Book Review: What to Do When You Don’t Want to Go to Church, by Peggy Palau and Peggy Sue Wells
Though consistent church attendance is required in Scripture (Hebrews 10:25) and was practiced by the early church (Acts 2:42-44), 35% of professing believers today choose not to attend1; this should give any thoughtful Christian pause. The days are not long past when church attendance was almost universal in America; even most unbelievers went to church. But if attendance is any indication, it seems that now a full third of people who claim that their Christian faith is “very important to their lives,” don’t see the local church as an important part of that faith. Assuming that we do not have to prove to the reader that this development represents a significant problem with a variety of dangerous consequences, we should concern ourselves with locating the origin of this change. Has a seismic shift taken place in the way Christians think about church? Have churches themselves changed such that they are now less attractive to believers? Could it be a mixture of both? To what can we attribute this drooping attendance? How should the church address the issue? The situation is a grave one; the salvation of souls and the health and sanctification of saints is at stake (Hebrews 3:12-13)! A thoughtful book, saturated with penetrating analysis is needed. Unfortunately, What to Do When You Don’t Want to Go to Church, by Peggy Palau (the wife of evangelist Luis Palau) and Peggy Sue Wells, is not that book.
To be completely fair, it doesn’t seem that the authors entirely intended to write such a book. What they did write (or more accurately, what they compiled), however, is something like a folksy pep-talk for those Christians who are too lazy or too traumatized by past experiences to go to church. Whatever its faults, on the whole, the book does manage to achieve its aims. Even the least motivated person wouldn’t find it difficult to complete; weighing in at 200 pages of large print on small paper, it is not a hefty or challenging volume. And the tone is an effective mix of stern and sympathetic, perfect to motivate the lazy and defuse those who cling to past hurts. Yet despite these benefits, the book’s analysis is all too shallow to be widely useful. Though the conclusion is dead on (go to Church no matter how you feel), the book fails to discern and address some of the deeper reasons why so many have abandoned the church.
Let’s first consider two positive qualities:
1. The authors of the book clearly love the local church. They both give testimonies of how involvement in a church has changed their lives, and the Palaus tell a moving story of how their son (who had walked away from the faith) was helped to come to Christ by a local congregation. They advocate becoming members of a church, submitting to its leadership, and working positively to build the body. All of those are good recommendations.
Wells and Palau organize their book around three basic benefits of church attendance. First, the church serves to encourage believers. Life often makes us tired and weary, but the meeting of the church restores our spirits through much needed fellowship, worship, and silence. Second, the church provides a home for children to grow up in the faith. We should attend church in order to set a good example for our children. Finally, the church teaches us about loving others as we seek unity in a “dysfunctional family” (authors’ term). These emphases are important; but do they really embody the core purpose of the local church? More on that in a moment.
2. Another positive element is the healthy mixture of compassion, realism, and firmness the authors bring to bear on the problem of church attendance. They are not blind to the faults of many congregations (e.g., divisions) and the personal difficulties that keep us from church (e.g., family conflicts that make us feel unholy at church). They rightly decry the legalism that chokes many congregations and sympathize with those who are reluctant to return to church after a bad experience in such a legalistic congregation. However, they do not allow negative experiences to serve as an excuse for withdrawing from the congregation. The reader is reminded that “we are grown-ups, we are big enough to acknowledge that gracelessness exists, and we can ask God to help us be full of grace in our own attitudes towards others” (17).
In short, the authors believe that Christians who don’t attend church should get over their issues and commit themselves because God commands it (9). “Feelings are not as important as simply making a prayerful commitment that this is where I’m going to settle down and grow. . . . The church is your home even though it may not feel like it for a long time” (12). Amen.
The book is not without problematic elements, though:
1. The organization of the book severely limits it effectiveness. Of the book’s 200 pages, perhaps about 50 are actually written by the authors. The rest of the book is made up of page after page of quotes from anonymous Christians who explain why they do or do not attend church. Some of these quotes are saccharine, others are complaining, others don’t seem to relate to the topic of the book well at all. Because they are included without context or comment, it’s hard to know what the authors intend for us to gather from them. It would have been more helpful if they had simply written an entire book.
