I have a friend who faded away from church during his undergraduate years. First, his church involvement became sporadic. Then he stopped attending events that featured worship or fostered Christian community. For a while, he continued to claim he was a Christian. A year later, he dropped the label.
Some may think he’s still a Christian because he once “got saved” and was baptized. He doesn’t. I don’t either. Regardless of one’s theory of salvation, it’s clear that, although God hasn’t given up on him, he has quit church.
My friend is not alone. He’s among the many convinced there may be something to this whole Jesus business but who’ve disconnected from Christian community.
“People who say they don’t have a religious identity—though many still embrace some Christian beliefs and engage in various spiritual practices—are projected to rise from about 30 percent today to as much as 52 percent in 50 years,” writes CT reporter Daniel Silliman in response to recent Pew Research Center data.
The pandemic is also part of the faith picture in America. In “Rise of the Umms,” CT writer Mike Moore suggests that, just as COVID-19 exposed weaknesses in our systems and relationships, “this same accelerated unveiling has descended on the church, revealing a major decline in congregational involvement.”
“Recent data shows a majority of churches are below their pre-pandemic attendance,” he writes. “A study released early this year reveals that church attendance is down by 6 percent, from 34 percent in 2019 to 28 percent in 2021.”
For whatever reason—busyness, laziness, fatigue, deconstruction, or trauma—many have abandoned ship. For now. Some say they want to stay involved in Christian activities but never quite make it happen, or they intend to reengage once they get fresh bearings, but the future hasn’t arrived. Perhaps it never will.
These downward trends point to big questions: How do we know when someone has decisively quit church? When have they officially left the fold? And perhaps more importantly, is Christian community necessary for salvation, so that it forms part of the essential definition of what it means to be Christian? These aren’t new questions, per se, but they carry new urgency.
Scripture gives us absolutes on what it means to enter Christian community. It also gives us guidelines that help us discern our spiritual condition in relationship to that community.
According to Jesus, the church began when he asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” After Peter confessed, “You are the Christ” (Matt. 16:15–16; Mark 8:29), Jesus replied by saying, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
Christians might disagree about how the church should be administered, but they should agree that it started with Peter’s profession and grows when others declare the same. To respond to the gospel in a saving fashion is to pledge pistis (“faith” or “allegiance”) to Jesus as the Christ, the forgiving and restoring King.
The standard way to make an oath of fealty to King Jesus in the New Testament was by calling upon his name as part of the baptismal process (such as in Acts 22:16). It should be no different today. When a person expresses “faith” (loyalty) in him as Lord or King, that person becomes part of the one true church—the community where the Holy Spirit is present.
Praying a certain prayer, studying Scripture, or attending a worship service is not sufficient by itself. A person must pledge fealty to King Jesus and persist in that profession. The church, then, is a group of people that authentically declares “Jesus is the Christ” in such a way that the Holy Spirit is sovereign in their midst.
It’s a common truism to say the church isn’t equivalent to the building. But we need to add that it is not synonymous with official Christian fellowships, ministries, or organizations. “Church” happens whenever two meet, provided they are gathering under Jesus’ banner: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20).
No matter the size or nature of the gathering, if Jesus is given authority to rule, then he is present and “church” is occurring right there.
To quit the church, then, is to cease being part of the people that collectively proclaim Jesus is the King. When a person no longer gathers with others under that banner, they miss out on the Holy Spirit’s sovereign direction over the corporate body, as well as the Spirit’s gifts and special rescuing benefits.
Apart from these basics, there is no definitive way to measure whether a person has left the church. To add absolutes beyond pledging fidelity to King Jesus is to risk falling afoul of God’s grace. (This is the problem Paul was combating in Galatia; see Galatians 5:1–6.) Those who add requirements fail to see that God, through the gracious gift of Jesus the rescuing Christ, has created one and only one righteous family—and that family is uniquely defined by allegiance to Jesus as the Christ-King.
So in weighing what it means for a person to leave the church, consider what follows a helpful gauge rather than a rigid yardstick:
First, is the Holy Spirit urging reconnection?
While comparing the church to a body with many different parts, Paul says, “we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). That is, common immersion in the Holy Spirit brings diverse Christians into unity. Moreover, “we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” That means the Holy Spirit courses through the body to maintain our unity: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (v. 21).
