Writing in The Atlantic this past weekend, Daniel K. Williams, senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, makes a much-welcomed admission — and counterintuitive declaration by the standards of most leftward-leaning advocates: Church attendance is not only beneficial for the attendee — it’s also the best way forward culturally and collectively if we’re to live at peace in a pluralistic society.
“Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions,” Williams acknowledges. “Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others — including others with different political views — and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics.”
In other words — the Christian church being the Church, as it has been known and has operated for two thousand years.
At the heart of Williams’ essay is an attempt to debunk what he suggests is commonly assumed: When people leave church, they also walk away from their faith and convictions. Instead, he suggests most people retain their beliefs – but unattached and unmoored, run the risk of “opening the door to extremism.”
Curiously, Williams seems to focus most of his attention on the “extremism” of the so-called “de-churched” on social or political conservatives, rather than the liberal or more progressively inclined. “Christian nationalists” seem to garner a lot of his focus, and it’s unclear if he thinks it’s common for so-called liberal Christians to fall into the “extremism” bucket also.
Over the last few decades, conservative Christians, especially, have regularly been accused of being both a disruptive and polarizing presence in American life. As the argument goes, our refusal to “go with the flow” and morally acquiesce is the cause for societal division. By this standard, church is a hotbed for the hysterical and unhinged.
Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in a church community knows that such charges and accusations are fantastical, if not downright libelous. Historically, churches have done the most good — and when reaching out to serve and soothe the hurting, never ask about a person’s politics. They simply want to help, show the afflicted the love of Jesus, and introduce those they assist to the Savior who died for their sins.
It should be noted, of course, that while the Christian Church has easily been the greatest humanitarian force in history, that’s not its primary mission. C.S. Lewis addressed this when he once observed, “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.”
Oddly, though, it doesn’t seem to occur to most commentators to correlate the decline of church attendance, and the overall waning influence of the Christian Church in America, with the downward spiral of culture. It’s not coincidental.
The Apostle Paul ominously warned believers in Rome (and us) that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:28-31).
As Williams notes, it’s possible for Christians to stop attending services and yet retain their belief in Jesus and His teachings. To be sure, Scripture warns against it (Hebrews 10:25), yet we know that simply attending church isn’t the prescriptive elixir for eternity either. But as Williams also alludes to, church attendance and our individual and collective participation, is much bigger than a mere matter of personal conviction. Everything affects everything else — and for the Christian believer, every life touches every other life.
There is no greater unifying, stabilizing, or more powerful force on earth than the Christian Church, and God’s institution works as intended when His people accept His invitation to be part of it.
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