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Ask Americans if they believe in God and most will say yes. But a growing number are departing from organized religion altogether.
For the first time since the late 1930s, fewer than half of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a new report from Gallup.
Allow these facts to sink in: 47 percent of Americans now say they belong to a house of worship, down from 70 percent in the mid-1990s and 50 percent in 2019. The decline is part of a continued drop in membership over the past 20 years, according to Gallup data.
The polling giant has been measuring church membership since 1937 when nearly three-quarters of the population (73 percent) reported membership in a house of worship. For much of that time, membership remained at about 70 percent but began to decline after 1999. By the late 2000s, membership had dropped to about 62 percent and has continued to fall.
The decline in membership coincides with the rise of the so-called “Nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation. Gallup reports about one in five Americans (21 percent) is a None—making them as large a group as evangelicals or Catholics. Other polls put the number at closer to 30 percent.
Younger Americans are increasingly disconnected from organized religion, according to the report from Gallup. But the number of older Americans who are members of a house of worship has also declined in recent years.
The gap between those who believe in a specific religion and those who participate in a specific congregation is likely to prove a challenge for houses of worship. And the decline in church membership is likely to continue.
This begs the question, is church attendance important to God? Is it enough for those who believe in God to simply worship Him alone—on his or her own terms?
To begin answering this crucial question, let’s examine the first Christian church service.
Acts 2:1 records the historic scene of the New Testament Church as it came into existence. Luke writes, “they were all with one accord in one place.” This annual Sabbath of Pentecost proves to be an event not to be missed or to be late for. Peter gives a powerful sermon. Miracles are recorded. The Holy Spirit is given. After repentance is explained, thousands request baptism. About 3,000 are “called” (vs. 39) and “gladly receive his [Peter’s] word” (vs. 41). Probably the largest single group baptism in history occurs. The New Testament Church is born!
(You must prove for yourself that this organization Christ built nearly 2,000 years ago still exists today. Read my book Where Is the True Church? – and Its Incredible History! to discover where God’s Church exists today.)
What did this signify—what did it mean? Of course, the Church of God was established, but what else? Even in its infancy there were clues. Allow the Bible to answer.
Our First Glimpse of the Church
What did this new Church look like? The first answers come immediately: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (Acts 2:42).
Why is this significant? The two earliest and most defining features of God’s Church are evident: (1) steadfastness in the apostles’ doctrine, and (2) fellowship. Then, after verse 43 explains that the fear of God is apparent in “every soul,” verse 44 adds, “…all that believed were together.” Verse 46 also states that they continued to be of “one accord [agreement],” meeting together “daily” in various houses in “singleness of heart.”
The Church of God was unified, continuing a practice founded in ancient Israel.
God instructed Moses to write, “…the feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are My feasts. Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; you shall do no work therein: it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:2-3).
The Hebrew word for “holy convocation” is miqra, which means “something called out, an assembly, a reading.” This is a commanded assembly. God’s Church has always understood and taught this meaning. It is inseparable from the overall keeping of the Sabbath—and is as important as “resting” and “[doing] no work therein.”
A Vital Warning
Hebrews 10 states, “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering…Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching. For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins” (vs. 23, 25-26).
Let’s take a closer look. Several points are important in this passage: (1) The context is holding fast. (2) This must be done without wavering, or going back and forth. (3) We must never stop assembling. (4) Some do adopt this approach to Sabbath attendance. (5) We are to exhort others to attend. (6) It is “so much the more” important as we “see the day [of Christ’s Return] approaching.” And finally, (7) this is in the context of a direct warning against willful sin—leaving “no more sacrifice for sins.”
Christ’s sacrifice does not permit us to override true knowledge. Notice that in Hebrews 4:9, the apostle Paul reminded God’s people that “There remains therefore a rest [Sabbatismos: Margin—keeping of the Sabbath] to the people of God.”
If Sabbath assembly is optional, then what is the point of Hebrews 10:23-26? Why do we need to assemble? What are the purposes for this command?
In John 21:15-17, Christ bluntly told Peter (three times) that, if Peter loved Him, he would “feed My sheep.” It is evident that this admonition was not lost on Peter. Later in his ministry, Peter instructed elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you” (I Pet. 5:2).
Paul admonished the assembled elders at Ephesus in the same way: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to feed the Church of God, which He has purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
God’s ministers can never take this lightly. Yet, how could God command His ministers to feed sheep who were not commanded to attend and eat the spiritual food?
Here is why God has ordained a ministry: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things” (Eph. 4:12-15; also read I Cor. 12:28-29).
