Back to Church Sunday?

by Greg Albrecht

Many of the letters I receive are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—”you never know what you’re gonna get.” Recently I received a clever promotional message urging PTM and CWR to participate in “Back-to-Church Sunday.”

The letter explained that Back-to-Church Sunday is a great way to get the “unchurched” and the “de-churched” back to church. The coalition responsible for the letter explained that Back-to-Church Sunday is held annually in early to mid September, taking advantage of the time when students are going “back to school.” The message implored me to help this new initiative, because, as the message claimed, people’s lives would be forever changed if they just went back to church!

Over 3,500 churches and sponsoring organizations are engaging in publicity campaigns to reach the “unchurched.” Organizers estimated that over a million print and electronic invitations are sent. Those who are reluctant to invite others to their church personally can use the resources of a website that will send invitations for them—by mail or email. Churches see this as a way to bolster declining attendance—and there is evidence that participating churches can expect increased numbers in the weeks following Back-to-Church Sunday.

I know the folks behind this latest innovative wrinkle to fill the pews think they are helping people. I realize they believe getting people “back to church” will help “reach” them for Christ. But thinking you are helping people and actually helping people are not always one and the same thing. Back-to-Church Sunday is based on at least two faulty assumptions:

1) Buildings, stained glass windows and distinctive ceremonies are not necessary for people to come to know and worship God. Spiritual re-birth, transformation and growth can take place anywhere. “The Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Acts 7:48).

2) Those who favor Back-to-Church Sunday say that people’s lives may be forever changed if they go to church. Yes, people’s lives may be forever changed if they go back to church, but their lives also might be forever changed if they don’t. The implication is, of course, that people’s lives will be positively forever changed if they just go to church.

It’s true that if you don’t go to church on a Sunday morning and you go to the grocery store instead you might be the victim of a hold-up on your way to or from the store. But I also know plenty of people who have innocently headed off to a church building, thinking it was a safe place, only to be spiritually mugged and abused. Church attendance may indeed change a person’s life, but not necessarily for the better.

If you want to forever change your life, then you will need to encounter and experience Jesus—that may happen in a building that identifies itself as a church, and it may happen in lots of other places. There are lots of places where your life can be forever changed. To claim that God is isolated to a church building or its services is spiritual arrogance.

Caged or Free-Range Christians?
Religious factories don’t necessarily manufacture Christ-centered people. Religious assembly lines don’t transform people from the inside out.

Religious environments don’t always connect people with God—sometimes they succeed in connecting people with religious rituals and ceremonies, putting them in relationships with buildings, pastors and programs—rather than Jesus.

If you’re anything like me, you may prefer to buy chickens, eggs and beef that are “free range.” I don’t like the idea that the chicken or beef I eat has been artificially force-fed hormones in a controlled environment, or the idea of broiler houses where chickens are stimulated to lay more eggs.

Does herding people into a spiritual feed lot or broiler house in a “mega-church” or cathedral produce better, superior Christians than free-range spiritual environments?

“Well,” some might protest, “people need expert teaching and guidance. If you just let people stray wherever they want they will not receive the spiritual food they need.” Maybe—maybe not.

Will I be healthier if I go to a fast-food place where billions of burgers have been sold—or can I be just as healthy if I prepare my own burger in my own kitchen?

Morality and Control
Another may say, “it’s good for people to go to church because churches encourage people to be good, moral citizens. Churches control people—without churches our countries would be filled with criminals.”

Religion does control people. But is control the object of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Ditto for morality. If you want to visit the most moral place in town, forget church—go visit the local cemetery. It’s the most law-abiding place you can find. Not only that, a visit to the cemetery usually gives you just as much pause for thought as a hell-fire preacher—and they don’t pass the collection plate at the cemetery (sermons are shorter at the cemetery, too!).

I’m not entirely opposed to Back-to-Church Sunday any more than I am opposed to visiting someone in jail or prison (Matthew 25:36). Some people need to be in prison, for the protection of the rest of society. But people don’t belong in prison, and the stated hope of society is that prisoners will “do their time” and never return.

“Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:23-25).

I am not saying that churches and prisons are one and the same. I am dogmatically saying, on the authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that no religious institution has a biblical right to lock up and hold anyone as a prisoner of rules, regulations and rituals.

I am opposed to many of the assumptions behind Back-to-Church Sunday. In the spirit of fair play, I suggest equal time be given to the very next Sunday following “Back to Church Sunday.” Let’s call that Sunday “I’m-Leaving-My-Authoritarian-Legalistic-Church Sunday.” We need a day like that. You see, when prisoners go free, I guarantee you, it forever changes their lives.