by Rob Moll
It seems a lot to ask of someone to attend church every Sunday and then again during the week for a small group. People are busy. More and more kids’ activities are scheduled weeknights as well as across the whole weekend.
It can feel harsh to tell your 12-year-old son he can’t play little league because practices are Sunday morning and then to hurry and finish his homework on Wednesday night.
While some may think it’s not a big deal to miss church a couple of Sundays, these weekly gatherings have such a powerful affect on our Christian life that we can’t ignore either one—neither church nor small group.
Our beliefs and behaviors tend to follow those of the people we are most intimately connected to on a regular basis, and not so much our professed beliefs. So neglecting Sundays at church or small group on a weeknight can be an important step away from other Christian behaviors.
It is clear the frequency of church attendance shapes who we are, what we believe, and how we behave. Rodney Stark, the Baylor University sociologist of religion, writes about how faith shapes the communities we live in. In America’s Blessings, he reports on a number of ways that the frequency of church attendance affects our actions.
Stark writes that weekly attenders have a 14 percent chance of being divorced while sometime and never attenders are progressively more likely. The trends are the same for a host of factors: extramarital affairs, relationships with children, quality of mental health, volunteering, financial giving, and civic participation. All these qualities improve the more frequently you go to church.
Not only does church attendance play a significant role in our behaviors, small groups do as well. Compared to church attendees, small group attendees are 41 percent more likely to intentionally help other believers grow in their faith.
A Lifeway Research study found that you are 31 percent more likely to try putting your spiritual gifts to use serving God and others if you are part of a small group. Small groups help people feel closer to and trust God, understand the Bible, and be more loving in their relationships.
The fact is we don’t really behave according to our professed beliefs. We behave based on the expectations and activities of the people we surround ourselves with.
According to Pew Research, more than three quarters of Americans claim to be Christians, while about 37 percent claim regular church attendance. However, other studies show less than 20 percent of Americans can actually be found in church on a given Sunday. These facts matter.
We are hardwired to be like the people we are with. In one interesting study cited in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, an economist looked at giving patterns of the people in a 75,000-employee corporation. On average staffers were in departments of about 19 people. Then the economist looked at giving patterns when people moved from department to department.
She found that when employees began working with people who were more generous, they themselves became more giving. For every $1 the new department gave over the old department, the person who transferred would start giving an extra $0.53. Beliefs about giving didn’t change even as employees’ actions did.
In Malcom Gladwell’s 2005 New Yorker profile of Rick Warren and Saddleback Church, “The Cellular Church,” he emphasizes the role of the church’s small groups. Outside, the church looks like a big organization, but “beneath the surface is a network of thousands of committed small groups.”
It is these small groups that make the church run; they provide people friendships in a region with high mobility and little human capital. And the small groups create incredibly motivated church attenders.
Warren says that one Sunday he asked for an extra gift—no capital campaign, no frills, no long-term planning. You just need to give some more, he said, and Saddleback collected an extra $60 million in cash and commitments that day.
Gladwell quotes Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who has studied Saddleback as well as Christian behaviors and attitudes more generally. “Small groups cultivate spirituality, but it is a particular kind of spirituality,” according to Wuthnow. “They provide ways of putting faith in practice. For the most part, their focus is on practical applications, not on abstract knowledge.” People are concerned to know how to live among each other.
Individual beliefs aren’t enough to prompt people to act on those beliefs. We often think what matters is how intensely we hold our beliefs. Do you believe enough to act? Research challenges that idea.
What matters isn’t so much the passion with which we believe. It’s whom we are connected to. “I was finding that if people say all the right things about being a believer,” Wuthnow tells Gladwell, “but aren’t involved in some kind of physical social setting that generates interaction, they are just not as likely to volunteer.”
All of this recalls the success of early Christians. Then, as increasingly so today, the social costs of getting together were high. But they “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46, 47).