Authors: Richard Sweatman & Antony Barraclough Publisher: St Matthias Year: 2022 Reviewed by Mark Powell Is Church an ‘Essential’ Service? One of the most alarming developments to come out of COVID-19 was the […]
Authors: Richard Sweatman & Antony Barraclough
Publisher: St Matthias
Reviewed by Mark Powell
Is Church an ‘Essential’ Service?
One of the most alarming developments to come out of COVID-19 was the view that church gatherings were not only deemed to be an “unessential service”, but how easily many Christians also agreed. Even after the various government restrictions were lifted, it was concerning to witness how many people decided not to return to church. I was actually interviewed a few months ago by a couple of academics from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia researching why people connected to Christian communities coped better than those who did not, but those findings are yet to be released.
This is what makes a book such as Unmissable Church (St Matthias, 2022) by Sweatman and Barraclough so timely and important, even if one of the most helpful sections— “The impact of COVID”—was relegated to one of the final four appendices! Unmissable Church helps us to reflect more deeply on why meeting together regularly with the people of God is so important, and I would even say, essential.
There is much to commend and appreciate about this relatively short book. Let me summarise with a list of the following strengths followed by what may have made the book even more helpful than what it already is.
The Inclusion of Mental Health
This is one of the first Christian books I have read that engages with the issue of mental health and how that impacts on an individual’s involvement in a local church. In this regard, the authors are both knowledgeable and compassionate giving a lot of practical tips on how to not let these issues stop people from attending regularly and being involved. Indeed, an entire chapter is devoted to this particular aspect and while somewhat concise, it is not treated in a simplistic or trite way.
Engaging Writing Style
One of the things which I appreciated about this particular work was its easy-to-read and engaging style. Thank you! What’s more, there is a lovely use of humour and personal anecdotes spread throughout which keeps the book from being bogged down in weighty discussion.
Something else to appreciate about Unmissable Church is its cultural awareness of the Australian context. The interaction with Andrew Leigh’s book Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010) is particularly helpful in understanding how we as Aussies have become increasingly reluctant to join community organisations generally, e.g. unions, clubs, theatre memberships, political parties and in particular church. As Leigh reports:
By the mid-1990s, the decline in churchgoing appears to have bottomed out. In 2007, around 13 per cent of Australians attended church on a weekly basis, and 17 per cent attended monthly or more. Organised religion now plays no regular part in the lives of four out of five Australians.
There has been a kind of “anti-denominationalism” occurring, where many people are happy to be involved in a local church but reluctant to formerly join. Barraclough uses the following example to suggest how the reluctance to be regular at church can be associated with the change in attitude to attending something as significant as a 21st birthday, or what is commonly referred to as the cultural phenomenon of FOMO, i.e. the “Fear Of Missing Out”. As Barraclough perceptively explains:
I’m old enough to have children who, with their friends, have turned 21. And when it comes to how this generation wants to celebrate the same occasion, things couldn’t be more different. Apparently, there is a reluctance among some in this age group to have a 21st birthday party at all. The source of this reluctance seems to be a mixture of shyness and a fear that some of the invited guests won’t tell you whether they’re coming or, even if they do respond, won’t show up or will leave early to go to another party. The potential result is that the birthday boy or girl holds a party with few guests or with a revolving door of people coming and going all night. Face with the anxiety that they will suffer the shame of hosting a lame event, many conclude that it’s better not to have the party at all.
Much of the sociological research behind Unmissable Church was a result of Barraclough’s doctoral research (DMIN, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) in which he analysed the reasons as to why a couple of hundred people over a four-week and twelve-week period missed church. Significantly, this focused on those who were committed to attending Sydney Anglican Churches which are well-known for being largely reformed-evangelical.
While there are already things like the National Church Life Survey, it’s important to drill down on trends within a conservative denomination such as the Sydney Anglicans. Significantly, Barraclough found that those he surveyed attended church at “much higher than the general figures”. That said, “the average self-reported attendance rate was 84% of all opportunities, but the clergy-measured attendance rate was 68%”. This leads Barraclough to make the following two conclusions:
First, whereas previous generations of ministers considered regular church attendance to be twice on a Sunday (morning and evening), now the committed believer attends two out of every three weeks. This represents a major transformation in church attendance patterns—worryingly, one that matches that of the general population, where so many are losing their faith.
Secondly, there is a real bias among those who attend church to over-inflate their commitment. In other words, our perception is that we are more regular at church than we are. Not only are committed Christians disturbingly irregular in their church attendance; they don’t even realise the extent to which this is happening.
My only quibble is that it’s a shame that this research wasn’t broader still. But this is obviously outside the scope of his resources and opportunity while also working as a full-time pastor.
Consistent with Barraclough’s research mentioned in the previous point, the authors are cognizant of the pressures of modern life, and especially the impact which these are having on people’s commitment to their local church. As Barraclough states:
The world has changed in many ways over the past five to seven decades—consider the speed of our technological advances, the pill, the sexual revolution, the rise and fall of Communism, the increasing affordability of cars and TV’s, climate change, and much more. But an all-pervading change in Western society is the rise of individualism as the dominant paradigm for life and thought.
