• Brad Riley

The Church Option?

The search for truth is always accompanied by many questions. In searching for answers to the present epidemic of church decline in our nation there seem to be more questions than answers. After decades of experts telling us how to grow the church, few answers are satisfying. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions? We can be sure that if we ask the right questions of God, in the right spirit, He will faithfully lead us to the right answers. His desire is always to see the church grow and flourish so that all may come to salvation (1 Tim. 2:4). After almost 20 years in pastoral ministry, here is the big question I keep asking myself – “Just when did the church become an option?”

Answers from the experts as to why the church is declining seem to be quite fluid. There is speculation all over the place as to how and why the decline but none of the answers are satisfying to me. Much of the data coming back from the church growth movement is good and insightful in finding out what people like and don’t like when it comes to church. But is that the essence of what church is about? What we like and don’t like? Offering what people want and think they need? After a few decades of data, one would think the bleeding would have stopped by now, if the problem is only about aesthetics and desires.

Perhaps, instead of asking people what they want in a church, we should be asking Jesus what kind of church He wants to build. After all, it is His body and He is the one who promises to build it (Mt. 16:18). Much of the data collected seems to suggest that around 90 percent of people surveyed in America say they believe in God. With numbers like that the church should be dominate in society. However, ‘belief’ alone does not seem to be enough to get people to church or keep them there. Overall numbers in attendance continue to decline.

Could it be that by continually reinventing the church in an effort to satisfy an ever-changing people we are missing something vitally important? Could it be that in a zeal to get people ‘saved’ we forgot to give them the very food they needed to live out their salvation? And could it be that we are now asking questions in such a way as to get the answers we want to hear? I believe many churches today are looking for answers to fit what they think they already know and feel:

“If our worship were more like so and so, then we would grow.” Or “If we only had such and such, then we would grow.”

The problem with such aesthetic changes is that they do not work on an enduring scale. We have changed music and worship styles, even venue styles for decades now, and yet the decline continues. And what is worse, now some churches are not just changing styles but long held doctrines on things once scripturally understood as wrong, in order to reach a people that seem unreachable. Clearly, people seem to be saying that while they believe in God believing in the church is optional at best.

Could it be that we need to re-think our doctrine of the church – assuming we even have one? I suggest we consider it strongly. It is painfully obvious to me in trying to minister to Millennials that we have a major crisis in what we teach about the church. Most studies show that barely 2 out of 10 young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 attend church at all. The number is slightly higher (4 out of 10) if they were raised in a church attending family. That means fully 60% of Millennials raised in church no longer see it as a necessary component to their belief in God. These numbers do not just suggest a problem; they are proof of an epidemic.


I have felt for a long time now that we do not teach the same doctrine of the church as did the ancient Christians. It is a great tragedy of modern Evangelicalism that without meaning to we made church an option. Until the modern era it was unthinkable for someone to think him or herself ‘saved’ and not be in the church.

God’s plan of salvation has always included a communal, as well as an individual component. An Israelite was made righteous by keeping the Law along with the annual feasts of repentance, but not without first having entered the covenant family of God through the rite of circumcision. Inside that covenant community they lived out their faith. Likewise, early Christians, made righteous by faith in Christ, were then invited to join the church through the rite of baptism. No one was considered part of the covenant family of God who was not a part of the church. The ancient doctrine of the Church was that she was the very covenant family of God (the new Israel as St. Paul called her) through which salvation by faith was found. The bishops of the early church went to great lengths to preserve a unity of faith in doctrine, by holding councils to help define what the true church was, and that her true faith was, “…once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

By spreading a kind of “Me and Jesus got our own thing going” type of gospel, and not discerning the true nature of the church – her biblical and historical role in God’s salvific plan, salvation became all about belief and nothing about the place and role of the church in the life of the believer. Without meaning to we have effectively relegated the church to the back seat, something God nor scripture ever intended.

Admittedly, this is not the only reason for declining church attendance, but it is a critical one. Without discerning our deficient view of the church as part of the diagnosis, we will keep treating the symptoms and never get to the cause. There are many contributing factors to the noticeable decline in church attendance in our culture today. Yes, judgmental attitudes by church members and a disconnect with cultural relevance will always have an effect on attendance. We are doing much to remedy these concerns but there is still something missing. The time has come to ask the question: Have we made it easy for people to reject the church because we have not taught them the life-giving, life-sustaining nature of the body of Christ? Yes, we have made it easy! Far too many of us Evangelical churches have made the church an option on the ‘a la carte’ menu for faith in Jesus Christ, instead of the entrée for which Jesus died to make it.


To put it plainly, the church never was and never will be optional. Any theology that misses that misses everything. The early church understood and taught that people found life in Christ in and through the church – His mystical body. The grace given through the church, in Word and sacrament, is the very sustenance needed by all who wish to remain ‘in’Christ and stand against Satan and his schemes.

Christ and His church cannot be separated, and by extension, faith in Christ is faith in and through the church. Because God took on physical form in the incarnation of Jesus, the early church understood He brought a physical as well as mystical dimension to the church as his covenantal body. And that was not up for debate. Just as Jesus was not optional, so His body (church) was not optional.

As long as we think the church is an option to salvation, we are not building His church, we are building our version of her. What I am suggesting is that we need to stop re-defining what we think the church should be to each new generation. Instead, we need to start teaching what scripture and history have always revealed as the ‘Church’. The methods used to share the gospel may and should change in every generation. However, we need to recognize that all the latest and greatest fads in music and style are void if we do not recognize the deep union every soul is called to partake of in Christ which is found in and only in the Church, which is His mystical body.

As the greatest consumers in the history of the world, we Americans love our options, even in church. Shame on us if we who lead the church leave off the menu the one thing that can truly and fully satisfy the greatest longing of the human soul – union with God in the body of Christ. God is sovereign, and He alone knows whom, is part of His body. He will save whomever He will, however He will, but He has given to us the normative path to eternal life and it leads right through the church. Do any of us really believe the Apostles would have accepted of those they discipled, anything short of their being baptized, fully incorporated communicants, and worshiping members of the local church? Then why do we?

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