/ in Scholarly Work

Virtually Alone?

Originally published in World Reformed Fellowship, 2017.

Occasionally I have the privilege of surveying church congregations to find out how to improve ministry.  In surveying the women of a PCA church recently, I felt the most intriguing response was the answer to this question:

Please describe the setting in which you feel you best grow spiritually—rank your top 3, with 1 being the best:

_____ Adult Sunday school

_____ Church service — worship/prayer/music

_____ Church service — sermon

_____ Small group fellowship

_____ Small group Bible study

_____ At home alone in study or prayer

_____ Special 2-hour events for women such as speakers, holiday celebrations

_____ Retreats

_____ With a close friend

_____ Serving other

Other: _______________________________________________

The number one answer to this question was “At home alone in study or prayer.”  This answer was given consistently across age groups, not concentrated in any one generation. 

Second was the worship/prayer/music of the service, and the sermon was third highest.  This was a church that is considered to have good preaching.  Some women added that “alone” also meant reading online or even using social media—a kind of virtual communion in virtual solitude.

When I spoke to the pastor of that church, he was alarmed that women felt they grew best at home alone.  (A 2009 Barna survey of pastors found that 15% measured spiritual maturity of their flock in terms of church involvement. http://www.christianpost.com/news/many-churchgoers-pastors-struggle-to-define-spiritual-maturity-38567/.  I would say it’s a higher percentage than that.)

It’s true that we need fellowship, corporate worship experiences, and service in the church.  The book of Hebrews warns us not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some.”  But we also need to be aware that the culture is changing, and that individuals are spending their time in very different ways than they did twenty and even ten years ago.   This includes mature Christians, and women as much or more than men.

16% of those who don’t attend church at all consider themselves to have “a committed relationship to Christ”  http://religionnews.com/2014/10/24/secularism-is-on-the-rise-as-more-u-s-christians-turn-churchless/.   A Barna survey of Christian Millennials found that 66% of them read the Bible online, and that 55% ranked reading the Bible as more important than church attendance. 

Women spend more time spent online than men  https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-digital-gender-divide-women-are-more-likely-than-men-to-have-a-blog-and-a-facebook-profile/256466/ and Google searches by middle-aged women have increased more than that of any demographic https://yourstory.com/2016/03/google-women-search-trends/.

We can draw comfort from 3 facts: 

1. American Christians may well be consuming much more preaching and Biblical commentary than they did several years ago.  In my church, some of our most active members read or listen to sermons by other pastors online as well as attending our services.  New sites and blogs (like mine) from a Christian worldview are appearing every day.  Church “prayer chains” by telephone are becoming less common as social media and texting are carrying prayer requests more efficiently.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that people really are growing, at home alone.  Thank God that they are; it would be surprising if God’s Word returned void.  If growing “at home alone in study and prayer” does not mean using media, but refers to meditating on Scripture in the natural beauty of their own back yards, or confessing and praising in their prayer closets, so much the better—after all, “media” means a middle or mediating force, and if people can cultivate an immediate relationship with Christ, that relationship will bless them in ways even their churches may not.

2. The questionnaire asked how people grow spiritually, not how they make friends or serve best…

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