Congregating on the Sabbath has been, and always will be, the test command (Ex. 31:13-17).
Another False Idea Enters
Many would-be “leaders” promote the false idea that you must no longer regularly attend Sabbath services.
They preach a smooth counterfeit: “Everyone is on his own…We must do the best we can by attending wherever we can…You may even be safest by staying at home on the Sabbath.”
These leaders flatter people with what they want to hear—not what they need to hear. Instead of resolving members’ problems, they increase them!
Certain verses are usually cited and twisted to support a “do-it-yourself” approach to Church attendance and Christianity. Do not believe any of these ideas. They are all false and do not square with the many other plain Bible verses about assembling together.
God’s purpose and intent for His faithful servants is that they remain together, believe the full truth, submit to His government and actively continue His Work (Matt. 24:14, 44-45; 28:19-20; Ezek. 33:7-9; Isa. 62:6).
Why Assembling Builds Faith
There is another critical aspect of Sabbath assembly that is little understood. As you listen to sermons and Bible studies, something is quietly happening within you. Let’s understand! Notice what Paul wrote to the Romans: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). Yes, ministers are required so that people can be properly led within the truth.
Yet members also have responsibilities toward the Church.
In Acts 8:31, the Ethiopian eunuch answers the deacon Philip’s question, “Understand you what you read?” with his own question: “How can I, except some man should guide me?” In this question he sought help. It took humility to admit that he did not “know it all.” Yet the context shows that he was familiar with Isaiah’s writings and must have had his own personal copy. Like the eunuch, you must be willing to let God’s Church teach you.
Paul continues in Romans, “And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (10:15). God’s ministers are always sent by His faithful headquarters. They never come of their own authority, in rebellion to God’s chosen leadership.
Paul continues further, “…as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah said, Lord, who has believed our report? So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:15-17).
Listening to God’s instruction through His true servants is a faith-building exercise. Have you realized this before?
God’s Word is living—dynamic! It is not sterile or useless to those who hear it. When sitting in Sabbath services, you are not simply “marking time,” you are growing in faith—if you are actively engaged in every word that is being spoken.
The biggest reason we are to assemble on God’s Sabbath is to be spiritually nourished with the pure word of truth and “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV). This is one of the most important ways that your faith is strengthened.
The next time you approach Sabbath services, remember this vital principle and how it works within the mind of a converted person!
To Praise God
The second reason God’s people must assemble together is perhaps best summarized by three verses in Psalms: “Let them exalt Him also in the congregation of the people” (107:32), “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and His praise in the congregation of saints” (149:1), and “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him” (89:7).
These scriptures show that we come together to sing praises to God as we learn to fear and reverence Him—and we are to do this with other brethren, assembled as the Church.
Do you strive to “make a joyful noise” to God during Sabbath singing? Take a moment to read three places that emphasize how important this is to God. In fact, He commands you to sing (Psa. 81:1; 95:1-2; 98:4).
We must never sing less than whole-heartedly before God. Daydreaming, mumbling or not participating at all violates these verses. They show neither reverence nor honor for God on the day that is intended to be a “sign” between Him and His people (Ezek. 20:12-13).
The third purpose for attending Sabbath services is to enjoy right, godly fellowship. It is a weekly opportunity for those who fear God to speak “often one to another” (Mal. 3:16).
What about your little congregation? Are you still at the stage where you feel that you are like Archippus, “the Church in your [or someone’s] house” (Phm. 2), or as Paul wrote to the Romans of Priscilla and Aquila, “the Church that is in their house” (Rom. 16:5)?
Treasure your group—no matter its size. Love, serve and pray for those in it, and take advantage of opportunities to fellowship with other brethren when available.
Understand the following: You cannot go it alone. If any limb of the body is severed (arm, leg, hand, finger), it will still live for a little while—but only for a little while. It will die, unless it is successfully grafted back onto the body: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman…Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can you, except you abide in Me” (John 15:1, 4).
This passage speaks to any who might try to have a “just you and me, God” attitude. (See I Corinthians 12:12-20.)
God commands us to have a “holy convocation,” where possible, on His Sabbath and Holy Days (Lev. 23:3). There are times when, due to illness, great distances, or other factors, you will be unable to assemble with brethren of like mind. But you must never “forsake the assembling of yourselves together” when it is possible (Heb. 10:25).
Just a few verses later, God gives insight—and powerful instruction—through Paul, regarding how He views those who waver, cease to hold fast and pull back from faithfulness: “But if any man draw back, My soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:38-39).
Remember that the people of the true Church of God will always continue steadfastly “in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship”!