To go or not to go? More Americans than ever don’t attend church
by Cameron Steele
Oct 20, 2012 | 5277 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Priest Lee Shafer preaches a sermon at Grace Episcopal Church Wednesday night. The majority of the 46 million Americans who now say they aren’t affiliated with a particular religious institution don’t believe attending church is important to belief. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Priest Lee Shafer preaches a sermon at Grace Episcopal Church Wednesday night. The majority of the 46 million Americans who now say they aren’t affiliated with a particular religious institution don’t believe attending church is important to belief. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Stacy Jackson grew up a Southern Baptist, but now the 28-year-old social worker worries less about the label.

She knows she’s a Christian, even though she doesn’t go to church.

“Spirituality is a choice – knowing, understanding and believing, because it is what you feel inside,” said Jackson, an Oxford resident. “I think organized religion is what turns a lot of people away, because they strive for perfection. Churches should be the one place you can be vulnerable, honest and take your struggles to.

“But in reality it is not.”

In the South, Jackson is in the minority.

But nationally, she’s one of a fast-growing number of Americans who don’t identify themselves with religious institutions. One-fifth of the U.S. public and a third of those under 30 say they are unaffiliated, according to a Pew poll released last week.

The survey has caused a stir because, for the first time, the number of Protestants in the country is dwindling, and organized religion’s attraction is waning, especially for young people.

The Pew study begs the question: Do you need church to be a Christian?

‘Essential to being Christian’

Many religious leaders around the country and Calhoun County answer that question, “Yes.”

The majority of unaffiliated Americans – like Jackson – who say they still believe in God answer, “No.”

Pastors and priests at local churches base their affirmative answers in Scripture that calls the church the spiritual body of Jesus Christ and calls on Christians to attend – passages like 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 3:15.

“Going to church is absolutely essential to being a Christian,” said Ryan Limbaugh, pastor of the newly formed Redeemer Church in Oxford. “Christ gave his life for the church.”

Lee Shafer, priest at Grace Episcopal in Anniston, said it’s impossible to partake in the Eucharist alone, which means it’s impossible to be “fed and brought to Christ” the way her religion requires without going to church.

“I’m not saying you can’t love God; I’m not saying you can’t be a good person,” Shafer said. “But there’s a difference” in those things and in being an Episcopalian Christian, she said.

Bob St. John, the pastor at Anniston Bible Church, acknowledges that plenty of people who go to church every Sunday aren’t “true” Christians; they’re there out of habit or to keep up appearances.

Still, “while going to church doesn’t make a Christian, true Christians go to church,” St. John said.

A personal faith

The majority of the 46 million Americans who now say they aren’t affiliated with a particular religious institution don’t believe that attending church is important to belief, the Pew study found, even while many say they believe in God, pray every day and consider themselves religious.

Locally, Christians who are churchgoers and those who aren’t say it’s possible to believe in God without church. But those who do attend regularly say community worship and fellowship make them better Christians.

“The church is there for reason – that doesn’t mean you have to go sit there every Sunday,” said Joel Hawbaker, a member of Faith Presbyterian in Anniston.

Jenny Stedham, a 27-year-old Anniston resident, said she has been a lifelong member of Anniston First United Methodist.

“I do believe it is possible to be spiritual and to be a Christian without going to church, because people experience God in different ways,” she said. “(Going to church) is really important to me, because I like that accountability, and I like to be around other people who are worshipping.”

Jackson said she, too, thinks it’s wonderful to have support from a church community, especially when raising children. That’s why she hopes she’ll eventually find somewhere to belong – so her 2-year-old son can eventually experience “the good things in church.”

“But a church building does not signify the values in your heart,” she said. “God doesn’t care how or where you love him, just as long as you do.”

Christians, politicized

Unlike Jackson, the majority of unaffiliated but still religious people aren’t looking for a church to belong to, the Pew study found.

While the unaffiliated think many churches and institutions can help communities through social projects and aid to the poor, they also believe religious organizations are “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics,” the Pew study reported.

Theodore Trost, a University of Alabama professor who chairs the college’s religious studies department, said Christian values, in particular, have been politicized as a kind of short-hand description of the religious right’s agenda.

In some ways, “Christian” has taken on a definition that means support of two-parent families, a position against abortion and other traditional social beliefs, the Alabama professor said.