This is where the authors apply the insights of Charles Taylor’s important book, A Secular Age and especially Taylor’s observation that since the Second World War we have entered into what he refers to as the ‘Age of Authenticity’. Taylor’s work is inaccessible to most, and even those who attempt to make the effort find it difficult to understand. But the authors summarise Taylor’s main argument in a way which is germane to the topic at hand.
Self-expression is the new zeitgeist. The church, which represents the old order and preaches restraint in the area of sexual expression, is consequently seen as out of touch. The package of values of the Age of Authenticity are self-expression, sensual release, equal relations and social bonding. It’s about making sure you get the most out of yourself, “which means putting yourself in a job which is spiritually fulfilling, socially constructive, experientially diverse, emotionally enriching, self-esteeming boosting, perpetually challenging, and eternally edifying”. In this kind of culture, church—including regular Sunday attendance—will come off second best unless it can somehow cater to the new mood. This paradigm of thought pervades the age.
While Barraclough and Sweatman are correct in their summary of Taylor’s explanation, it would have been good if this aspect were explored even more fully. There are a number of works—especially from an international perspective—which would have strengthened their analysis, such as. Callum G. Brown’s, Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain(Routledge, 2006). But once again, this is probably outside their intended scope which is focused on being a practical assistance.
The tone of Unmissable Church is one of warm pastoral exhortation and encouragement. Especially when it comes to a topic involving church attendance, this is clearly important, and the authors achieve this balance admirably. The following extended quote is a good example:
Even the Christian who can spot the error of these pseudo-gospels is often blind to his own idolatry. He will go to church because Jesus is Lord, but he will not always go—because family is important, work requires long hours, he is busy chasing the kids around myriad activities each weekend, and he believes that he needs ‘me time’ to recharge away from the hyperactivity of the connected world. In the end, good things compete with the best thing—Jesus—for primary place in our lives. The mix of idols in our hearts has us playing a spiritual version of the amusement park game ‘Whac-A-Mole’ with church, family, work and rest.
In short, we have heard and believed the gospel, but we still need to put away our idols of the heart. And it’s showing up in the attendance patterns of committed Christians. We really must heed the teaching of the apostle John, who, after reassuring the faithful that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13), nevertheless instructs God’s people: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).
As a pastor, myself, I appreciated the balance of their approach. While their approach is never condescending, at the same time it doesn’t let the reader off the hook. And for those with ears to hear the authors do a great job of reminding the reader as to what the Gospel entails as a response.
A Neglected Topic
If there is one issue which is under-emphasised throughout Australian evangelicalism, it is the doctrine of the church. While Unmissable Church by no means intends to be the final word on the subject, it is good to see it addressed. As Dr Glenn Davies mentions in an endorsement for the book, “While Covid has had its impact, nothing substitutes for the joy of meeting “face to face” (2 John 12)”.
The authors are to be commended for even attempting to address such a neglected topic. And one can only hope that others will pick up where they have left off and strengthen our thinking even further.
One thing Unmissable Church does extremely well, is meet people where they are at. Especially if they have experienced significant discouragements or disagreements with other Christians and this has negatively affected their church commitment. Chapter 6 addresses this issue head on, with the appropriate title, “It’s complicated”.
The authors do not shy away from the reality of how painful church can be sometimes. Whether it’s broken friendships, grievance with a leader, an unbelieving spouse, a sense of isolation or the effects of a messy divorce. One of the most important—and also challenging—aspects of church life is putting into practice the truths of 1 Corinthians 13. Without being trite or pietistic, the authors do an excellent job at encouraging the reader to work through these kinds of personal difficulties.
A Solid Gospel Framework
This point should have been mentioned first because it is one of the best things about Unmissable Church. The book is saturated with the Good News of the Gospel and it never descends into moralism or trying to motivate people by guilt. Chapter 4 “I don’t deserve to be in church” is focused on this particular aspect and the authors do an excellent job at explaining how God’s grace in the face of Christ is the most compelling reason for coming to church.
The final chapter “Let us not give up” is also a wonderful exhortation in this regard. Based upon the famous ‘Call to Worship’ of Hebrews 10:23-25, it’s just a shame that this wasn’t placed at the beginning of the book, rather than at the end. It would have been more compelling to be challenged with the Gospel up front rather than as a postscript.
Any book needs to clearly identify who its audience is and for Unmissable Church this seems to be the “uncommitted regular”. This the believer who is there occasionally, but tends to be consistently absent when something better comes along.
Another strength of the book is the numerous testimonials spread throughout which highlight a particular aspect the authors are addressing. Also, there are discussion questions at the end of each chapter. This is a book which could easily be studied by small groups during the week. The production of something like a “workbook” might be something the authors consider.
