Staying Home From Church: the Slippery Slope

Staying Home From Church is a series of posts challenging Christian understandings of what it means to “go to church.” This series was inspired by an article posted on The Gospel Coalition website called “ 5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain.” While it was posted back in 2019, it only recently came across my social media feeds and with mixed reviews.

You can check out previous posts from this series at the following links or jump ahead in the series with the links at the end of this post (updated as following posts go live).

Previous Posts

Staying Home From Church: Intro
Staying Home From Church: Setting an Example
Staying Home From Church: More Than a Sermon
Staying Home From Church: Encouraging Others

This post will consider the fourth point in the article: if you stop going to “church,” you might not go back. I’m calling this “the slippery slope,” because that’s a common phrase in conservative Christianity.

The Slippery Slope

“The slippery slope” is a metaphor for the way a seemingly innocuous thing can start a chain reaction that eventually leads us someplace we don’t want to be, much like a slippery slope of a hill or mountain.

The imagery is supposed to be you on a path at the top of a hill/mountain/etc. The slope just off the path might be slippery from mud or slick with rain, etc. Once you step off the path onto the slippery slope, you may find yourself sliding down that slope. It can quickly get out of control, and you might find yourself far from the path with no way to climb back up or, worse, in actual danger.

Usually, the path represents someone’s broad understanding of righteousness (“the straight and narrow path”), but it can also be something more specific, like a particular tradition or theology. For example, if you grew up in congregations where a cappella singing was the norm, clapping or even just banging out the timing on your leg might be considered a slippery slope. You’re slapping your leg to keep time, but the next thing you know, you’re clapping. What’s next? A drummer? Then a piano? A guitar? Where does it end?

I was raised in conservative Churches of Christ. They use this metaphor a lot, and it’s usually a way of deflecting. The slippery slope most often seems to be a way of discouraging questions, doubts, exploration, dissenting voices, or any kind of change. “This is how we’ve always done it. We know that it’s safe. Those other things might not be safe.”

When I read the author’s point about the chances of not starting up again once you’ve stopped, I can’t help but hear that slippery slope whispering in the background.

“…the world and the Devil will take any opportunity to pull you from the path of righteousness.”

Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”

If I Slipped Down a Slope…

I’m writing another post about the limitations of analogies, so I won’t spend too much time on this part, but I still want to mention it. Yes, if I were on the treacherous mountain path described above and I stepped off and found myself sliding rapidly and uncontrollably toward danger, I would definitely be worried. Even if I thought I were on the path and later discovered that I’d inadvertently wandered into the forest and become lost (to use a slightly different analogy), I would still be worried.

Neither of those scenarios would be ideal in real life, and both could be potentially very dangerous or even deadly. However, the slippery slope analogy presumes that’s what’s happening. Just like some of the author’s other arguments, this is an unfounded premise that attempts to control people’s options, and that’s why this point about not going back is problematic.

Staying Consistent

Like with the point about “church” being more than a sermon, the author has a specific argument in mind.

“‘It’s too hard now. We’ll wait a few years and then return when the kids are a bit older. They’re too young to know the difference anyway.’”

Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”

This is good to note, because clarity is important. Context can give way to nuance, which can help us avoid misunderstandings. However, if you’ve been reading through this series, you may have noticed that this argument has a different premise than previous arguments.

The first point, about setting an example, suggested this was a week-to-week issue. A tired parent was questioning whether they could stay home. Should the parent skip “church” to rest up?

“What message am I giving them if I stay home? That church is not a priority. That being tired means that God’s people aren’t worth the effort.”

Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”

The author then argues that there’s a matter of habit formation, as well.

“Weekly attendance helps develop a family culture that will, hopefully, continue for our children as they grow older.”

Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”

The implication is that staying home interferes with weekly attendance and, therefore, may inhibit the development of a certain family culture. Habit formation is a matter of consistency, so staying home seems to be presented as a question for the moment. “I am, right now, exhausted. If I stay home to rest, what message would that send my children? What might that do to our family culture?”

This position shifts, slightly, when we consider the “more than a sermon” situation. A parent is arguing that they don’t get to hear it, so what’s the point. There’s been a shift: the question about attendance “today” becomes a question about attendance while kids are still young enough to be distracting. The implication is leading toward our current dilemma: a parent is considering not going to services until their child is older. The author has slowly moved us from a one-time or occasional occurrence of staying home (i.e. when I’m too tired) to a broader occurrence (i.e. any time I won’t be able to hear the sermon) to a deliberate, lengthy season (i.e. until my children are older) to the potential for an indefinite occurrence (i.e. “those who stop going don’t always start back”).

