Church leaders are bound to remark about attendance. Maybe your pastor emphasizes the importance of prioritizing the Sunday gathering. Maybe the announcements about small groups stress how true commitment to the church means attending Wednesday night gatherings and dedicating extra time to live “life on life” throughout the week.

Many hear these reminders as genuine concern for attendees’ spiritual health, but for some of us, it feels like peer pressure.

If you’ve ever belonged to a spiritually abusive church—one where leaders extend their power to control and manipulate members’ lives far beyond healthy shepherding—it’s hard to shake that sense of manipulation. When I hear a pastor talking about how true commitment and godly character requires being at church every week, I imagine him tapping his foot impatiently while holding a scorecard in one hand and a red Sharpie in the other.

To me, it sounds like peer pressure, not discipleship.

Certainly most leaders have honorable motives and take their responsibilities seriously; they want to see those in their care moving toward spiritual maturity. If their words come off harsh, implying a lackluster attendance record reflects a gap in character or commitment, pastors may simply need a little coaching in the art of gracious communication—or a frank reminder that spotty church attendance isn’t always the result of lazy Sunday mornings or loose affiliations. Faithful people still get tied down by chronic illness, caregiving responsibilities, or shift work. Perfect attendance is not a reliable metric of one’s fidelity to Jesus.

When a pastor judges me by my attendance records or a ministry suggests a “good Christian” would behave a certain way—attend more, serve more, give more, do more—my old scars flare up a bit. God has healed my old wounds, but has left me with wisdom to detect these patterns so I don’t fall prey to the same sort of abuse again.

Of course, we in the church have been given the responsibility to judge one another, and the privilege of stirring each other in community to act in love and do good works. We belong to each other. In the context of relationship, our love for one another means we will be exercising these responsibilities and privileges. This is where it gets dicey in the Body of Christ: we’re bound to hear correctives, encouragements, and words of wisdom that push us, make us uncomfortable, or even cause us to get defensive.

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Those words of discipleship and accountability represent something different than attendance requirements or cultural conformity, for the sake of pleasing a leader or our peers. It is right and necessary for church leaders to invite congregations to affirm the non-negotiable core beliefs of the faith. But we need not demand cookie-cutter sameness in lifestyle to prove we “belong” to a group or congregation, or that we really are committed Christians.

The first church I attended as a young adult was a Plymouth Brethren congregation. I showed up week after week in ripped jeans and a T-shirt, while almost all the adult women wore dresses and head coverings during worship. Yet, no one approached me to suggest I get myself a hat or veil for church, nor did leaders speak from the pulpit to say that all Christian women should be dressing in modest, A-line dresses. It was clear they understood what was dogma and what was not; congregational leaders didn’t allow church attire to become a fellowship litmus test in the church. Though women in the congregation favored ladies teas and Christian novels, they didn’t treat me as a pariah because I didn’t fit their mold. The leaders allowed the Holy Spirit to do his work in me without trying to micromanage the process.

Church leaders have the right and responsibility to stake their congregation’s identity on church doctrine, expressed through clear, specific teaching applied in the local body. The challenge comes when we extend that level of conviction to non-essential issues, or worse, use power to shame people into obedience—rather than pointing to Christ and his grace.

In the case of church attendance, being there matters. However, there is a vast difference between a leader who is deeply committed to inviting people to gather in the name of Jesus because it is one important way in which we grow in our faith and a leader who uses his or her position to disparage Christians who are unable to do so.

There are vibrant, seemingly gospel-centered churches where congregants sit in fear of what leaders will think or say about their childrearing choices, music preferences, or yes, even a few missed Sundays in a row. Years after my positive experience with the Plymouth Brethren, my family and I found ourselves in one of these churches—and our lifestyle preferences scrutinized as a result. When cultural conformity becomes as critical as the church’s statement of faith, we actually reverse the work of healthy discipleship, instead teaching that love and acceptance has to be earned.

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Jesus took the Pharisees to task for their heavy-handed “discipleship” techniques: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves (Matt. 23:15). If a leader demands homogeneity among his followers, it is a reflection on his or her own insecurities instead of confidence in the One who causes each of us to grow.

Augustine is credited with saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” These words reflect the heart of Scripture. Paul’s pastoral letters are packed with lots of imperative statements about how the young churches could live out the resurrection life of Jesus, yet Paul never demanded everyone quit their day jobs, enroll in tent-making school, and become church planters just like he was. In fact, he made a point of advocating for individual conviction in non-essential matters of the faith, even as we live those convictions out in community.

And we’ll do so because Jesus has invited us into community, not because he’s bullied us into showing up. Responding to his invitation means we’ll gather as often as we can, in our shredded jeans or lacy head coverings, reveling in our differences, with nary a scorecard or red Sharpie in sight.

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