2. The authors show little understanding of the purpose of the church. Though they advocate going to church in order to bless others, most of the book reinforces the notion that the church simply exists to serve the felt needs of the believer. Too many of the authors’ arguments boil down to the notion that we should go to church because it’s a really good way to get what you want (even though we don’t intuitively think so). In the early part of the book they tell us “the key words that define church are connecting and belonging. We long to belong and feel connected” (2, emphasis theirs).
Connection and a sense of belonging may very well be the objects of our desires, but our sense of our needs doesn’t determine the nature of the church. The church exists to glorify God, to preach his Word to the world, to build up believers and to show God’s character in our unity, self sacrificial love and holiness (just to name a few reasons!). Though believers should connect and feel like they belong in a congregation, telling them to attend church for that reason alone seems a bit like encouraging people to go the Louvre because the gift shop is great.
3. The book belies almost no reflection at all on more serious issues of theology or ecclesiology. Admittedly, those subjects are not the main subject of the book, and they need not be. But the authors assume that certain problems exist in the church (e.g., people do not want to attend, churches are divided and contentious, legalism abounds) and they never stop to reflect on whether those problems spring partly from the fact that many churches are poorly ordered and theologically simple. Instead, matters like church polity are described as “matters of taste” (52, 65).
Faithful followers of Christ can and do disagree about how to order the church, but this does not mean that there can be no fruit borne from careful consideration of ecclesiology. The approach by the authors, however, is to say that since we can’t all agree on such matters we should ignore this discipline altogether. A glaring weakness of this book is a direct result of this oversight; that is, the authors never give the reader any advice on how to evaluate which church to attend. If their aim is to encourage non-attending believers to flock back to the church, it seems obvious that the authors should provide some guidance on how to choose a church. But the authors make no distinction between one church and another, it is simply enough for a Christian to walk into any building with the word “Church” on the sign outside. I fear that many tender sheep are being encouraged to head directly back into the proverbial slaughterhouse, from whence they will emerge more bruised and broken.
The fact is, properly ordered churches that preach the gospel are better churches. Careful reflection on what the Bible teaches is the most practical thing we can do to improve our churches because right behavior flows from right understanding. The legalism that is rampant in churches is a major problem, but it’s not simply a disappointment that wounded Christians must endure. It’s a call to boldly preach the gospel of grace! The carnality exhibited in many churches is a direct result of shoddy church leadership aimed at filling seats rather than changing lives with Biblical teaching. The authors of this book recognize the problem, but they ignore the cause from the outset. If churches spent more time on the “matters of preference,” there would be fewer alienated believers that need to be called back to the church.
Peggy Sue Wells and Pat Palau are right to identify the lack of church attendance as a serious problem. And in one sense, they have identified the correct answer: we should go to church whether we feel like it or not. But they have not helped us understand the root of the problem. Why are churches unattractive? Why do these divisions and legalistic tendencies crop up? Why do people who claim to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and lives in heaven think it is in their best interest to stay at home on Sunday mornings? These are the real elephants in the room! And understanding them involves deeper theological and ecclesiological thoughtfulness than is provided in this book. Biblical ecclesiology is not just a matter of preference; it’s a matter of church life and health. Careful consideration of these matters is of great consequence and opportunity. Thus, though the authors’ encouragement to faithful church attendance is dead on, their failure to address more foundational issues severely limits their effectiveness. We need more than a call to just go back to church; we need to give ourselves to understanding what the church is, and then commit to building such a body. People don’t just need to go to any church around; they need to go to a Biblical church that takes the local church model prescribed by Jesus and His apostles in Scripture seriously. It is there that they will prosper and non attendance will be a burden!
The authors of this book have undertaken a worthy project. Fortunately, others have identified the same problems and have addressed them more helpfully. Joshua Harris’ Stop Dating the Church is an excellent and accessible biblical call to involvement in church life. For pastors and those looking for help with matters of ecclesiology, Edmund Clowney’s The Church is an excellent resource, as is Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.
1Source: The Barna Group, http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=Topic&TopicID=8 (accessed on March 21, 2006)