This inconsistency is problematic for two reasons.

  1. It conflates different circumstances and arguments. The article is presented as addressing a singular issue: baby brain. Five reasons to continue “church” attendance are listed, all under that same banner, but at least three of those points address three separate questions: a question of today, a question of particular circumstances, and a question of seasons. By mashing these all together, it confuses the issue. This isn’t five points about baby brain. At the very least, this is one or more arguments each about three different situations — three different questions.
  2. This is, ironically, a kind of slippery slope situation. The author has (perhaps inadvertently) led us onto a path we didn’t intend to walk by laying out a starting premise and then replacing it over time with other premises.

It’s important that we recognize the inconsistency between these arguments, because in this series, I’m not suggesting that weekly services are bad. If we don’t recognize the different situations throughout the original article, we might get the impression that the answer is the same for all of them. I don’t want you to apply a single conclusion about staying home to every situation without differentiating between them.

Never Going Back

“Habits change, priorities change, and it becomes effortless to not be at church. How easy it is to slowly drift from the Father who longs to holds you close.”

Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”

True: habits do change, as do priorities, and sometimes, it can become easier to not be at “church.” Unfortunately, the author doesn’t ask why. The word “effortless” is used, but in my experiences, that’s rarely accurate.

The fact that a person is asking the questions about staying home suggests to me that they’re already struggling. There’s an existing tension between their views of weekly attendance or “church” in general and their feelings/understandings about their own weariness. I’ve suggested in this series that there are many other factors to consider, and it’s always a possibility that a strong desire to not be in attendance suggests a need that’s not being met.

Perhaps a person has mental health needs that the worship services don’t address or, worse, interfere with. Perhaps there are physical needs to consider, like exacerbated chronic illnesses due to exhaustion. Perhaps there are toxic situations of spiritual, physical, or emotional abuse happening within the congregation. Perhaps there’s strife going unaddressed that’s becoming toxic.

My point is that a person’s decision to never go back after a prolonged absence can be as much from clarity as anything else. Perhaps those new habits helped a person realize how toxic their “church” environment was, like getting fresh air sometimes helps us realize the staleness of the air we were breathing. Perhaps new priorities are born from self-care and self-compassion.

The article leaves no room for those possibilities. Those are slippery slope possibilities. As I mentioned before, no one wants to admit there might be toxicity within their congregation. It’s assumed that the reasons for staying away are “effortless,” because you’re being enticed by the Devil; leisure and sinful living are always more enjoyable than “church.” The second part of the above quote emphasizes this, as well as revisits point one’s “God is at ‘church’” argument.

The Father longs to hold you close, but your lack of attendance — your formation of new habits and your new priorities — have drawn you away from the Father. I won’t reiterate that entire post, here. Check it out, if you haven’t read it, yet. Suffice it to say, God is not only at weekly worship services. I submit to you that God is not even mostly at weekly worship services.

So, the question arises (for you to answer for yourself): what motivations do you have for potentially not going back? This is an exercise in creatively imagining the future. It’s an exercise in self-reflection. It’s an exercise in digging deep into your true feelings about “church,” your congregation, your worship leaders and ministers, and your communities. Is there something nagging at the back of your mind or tugging at your heart? Or, is it really just “the world and the Devil [taking] any opportunity to pull you from the path of righteousness?”

One Last, False Dichotomy

One last, false dichotomy, and then I’ll leave this post alone.

“They learn either that church doesn’t matter or that church is a priority.”

Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”

The author brings this one back around to the children, which we discussed in the Setting An Example post, so we don’t need to spend too much time on that part. The false dichotomy, though, is that either “church” matters or it doesn’t. No in between is presented, because, again, “church” = God’s people = God’s presence = the path of righteousness, etc.

When weekly worship services are seen as containing literally everything that’s important about Christianity and our relationships with God, it’s easy to boil things down to two options. You’re in or you’re out. You’re there or you’re not.

There’s at least one other option: weekly services are important, and so are other things. To put it another way, “church” matters when it matters. Or another way: God is present with you at “church” and also in other places (for example, from my understanding, everywhere all the time).

What I’m saying (and what I’ve been saying and what I’ll say in the next post, too) is don’t let people limit your options for you. Don’t let anyone discourage you from making healthy choices for you and your family by giving you ultimatums that God doesn’t give you.

Continue Reading

Staying Home From Church: Something Over Nothing

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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on April 17, 2022.

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Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.

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Brice Laughrey

Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.

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