In other words, if a person is convinced they can be a Christian all by their lonesome and have no need for other parts of the King’s body, then in all likelihood, they’ve quit church. Those who have completely numbed the desire to gather with others under Jesus’ lordship are those who have likely left.
By contrast, if they’re still under the authority of Jesus’ kingship, then his sovereign Spirit will not permit an “I don’t need you” mindset. If they still yearn to reconnect, it’s safe to say that person is still allowing the Holy Spirit some space to sovereignly direct.
Second, is a person using their body to serve others and obey Jesus?
It’s easy to play mind games, and when it comes to sinful choices, most of us are Jedi-level masters. I can personally attest to this fact. Selfish delusion and sinful rationalizations are never far away: “Yes. I do deserve …” (Fill in your own non-cross-shaped blank.) Yet Scripture points us to bodily obedience in the midst of community.
The Bible is replete with warnings to pay the utmost attention to our physical actions. Scripture reminds us that our behavior reliably tracks whether we are really united to King Jesus: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). In context, Jesus is speaking about the coming of the Advocate and Teacher, the Holy Spirit (v. 26).
Likewise, the apostle John exhorts us to scrutinize our behavior: “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands” (1 John 2:3). “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness” (2:9). “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning” (3:6, 9). We need to study our actions, because they reveal whether we’re truly attached to King Jesus and his body.
In other words, we must not be fooled by our own mind games. If what we identify as saving “belief” or “faith” is disembodied, it’s not only useless—it’s not faith at all. It’s a corpse (James 2:20, 26).
Our obedience will never be perfect, of course. But if a person claims to have faith and makes no real attempt to offer bodily loyalty to King Jesus, then it’s safe to say that person has quit church.
Third, is a person participating in Christian mission?
The gospel is about how King Jesus is bringing about restoration from rebellion through his incarnation, death, resurrection, enthronement, kingship, and return. His victory has created a people that he’s in the process of rescuing—namely, the church. If we are not responding to the good news that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in the process of creating a restored people, then we remain in rebellion against the King’s authority.
If we are trying to be less selfish, that’s good but beside the point. If we’re seeking to serve others, that’s great but still not the point. We need to seek virtues not for their own sake but for the Messiah’s sake and his gospel’s sake (Mark 9:35). The cross-carrying life is specific to Jesus’ kingdom purposes.
When we’re on mission with Jesus, there is no war-free zone where we can “opt out” of the church to pursue our own moralities, values, and agendas. If we are not gathering with King Jesus, then we are scattering (Matt. 12:30). There is no neutral, insulated space where we can deconstruct, take a break from Christian community, and figure things out for ourselves. Even while tearing down in order to rebuild, we have to remain under Jesus’ authority through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, for our own sake and the sake of others.
Our mission is to cultivate allegiance to King Jesus by being obedient disciples who teach others how to be disciples. As part of King Jesus’s restorative gospel, the Holy Spirit guides those disciples together into ever greater levels of obedience.
I teach undergraduates. Although the picture is partial, the future face of the world—and Christianity within it—stares at me when I stand at my lectern.
I see emerging trends amid my students that frighten me—eyes fixed on screens, apathy, lack of concern for God’s moral standards, and dwindling church attendance. But one thing scares me above all else: When they first enter my classroom, most of my students seem to believe that even if Christianity happens to be fully true, it doesn’t really matter.
In response, I encourage students to see that Jesus is reigning right now—socially, politically, morally—and that genuine, this-world harm follows when we ignore his directives. (Check back in a few years, and I’ll tell you if I’m making any headway.)
I also see heartening trends. In comparison with a decade prior, my current students show a deep concern for the social well-being of others. They are more welcoming to outcasts, loners, and misfits. That sounds a lot like King Jesus, right?
They also yearn to connect with others authentically, even as they struggle to learn how to do that through a thousand intervening screens. They are primed not simply to hear a Billy Graham–style gospel invitation in a stadium but to connect with fellow Christians who want to help them grow in loyalty.
It is safe to say the church’s future depends on making allegiant disciples in the name of King Jesus. It always has.
Jesus has won the victory and will bring his rescuing intentions to a climax. Jesus is King now and forever more. That can never change. But when we wonder if we or others are in or out of the church, only one question matters: Is Jesus permitted to rule?
Matthew Bates is associate professor of theology at Quincy University and the author, most recently, of Why the Gospel?: Living the Good News of King Jesus with Purpose.