Do You Have to Go to Church to Be Religious?

by Celia Allison Hahn

Celia Allison Hahn is director of publications for the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 27, 1985, pp. 211-214. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It seems to be part of our tradition (1) to believe in God; (2) to say that one doesn’t need to go to church; (3) to go anyway.

The statement that one can be religious without attending church is seen by some as a new, gratuitous assault on organized religion. Americans believe in a vanished golden age when people attended church regularly, when families were cohesive and when virtue reigned triumphant. But Russell Hale spells out the historical reality: "Contrary to popular celebrationist notions of a golden religious age, the seventeenth and eighteenth century American landscape was not dominated by church spires. There were more wayside inns and taverns than churches in colonial America. . . Fewer than one in ten Americans were formally affiliated with any religious institution" (The Unchurched: Who They Are and Why They Stay Away Harper & Row, 1980], p. 4). Throughout our history, church membership has continued to grow to its present high level, and some church watchers believe it will continue to climb.

When the times seem out of joint, human beings tend either to anticipate a future utopia or to dream of a mythic past when things were the way they ought to be. To find the "good old days" when most people went to church, we would have to reach back across the centuries and the seas to European cultures and their state churches. Many people came to America because they didn’t want to be pushed around by the religious establishment. That important part of our history and identity has made ours a country where there are many religious options, and where one doesn’t have to support any church. The vitality of American churches may owe a great deal to the fact that having so many competing religious traditions has forced each to work hard to attract and hold members.

People aren’t born into the church in America; they are born free, becoming church members only if they choose to be. It seems to be part of our tradition (1) to believe in God; (2) to say that one doesn’t need to go to church; (3) to go anyway.

Thus, the first level of meaning I discern in the statement "You don’t have to go to church to be religious" is simply that, in a nation more inclined toward autonomy than dependence, religious observance is a matter of private choice. It cannot be compelled by the state or by an established church. We assign religion to the private sphere, placing the choice of whether or not to go to church within the domain of individual freedom, where nobody may tell us what to do. "Don’t talk about religion, sex or politics’’ is a time-honored way of saying that we see those areas as belonging to individual self-determination. People both inside and outside the church declare in many ways that religion is a private matter between individuals and God; it does not belong to any church.

Do-it-yourself independence and rugged individualism are important factors in the "You don’t have to go to church" comments. In the rhythm of our daily lives we all move back and forth between venturesomeness and need. But we glory in the autonomous pole of that oscillation, and we are a bit scornful of dependence. In "Faith Without a Sanctuary," a CBS documentary on the unchurched (aired November 1, 8 and 15, 1981, on For Our Times), one man says: "Great religious leaders in history, like Jesus and Buddha, went into the wilderness. Nobody was preaching to them. Maybe those people go to church who don’t have the capacity to go into the wilderness."

The assertion that people who have no church affiliation can be religious often is, then, a declaration of independence. Those for whom belonging to a church is a central part of life find this rejection of organized religion hard to accept. It is enormously difficult for many committed people to see their own and their faith communities’ profound convictions as but one set of options among many in America’s free religious market.

The ease with which many disconnect their individual faiths from institutional belonging is revealed in a study of the unchurched in Appalachia: 80 per cent engaged in religious activities every week -- activities ranging from prayer to reading, from watching religious television programs to conversations with others or visits to ministers (David H. Smith et al., Participation in Social and Political Activities [Jossey-Bass, 1980], p. 222). Another study showed that young Catholic dropouts did not see themselves as abandoning religion when they left the church (Dean R. Hoge, Converts. Dropouts, Returnees: A Study of Religious Change Among Catholics (Pilgrim, 1981], pp. 90-101). The research on those who separate themselves from institutional religion suggests that for some people dropping out is a protest against the church’s implicit claim of total ownership of their religious lives.

Not only nonattenders but staunch church supporters see their private faiths as distinct from, and at least as important as, their participation in congregational life. Jean Haldane’s interviews with Episcopal parishioners suggested that their faith journeys flowed along private streams fed by many springs, quite separate from the busy mainstream of congregational life (Religious Pilgrimage [Alban Institute, 1975], p. 10). In another study, churchwomen similarly revealed the division between their personal faith, prayer life and deepest concerns, on the one hand, and their involvement with pastor, parishioners and church activities, on the other. In an article appearing in the Episcopalian (January 1983), Martin Marty reported on a survey revealing that 85 per cent of Americans prefer to pray alone, 74 per cent remember being taught to pray by their parents (not preachers or teachers) and the majority prefer to pray at home rather than at church.

