The decline of religion, and Christianity specifically, is a common theme among many in the church today. Statistics routinely focus on the growth of those who do not consider themselves religious and the problems plaguing God’s people in America. A new study by the Pew Research Center, however, paints a slightly different picture.
Researchers found a roughly fifty-fifty split between Americans who go to church regularly—defined as at least once or twice a month—and those who do not. Of those who attend regularly, twenty-seven percent say they now go more often than they used to. Conversely, only twenty-two percent of those who do not frequent a church or other religious community used to attend more often than they currently do. For Christians, those numbers are even better, with roughly two-thirds of those claiming to follow Christ attending at least a couple times a month and thirty-five percent doing so more often than in the past.
That means more than a third of all Christians and more than a quarter of all Americans have become more active in regards to their faith in recent years. Coupled with the fact that a smaller percentage of people are moving away from their faith than those who are moving towards it, the trends paint a far more encouraging picture than we often have of the religious landscape in our culture.
The group’s most interesting and relevant findings, however, relate more to the why behind those statistics than the numbers themselves. Among those becoming more serious about their faith, religious motivations, such as the sense that they need more of God in their lives, were the most common reason for their increased attendance. That’s important because it points to a more vibrant relationship with God than those who might have chosen to come for less spiritual reasons.
Among those who have fallen away from their faith in recent years, most cited difficulties getting to church, a busy schedule, or a host of other explanations that were less faith-based for why they are no longer routinely involved. Taken with the explanation of most who have experienced a resurgence in their faith, it seems clear that the most important factor in determining whether or not people will be active in church is the vibrancy of their relationship with God.
Programs, people, location, and all the other more practical things that the Lord can absolutely use to help advance his kingdom can never take the place of an authentic and meaningful relationship with Christ. The spiritual side of church must always take precedence because, unless we get that part right and allow God to create an environment among us where we can help his people genuinely draw closer to him, nothing else is going to matter.
In Matthew 7, we find Jesus’ comparison of the wise man who built his house on the rock with the foolish man who built his on sand (Matthew 7:24–27). It can be tempting to read those verses and think of those who attempt to create a life without God, either by relying on science, possessions, or other ideas that we often place in opposition to faith. However, that teaching is just as relevant, if not more so, to the way we structure our lives as believers. While we may not doubt that a relationship with God is an important part of our churches and our lives, is it the foundation? It may be in theory, but we don’t always live like it.
When we allow programs, outreach, or any other human initiative to become more important in the life of our churches, and in our own lives as well, than fostering a vibrant walk with the Lord, we’ve built our house on shifting sand and a day will come when it will crumble. One of the most important things we can do for our fellow believers, and especially for the children and youth in our churches, is to help them understand that a relationship with God is primarily about a faithful, personal walk with him. That is and must always be the foundation. All the activities and other commitments that often go along with being part of a church are simply part of the house. It’s only when we get that right that we can rest relatively sure that when the storms of life come, our houses will not falter. So how strong is your foundation today?