Why do people attend church?

Kara Powell | Nov 10, 2010

Last week I was one of two plenary speakers at Princeton’s Emerging Adults Conference. Chris Smith from Notre Dame was the other plenary session speaker. I’ve followed Chris’ work for years and it was great to hear him speak and talk with him over a few meals.

I’m cutting and pasting my notes from one of Chris’ lectures. I think I’ve captured his thinking accurately (and much of this is a transcription of his actual slides), but my apologies to Chris if I’ve misunderstood. These are Chris’ words:

“Having personally conducted in depth interviews with 100s of American Christians, I have in the last two years reluctantly and without joy come to the following conclusion (as an empirical reality, not a prophetic judgment):

The vast majority of American churchgoers:

  1. Are not interested in Jesus Christ.
  2. Rather, they attend church because it provides:
    1. Useful coping mechanisms (emotional, cognitive) for lifes difficulties (i.e., makes feel better).
    2. Some support for raising a family.
    3. Some moral stability/orientation in an unstable world (i.e., moralism).
    4. Some friends and local community involvement.
    5. A path to ‘go to heaven’.

Stated in theological terms (a la Karl Barth), all of this is ‘idolatry’. All of it is human projections of their own ideas and interests into the cosmos. Everything that does not begin and end with Jesus Christ inevitably is idolatry.”

What do you think? If you were hearing Chris, what questions would you want to ask him? Do you agree, disagree, or are you scratching your head and not sure?

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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