Hawbaker said that, as a practicing Presbyterian, he’s dealt with what Trost is talking about.

“To call someone a ‘Christian’ has become a way of pigeon-holing someone in a political discussion,” said the 30-year-old Annistonian.

Many young people who are Christians don’t go to church, Stedham said, because they don’t agree with what the church is saying about politics. She has watched as political rhetoric about homosexuality has created a schism within the Methodist faith, something else she said convinces Christians that church is more trouble than it’s worth.

“What used to be mainline Christians or mainline Protestants have started to eschew the label of ‘Christian,’ because it doesn’t describe what they are,” Trost said. “But it’s a losing battle to fight that in the public square.”

Other criticisms

Local churchgoers and unaffiliated believers who were interviewed for this story have similar criticisms of the institutions that represent their faith: too judgmental, too hypocritical, too focused on internal membership rather than outward ministering.

“Part of it is a failure of different religious groups to adequately address the needs of the people you’re supposed to be serving,” said Hawbaker.

There is, at the very least, a perception that churches aren’t involved enough in projects that help the poor, feed the hungry or provide assistance to single parents and at-risk teens, Hawbaker said.

Still, many churches in Calhoun County have made good faith efforts to take on civic projects, Hawbaker and church leaders acknowledged, including projects like Impact Calhoun County and Grace Episcopal’s Lobsterfest, which raises money to Habitat for Humanity.

Jackson said the Southern Baptist church she grew up in was more concerned with judging people for the clothes they wore and the friends they kept than with helping people faced with difficult decisions and life dilemmas.

“In teenage years, kids are tempted with sex, drugs, lying and criminal activity – this isn’t because they are ‘bad people’ but because they are trying to find their place in world, and peer pressure and bad decisions are a part of that,” Jackson said.

As church leaders, Limbaugh and Shafer are specifically working to create opportunities for teenagers to get involved with church and learn about Jesus Christ. Redeemer Church, for example, hosts tailgate parties at Friday night football games before reconvening at the church for songs, prayer and a short message.

From the pulpit

Church leaders also readily concede many of the criticisms of religious institutions around Calhoun County.

“I don’t think we’re loving people enough,” Shafer said. “I think we need to do a better job of living out the gospel and not just saying that.”

St. John said he has very little to commend about many of Calhoun County’s churches. Ninety percent of them, he said, have fallen prey to the “revivalist” and “church growth” movements. The latter, he explained, is when churches shape services in order to attract people – approaching sermons pragmatically, without real basis in Scripture, and treating church members as customers rather than brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Revivalism” happens when churches attempt to create an atmosphere for people to make decisions, St. John said, “creating a culture of pulpiteers who know how to manipulate people” into coming to church and calling themselves Christians, without necessarily changing their lives to reflect that commitment.

“What that has produced is many people who are not true Christians, but are in the church,” St. John said.

And that is another reason why some choose to stay away. “The reason that most people walk away from the church is because they’ve experienced a version of the church that is powerless to change their lives,” Limbaugh said.

There’s the rub

Despite national trends away from organized religion, church attendance and affiliation in Alabama and Calhoun County still hold steady, according to Trost and local religious leaders.

Part of it is habit – going to church on Sundays is part of Southern routine, like attending high-school football on Friday nights. Part of it is culture – church attendance along the Bible belt has always been stronger than in other parts of the country.

A 2010 Gallup poll showed Alabamians were second only to their Mississippi neighbors in church attendance, with some 58 percent of people across the state reporting they go to weekly services.

“But there hasn’t been huge growth, either,” Shafer said.

She and other church leaders said they are concerned by the recent Pew report, in spite of steady attendance. They have long been trying to understand and address the problems that people have with belonging to and participating in a church – especially those who fall under that unaffiliated umbrella but still call themselves Christians.

These local leaders are especially concerned because they believe church is an essential part of Christianity.

“I think we nurture each other and support each other in our walk as Christians, because being a Christian is difficult if you truly are one,” Shafer said.

“Truly are one.” There’s the rub again.

“Religious commitment itself is a very nebulous category,” Trost said. “No one really knows what goes on in the human heart.”

Assistant Metro Editor Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.

To go or not to go? More Americans than ever don’t attend church by Cameron Steele