All these studies underline the fact that religion’s communal and solitary dimensions are different from each other, and that both are essential. I can encounter God through my religious community. But God is not limited to my church. The church does not possess God, who also speaks in a "still, small voice" through the depths of my experience by day and in the drama of my dreams by night. I would not want to give up either my regular Saturday morning time for reflecting in my journal or the Sunday morning celebration that lifts up and addresses the life of my religious community.

When we turn from the viewpoints of churched and unchurched people to the institutional church’s attention to corporate and individual expressions of religion, we discover its tendency to emphasize the former and ignore the latter. Congregational activity often fills so much of the church’s time, attention and energy that it pays no attention to people’s lives outside the church.

A lack of interest in people’s religious lives apart from the congregation has not, of course, characterized every religious tradition in every period. While it does seem to typify modern mainline Protestantism (though not the Quakers), for centuries the monastic tradition has kept alive the solitary dimension of spirituality; the Catholic Church has preserved that strain, keeping it available for us to rediscover today. Perhaps the rigors of medieval life made it necessary to have a division of labor: most people just struggled to survive, while the "religious," freed from the duties connected with the day-to-day life of parish churches, held the contemplative fort. Today more and more of us expect a rich variety of experiences -- including work and prayer -- in our lives, and many are reaching into the Catholic or Eastern religions’ treasure houses to recapture the more inner-directed spiritual wisdom of an earlier day. Protestants who used to show little interest in religious retreats (except for youth programs) are now borrowing Catholic retreat models, such as Marriage Encounter. The modem hunger for a personal awareness of God is evidenced by the eager response to such efforts as Tilden Edwards’s Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC. -- efforts that may herald a recovered balance between the individual and the corporate dimensions of religion.

In recent times, however, churches have tended to focus on "what we do with our togetherness," and it isn’t difficult to see some of the reasons why. We live in an extroverted society. It is possible to study and measure the social side of religion. Because we hear about religion primarily through religious organizations, the organizational view tends to become normative. We don’t hear very much about faith from those outside the church, or from those who lack power or credentials within it. As R. T. Gribbon points out, "We assume that congregational leadership is most commonly drawn from those to whom ‘belonging’ in the congregation is most important; those persons understandably have difficulty understanding those church participants for whom ‘belonging’ and church-related activity is of little importance" (When People Seek the Church [Alban Institute, 1982], p. 14). The church tells its corporate truths, while individuals listen and are seldom encouraged to share their faith journeys.

It is easy to understand why the church would tend to emphasize those needs it can meet, and appear to claim a patent on religion, while ignoring what is outside its control: personal religion and the laity’s life in the world. There may even be an element of institutional fear in this silence and ignoring. The late Father Geoffrey Curtis of England’s Community of the Resurrection once said that he thought the reason for the church’s failure to encourage personal spiritual growth was its fear that people might grow independent of the institution -- an independence that would not serve its interests.

Perhaps a broader view of the church as an organization serving people’s spiritual needs would speak more powerfully to the laity than does the picture of an institution clutching its "patent." We all come alone into the gathered church, bearing the anxieties, disappointments and uneasy consciences that are an inescapable consequence of our struggles in the world -- and also bringing our memories of the week’s graces, gifts and growth. We move out of the church alone as well, carrying with us our own fragments of warmth and insight as we seek to make connections between the great symbols of the faith and the stuff of everyday life. A church that acknowledges the extent to which our lives are lived inside our own hearts and minds and in the secular world -- from which we come to church and to which we return -- will find and share riches in the stories of a journeying people.

All relationships require both boundaries and commitment. In every form of human belonging there is the tension between "me as an individual" and "me as a part of the group," large or small. Even in the heart of the gathered church, in its worship, we are essentially alone, together. Accepting the challenge of living in this tension between separateness and togetherness is a way of living more abundantly. Perhaps if there are parts of our private journeys that we would like to share with others, to ask for help with, or simply to have acknowledged by our fellow parishioners, we might ask that the inner dimension of religion be acknowledged, supported and celebrated in our gathered communities.

