Ericka Andersen wants you to have FOMO (or “Fear of Missing Out”). She wants you to wonder what everyone else is doing. She wants you to suspect they might be getting more satisfaction than you are. She wants you to conclude that staying home was probably the wrong decision.
And she wants you to feel this way on Sunday morning at 11 a.m.
“I don’t usually recommend having FOMO,” writes Andersen in Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women, “but in this case, I do. You should fear missing out on what God has for you! Fear missing the transformation, healing, and growth that will happen when you invest your faith life through church community.”
Reason to Return appeals to women who want to develop a richer life of faith but who aren’t sure how—and aren’t convinced that church is the place to do it. These women may have been part of a church in the past, but some combination of disillusionment, hurt, or pandemic strains has led them to spend their Sundays elsewhere.
Andersen writes out of personal experience, detailing how she questioned the place of church in her life during an earlier struggle with an eating disorder and a more recent struggle with alcohol. For a time, she writes, she walked away from church entirely.
She’s since come back, and she’d like to invite other women to join her.
An inviting picture
The first part of Reason to Return runs through the reasons many women are staying away from church these days. Drawing from interviews with women who have come and gone from church (and often come back again), Andersen explores a variety of hindrances to church commitment. Chapters in this section cover such topics as insufficient time, disillusionment with past churches, personal discomfort, and spiritual doubts.
For women in particular, uncomfortable relationship dynamics loom large, and Andersen is right to spend substantial time exploring them and also offering the hope of healthier relationships in the future.
Andersen is also wise to tackle reservations that may be based on false perceptions. In chapter 10, for example, she acknowledges the harm of politically partisan teaching in the church while also citing research that most churches are not overtly political at all. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, only 1 percent of churchgoers heard their pastor speak favorably of Donald Trump, and only 6 percent heard a favorable statement about Hillary Clinton. Some of our reasons for staying away, Andersen implies, may be largely in our imaginations.
The book’s second and third sections explore incentives to return to church—reasons to commit yourself to being part of a local body and spending time with its members in worship and fellowship. In part two, Andersen unpacks some of these reasons: our own spiritual growth, our need for friendship, and discipleship of our children, among other benefits of showing up on Sunday.
Several times in the book, she repeats this statement: “The church of your past doesn’t have to be the church of your future.” But Andersen is no Pollyanna. She repeatedly acknowledges that returning to church comes at a cost; it will require emotional involvement, relational discomfort, and even money. She helpfully compares the work of committing to a local church to the work of giving birth: “The process of labor and waiting is incredibly difficult,” she affirms, “but you know the reason behind this pain.” So too, we bring our questions and hesitations to the local church, trusting that God has good for us there in the end.
One of my favorite stories in the book involves Andersen’s own discomfort with a man in her church small group. The former drug addict prone to unflagging optimism and talking too much about himself and his wife, Andersen reports, had been “getting on my nerves.” One night, though, he shared his testimony of finding Christ and of the incredible joy that transformed a life previously characterized by prison sentences and suicidal thoughts. Hearing this story, Andersen suddenly understood the man’s over-the-top cheerfulness and learned to love him and the work God had done in his life. In the church, she writes, “we can actually hear someone and, in turn, begin to feel safe enough to share parts of ourselves.”
In part three, Andersen turns to practical tools for prioritizing local church involvement. These chapters include diagnostic questions, suggestions for reflection, and specific resources that may help someone locate a church where she can flourish. (It’s worth noting that Andersen skips any discussion of doctrine and ecclesiology, which assumes the reader can already identify a biblical church that aligns with her theological convictions.)
Throughout, Andersen writes gently and sympathetically, encouraging rather than berating readers who haven’t prioritized church. She calls on the promises of Scripture, painting an inviting picture of what it can look like when the people of God love one another. But she’s not afraid to offer a judicious challenge to our complacency, like the one in the book’s final pages: “Our global brothers and sisters in Christ find it worth facing punishment and persecution [to join a church]. It’s important to ask why? Why would they risk their lives in this way, if we, as Christians, don’t need church to have a relationship with God?”
This is a prod toward FOMO of a different sort, and one we probably need more than we think. It’s worth asking if we are missing out, not only on joy and fellowship but also on the “reproach of Christ” that Moses and the saints considered “greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb. 11:26, ESV). Being “mistreated along with the people of God” (v. 25) doesn’t sound like an ideal inducement to join a church, but, as Andersen points out, saints throughout history and around the world today have laid down their lives for the privilege.
More than a support group
I appreciate Andersen’s unflagging commitment to the church at a time when many are questioning its value. And Reason to Return makes helpful points about why Christian women need relationships with other Christians. The book falters, however, by implying that “church” is synonymous with Christian fellowship.
Andersen is absolutely right that the life of faith is enriched by (even dependent on!) the mutual love and accountability experienced within a group of believers who are seeking to follow Christ together. The repeated “one another” commands of Paul’s epistles underscore this point: We need one another. But the church is not merely a support group for a richer life of faith. Andersen largely overlooks the other vital, biblical truths about what the church is and why God established it.
In chapter 1, Andersen defines the church as “a holy gathering of two or more specifically meant to glorify God—to hear from Him, worship Him, and align hearts with His.” She casts the local church net widely, including examples of a Roman Catholic Mass, “Messy Church” for families, and an online-only church for NASCAR fans started by her friend. To Andersen, church is “a group of people willing to offer their brokenness at a kitchen table before one another and admit they don’t have anything figured out. It’s people showing up when they’ve got nothing to say but need someone else to hold them up. It’s about believing God when he says we need one another.”
But such an expansive definition of “church” muddies the waters by categorizing all kinds of dysfunctional gatherings as churches (including one Andersen explicitly calls a “cult”). In truth, church is not just any group of self-proclaimed Christians, and simply joining something that someone calls “church” doesn’t mean it is one.
People recovering from spiritual harm need a clearer definition of a biblical church. They need to acknowledge that what they previously experienced may not have been a church at all. And going forward, they should be encouraged to seek a church consistent with biblical patterns, not merely a group of people that appears to meet their needs.
Absent from the book is the importance of being shepherded by godly “pastors and teachers” like those described in Ephesians 4:11–12, who “equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” There are only passing references to the Lord’s Supper and baptism—those church-administered means of grace that nourish our souls and testify that we belong to the Lord. There’s little about the power of the Word of God proclaimed by the help of the Spirit in the company of God’s people to make us holy (Eph. 5:25–27). There’s scant mention of the church as Christ’s evangelistic mission organization, designed by him to proclaim the good news of salvation and make disciples in every place where it gathers (Matt. 28:18–20).
And, ultimately, the church is not about what it does for those who belong. It’s about the sovereign God who calls it into existence, organizes it according to his wisdom, directs it according to his Word and Spirit, and commands his people to join it.
After finishing Reason to Return, a reader might conclude that the church is simply about finding other Christians to help her be a better Christian. While this is an important benefit of the church, it’s not its only function. And when church disappointments continue to multiply, we’re going to need more than one reason to go back.
Megan Hill is the managing editor for The Gospel Coalition and the author of A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church. She and her family live in Massachusetts, where they belong to West Springfield Covenant Community Church.
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