While Unmissable Church doesn’t position or present itself as a systematic theology on the subject, there are moments of insight which are incredibly helpful. One of the best is a short excursus of 5–6 pages on the pastorally sensitive chestnut, “Can my small group be my church?” The authors not only tackle the question succinctly but also with pastoral insight and tact. Of special mention is a quote from Broughton Knox:
A Christian who is satisfied with the fellowship of his home or of his house church, and who does not wish to grow in fellowship of the larger group of Christians, is using his home or his house church as a club, getting from it what he wants. A fellowship, in contrast to a club, must be absolutely other-person-centred, knowing no limits to its fellowship. Such is the fellowship of heaven, and the limits we know in our earthly fellowship are simply the limits of human life and not of attitude.
One of the aspects which I was most pleased—and even relieved—by was its exegetical discussion surrounding church. Flowing out of the previous point, many Sydney Anglicans identify with what is commonly referred to as the “Knox-Robinson” perspective, which is the view that church is only the gathered local body of believers (and nothing more) based on a word study of the term ‘church’.
The authors of Unmissable Church though, also include the numerous metaphors which are also used to describe what church means. i.e. building / temple, flock, family, bride as well as a few more. This added greatly to the work as a whole. The Old Testament is not ignored, but was one of the areas which was under-developed.
Unmissable Church is a most worthwhile book, but five possible weaknesses might be considered:
During COVID-19 lockdowns, some parts of Australia allowed protest rallies for Black Lives Matter, a trip to the local bottle shop for alcohol, a home visit by a sex worker, or large outdoor sporting events, while meeting together for corporate worship was not. This posed significant questions surrounding what does it mean to meet as the people of God. For instance, is celebrating the Lord’s Supper online legitimate, or is it something which should be reserved for when Christians physically gather?
The authors might have explored such questions especially when believers throughout the world wrestled with what was and was not non-negotiable. For some it meant defying government mandates to close, whereas for others it meant excluding everyone from attending church in person who had not been vaccinated. While highly controversial, it would have given the book a greater relevance.
One of the most significant oversights in the book is any discussion of worship at all in the Old Testament. For evangelical pastors of the calibre of Sweatman and Barraclough, this was a surprising omission, to say the least. To not mention the role of the Temple or even the book of Psalms at all is a shame because it could have added so much to what they have admirably accomplished.
Closely connected to the previous point there was an underdeveloped theology of corporate worship, and especially of the Word and Sacrament. The issue of why the Church is so important has to be based on how God speaks. The Scripture itself declares it is through the prophetic proclamation which occurs not just in preaching but also in song, Bible reading, prayer and even leading the church service (1 Cor. 14:20-25). While the authors briefly touch on the subject of the Lord’s Supper, this is discussed in a way which will be unsatisfactory to a lot of readers.
Following on from this, it would have been good if the authors had engaged with people like Rob Smith’s, Come Let Us Sing: A Call to Musical Reformation (Latimer, 2020) or David Peterson’s Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship(IVP, 2002). It’s as though the benefit of meeting together at church is “horizontal” in that the focus is on one another. But surely there’s a “vertical” dimension as well in meeting with the LORD (Rev. 5). Exploring the rich spiritual experience of meeting together would have really added to the strength of the book’s overall argument.
Broader Academic Engagement
The greatest strength of Unmissable Church is also its weakness. While extremely practical and pastoral, it doesn’t really interact with much secondary literature, either devotional or academic, such as G. K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP, 2004) as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
The most significant reservation I have about the book is also the most controversial. And that this the role of the Christian Sabbath or ‘Lord’s Day’ as it relates to church. Sydney Anglicans are known for their anti-Sabbatarian view and it really shows in this particular work. One of the authors explicitly states, “I don’t think the larger gathering needs to be on a Sunday, although most churches continue to meet on this day.”
But as I read through Unmissable Church I became more and more convinced as to the spiritual and pastoral importance of the connection between having a day of rest and meeting together as believers (See WCF Chapter 21). Ironically, it was the great Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle who wrote:
The subject is one which is of immense importance. It is not too much to say that the prosperity or decay of organised Christianity depends on the maintenance of the Christian Sabbath. Break down the fence which now surrounds the Sunday, and our Sunday schools will soon come to an end. Let in the Hood of worldliness and pleasure-seeking on the Lord’s Day, without check or hindrance, and our congregations will soon dwindle away. There is not too much religion in the land now. Destroy the sanctity of the Sabbath, and there would soon be far less. Nothing in short, I believe, would so thoroughly advance the kingdom of Satan as to withdraw legal protection from the Lord’s Day. It would be a joy to the infidel; but it would be an insult and offence to God.
At the very least, the authors should have interacted with the issue and showed that they were aware of the rich theological tradition with reformed-evangelicalism.
Conclusion: You Should still Buy this Book!
With the above caveats in place, I would still strongly recommend people buying and even distributing this book. The authors have served the church well by producing a volume that is a welcome contribution to a neglected but essential subject. Especially for the person who is new to church and thinking about becoming a member, this would be an ideal book to encourage them on their journey in church life.