Church attendance is infected with a malaise of conditional loyalty which has produced an army of ecclesiastical hitchhikers. The hitchhiker’s thumb says, “You buy the car, pay for repairs and upkeep and insurance, fill the car with gas — and I’ll ride with you. But if you have an accident, you are on your own! And I’ll probably sue.” So it is with the credo of so many of today’s church attenders: “You go to the meetings and serve on the boards and committees, you grapple with the issues and do the work of the church and pay the bills — and I’ll come along for the ride. But if things do not suit me, I’ll criticize and complain and probably bail out — my thumb is always out for a better ride.”
This putative loyalty is fueled by a consumer ethos — a “McChristian” mentality — which picks and chooses here and there to fill one’s ecclesiastical shopping list. There are hitchhikers who attend one church for the preaching, send their children to a second church for its dynamic youth program, and go to a third church’s small group. Church hitchhikers have a telling vocabulary: “I go to” or “I attend,” but never “I belong to” or “I am a member.” Pollster George Barna supports this, saying: “[T]he average adult thinks that belonging to a church is good for other people, but represents unnecessary bondage and baggage for himself.”
So today, at the end of the twentieth century, we have a phenomenon unthinkable in any other century: churchless Christians. There is a vast herd of professed Christians who exist as nomadic hitchhikers without accountability, without discipline, without discipleship, living apart from the regular benefits of the ordinances. To borrow from Cyprian’s idea, they have God as their Father, but reject the Church as mother and as a result are incomplete and stunted. The tragedy is compounded because statistics indicate that men are far less committed to the Church than women — inevitably producing a shriveled leadership.
As to why the Church has fallen on such hard times, historians tell us that an overemphasis on the “invisible” Body of Christ by evangelical leaders produced an implicit disregard for the visible Church. However, membership in an invisible Church without participation in its local expression is never contemplated in the New Testament.
Another reason for the de-churching of many Christians is the historic individualism of evangelical Christianity and the grass-roots American impulse against authority. The natural inclination is to think that one needs only an individual relationship with Christ and needs no other authority. Such thinking produces Christian Lone Rangers who demonstrate their authenticity by riding not to church, but out to the badlands, reference Bible in hand, to do battle single-handedly with the outlaw world.
Such a cavalier disregard for the doctrine of the Church is eccentric, to say the least. It disregards not only Scripture, but the consensus of the doctors of the Church. St. Augustine in his Enchiridion holds up the visible Church saying: “[F]or outside the church they [one’s sins] have no remission. For it is the Church in particular which has received the earnest, the Holy Spirit, apart from whom no sins receive remission” (italics added). Augustine could not conceive of one being regenerated yet consciously separate from the visible Church. “The deserter of the Church,” he said, “cannot be in Christ, since he is not among Christ’s members.”
R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, 10th anniversary ed.; rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 169–171.