"You don’t have to go to church to be religious." The statement is, first, a declaration of independence; second, it is a way of saying that the life of faith is a solitary journey as well as a rendezvous. The third shade of meaning in this refrain is that the ultimate is not to be captured by any institution, but holds all organizations under judgment. The distinction between the church, a broken human institution like every other, and the transcendent reality to which it points comes through clearly in the comments of many persons interviewed by researchers. One woman evaluated her experiences as a Catholic child: "I’m saying that most religious groups and their priests and parishioners -- they try to take the place of God. I’m still searching, none of us have the answer. No religion or person can tell me what my communication with God is" (The Unchurched, p. 22). Another person confessed, "To be honest with you, I might miss a Sunday if it wasn’t for her [his wife], but only because of my belief that religion isn’t as important as being in touch with God. I don’t believe that you have to go to a fancy house or church to be in touch with God" (Converts, Dropouts, Returnees, p. 143).

A young woman described her process of moving back to the church after dropping out: "In my early teens . . . I just hit a stage that it seemed all boring. . . . I had questions. I was confused. But I don’t think I ever really doubted God and Christ. I only doubted the church, some of the hypocrisy that I felt even then -- money mainly. . . . To me, the church is your relationship with God. You don’t need four walls and an altar to discuss your love directly to him, to communicate directly to God." For her, Marriage Encounter proved the way back in, a way to decide that church participation "wasn’t something that I owe God, but something that I wanted in my life" (Converts, Dropouts, Returnees, pp. 152-6).

Despite the very different places in which these three people found themselves, all clearly distinguished their relationship with God from their relationship with the church. People do not identify the institution with the eternal reality to which it points, and they judge the church -- embracing or rejecting it -- on the basis of whether they experience that reality mediated through it. The encounter with God is what matters. Religious participation is vitally important to people if it furthers that encounter. But external observances that have lost their transparency to the ultimate may well be discarded like empty shells.

Once one has discerned the important meanings in the oft-repeated comment that "You don’t have to go to church to be religious," it becomes necessary to add a few "buts" -- to supplement active listening with a critique.

Although Americans believe that one doesn’t need to go to church, 71 per cent report that they do belong to a church or synagogue, and 40 per cent say that they attend weekly. Not only do most belong, but the indications are that most of those who do not, once did. Of the converts to Catholicism studied by Dean Hoge, "85% said they received religious training as children, and 83 % said they attended Sunday school or church two or three times a month or more when they were in elementary school. This finding agrees with all earlier research showing that most new members of Christian churches already possess a Christian world view" (Converts, Dropouts, Returnees, p. 36).

Not only have those who rejoin had early experiences with the church, but many of the unchurched also say that they carry with them a legacy from their churchgoing days. Many young adults still feel connected to the church, even though they have had nothing to do with the institution for years, and have consequently been dropped from parish rolls. Many people who are presently not members nevertheless are clearly conscious that they received something valuable from the church in their childhood training -- a "christening present" that forms the core of their personal faith. They want their children to have a similar experience, and will send them to church even when they themselves don’t feel the need to keep going. Reading all of these people’s comments gives one an image of a great tide of humanity washing in and out of an institution that does not have the rigid membership boundaries often perceived by church leaders who look at the church from the inside out (and who are responsible for keeping the statistics).

Although those now out of the church frequently think of themselves as carrying along an inheritance from an earlier period of church attendance, it often seems a piggy-bank kind of treasure. Sometimes that childhood heritage consists of little more than a dusty memory that religion means being good: "I feel that we live perfectly good Christian lives as it is, and I think that we do good and I don’t think we have to be members of the church," as one man in Hale’s study put it (The Unchurched, p. 112). Hale concluded that "those who have lost by imposed or voluntary exile the very religious communion they seek. . . live in a lonely, private world, bereft of the shelter, instruction, hope, voice, and connections of any meaningful religious community" (pp. 28-9).

Although many of the unchurched expressed gratitude for what they had received from Sunday school, their personal faiths, like cut flowers, had stopped growing. Their religion was like a dried flower pressed in a Bible, and often seemed to consist of nothing more than a desire for peaceful feelings, a vague longing to be connected with something that transcends the self and a sense of obligation to be decent to their fellows -- all positive stirrings, but hardly the vigorous plant that could flourish in a nurturing religious community. The memories of childish religious sentiments are not strong enough stuff to equip adult saints for their work of ministry.

Most know that. To their concerns for autonomy, for the solitary journey of faith, for a vision of the transcendent not captured in human institutions, most laity add their awareness that they want a loving community where they can find help for their task of making meaning. Boundaries are held in tension with commitment. They know, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet (Norton, 1954, p. 59). love means that "solitudes protect and border and salute each other."