a moral/ethical code; and “community.” The belief in the supernatural depends heavily on a societal code that makes it unacceptable to express doubts about someone else’s supernatural beliefs, no matter how ridiculous or self-contradictory they are. Quite frankly, with the rise over the past half-century of both atheism and the “science fiction/fantasy” genre of fiction, religious beliefs are more often being seen for what they are: a weak surrender to the existence of an all-powerful, interventionist supernatural being to hand-wave away any natural phenomenon we can’t yet explain.

    Religious organizations as sources for a moral code have also failed, mostly from self-inflicted wounds: we have seen time and again leaders of churches who most fervently push for their followers to adopt their moral code — and castigate those who don’t — not only failing to follow their own moral guidance but also exposing their own deep corruption. It certainly leads one to believe that just maybe that strict moral code was more about controlling other people and less about trying to live up to a higher way of life.

    And that leaves community. No doubt in these trying times there are many people who find solace and support in the community of their local church. But as more and more churches are recruited into the political culture wars and open hatred for others is increasingly being preached from the pulpit, it’s not surprising to find that fewer people are finding the community they desire inside of church walls.

  4. None may have a different connotation depending on how the question of being churched is asked.
    Not currently belonging to a church does not necessarily mean not having faith, and wanting to attend a church.
    Sometimes the circumstances of life choices gone awry make the desired commitment to a community of faith impossible.
    Seeking and finding the presence of God is still possible as an individual quest. It is difficult, I think, for the pollsters to accurately capture the many of us so engaged.


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