7 min. to read.
How do you answer this question?
A friend of mine, Kelly Bean, is in the critical last mile of having her book published.
She wasn’t sure if her publisher was going to like her idea for a title. I can understand why. It’s a Christian publisher offering a book for Christians.
Her title idea? “How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community.”
I know Kelly, and I know that she loves the church. She understands what the church is theologically. I’m looking forward to her book because I’m certain that it’s going to be a thoughtful, challenging and helpful. (Follow Kelly if you can, and watch for anything she writes. It’s worth your time.)
Turns out the publisher loved the title, partly because it’s provocative. It gets at that question: “Can you really be a Christian without going to church?”
Immediately you might be saying, “Of course you can! That’s silly. Your faith is between you and God.” Or perhaps you feel differently and have good Biblical reasons for that. I’m not going to answer that question today, though I have a strong and and opinionated view on the subject. Instead, I’m intrigued how this question points to a deeper issue.
So, how do you FEEEEEL about church?
When it comes to growth or even satisfaction with something in our lives, it’s our beliefs and attitudes that carry the most weight. This is true about every aspect of our lives. Having pastored now for eighteen years and heard so many people’s stories, I think it’s especially powerful when it comes to church.
Do you want to grow spiritually? I’m assuming so, if you’re taking the time to read this blog. That means that you need to wrestle with what church means to you. Why? Being a part of church (or some kind of intentional spiritual community) is one of the options you have for pursuing spiritual growth. So, what are you going to make of that option? How important is church to you?
The answer you give is tied directly to your beliefs and attitudes about church. Here’s what I mean:
- A group of friends. If you think the church is mainly a social gathering, then it will be only as important as your need for relationships. When the relationships get difficult or more costly, the value you place on church will diminish, and you can easily move on.
- Something to belong to. If you think the church is a denomination or organization to belong to, then it will be only as important as your need for the identity marker of membership. Once you decide that label doesn’t work for you anymore, church will lose its value to you. (And rightly so.)
- An emotional lift. If you think the church is a program or an event meant to lift you up emotionally and spiritually, then it will only be as important as your need for hope and encouragement. That need is usually tied up with your current circumstances. If the show isn’t good, or the material isn’t fresh and relevant, or if your circumstances change, the church will start to lose its value to you.
- An obligation. If you think church attendance is a to-do on a religious check list, something you do in order to gain God’s approval, it will feel important to you for a while. But it will be an obligation, and obligations eventually lose their meaning and their value to us.
- Belief Reinforcement. If you think church is a place to gather with people who believe the same thing as you so that you can strengthen your own beliefs, then it will only be as important as your need to have your beliefs affirmed. If you find yourself in tension with the group’s beliefs or no longer needing outside affirmation for your beliefs, then church will lose it’s value to you. (Frankly, that’s probably a mark of maturity.)
- Kid Support. This is a big one. If you think church is a good place to raise your kids so that they get a religious and moral foundation for their lives, then church will only be important while you’re raising kids.
How much does church matter to you? Before you decide, consider what you’re bringing to the table.
It might not be them!
In the examples I just gave, a flawed or incomplete belief about the church’s purpose leads directly to a diminished sense of the church’s value.
I’ve seen this over and over again. Whether church matters to you or not is more often based on the attitude you bring to the table, rather than any objective purpose God might have for the church in your life.
This means that your attitude is incredibly important.
Before you can decide whether church “is right” for you, you need to uncover the attitude and beliefs you already have.
Organized religion takes a lot of knocks these days. I’m not a big fan myself. We can all point to institutional policies that offend and bureaucratic decisions that seem to go against the New Testament commission. We’ve all seen mega-church excesses and small-church judgmentalism. If you personally haven’t been hurt by the church, someone you love has.
But when we point to the church as the source of the problem we are ignoring that “the church” is just made up of people. Individual people with stories and attitudes and beliefs of their own. Just like me. Just like you.
Maybe… but then again?
Maybe it’s true that there is no local congregation of Christians near you who are healthy and living out the mission of Christ. Maybe its true that the congregations you’ve found are judgmental, small-minded and political. Maybe. In that case, you could argue that it’s better for your spiritual health to go it alone for a while, or find some other kind of spiritual community.
Before you make that call, consider the possibility that the outcome you’re having has more to do with the attitudes and beliefs you are bringing to the table.
(The only exception I can think of to this is those cases where someone has been abused or victimized by people or leaders in a specific congregation. No victim is ever responsible for the choices made by those who abuse them. This situation occurs too many times. My heart is sick every time I encounter these stories. Barring this situation…)
Consider that God has a purpose for Biblical community in your life that’s bigger than you think. Consider that the things you’re looking to “get out” of church might be a distraction from what God wants to put into you through community.
Maybe you have some expectations about church that aren’t being met. Maybe you have some expectations of church that aren’t Biblical. Maybe God wants to work on you through a flawed community of broken people, and invite you to serve in a place that doesn’t have their act together. Maybe church, as broken and confusing as it can be, is a part of God’s plan for your intentional spiritual growth.
(Note: Since this post I had the opportunity to read and review Kelly’s book. That post makes a great follow-up to this one. How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church.)
15 thoughts on “Can you be Christian without going to Church? Think about this before you decide.”
Sometimes, too often, there is not a single abuser, or a specific situation one can point to, but overall the church (lowercase) is not safe. I attended one of those last week. My skin crawled and it was all I could do to stay. And yet, I felt a compelling need to stay open to the Spirit’s leading. IOW, maybe God wants us to be missionaries to this dysfunctional band?
When one chooses unique beliefs and values, there are limits to which faith community they can attend. Pickle-eating vegans who worship on Tuesday are not always open to olive-eating, carnivores who worship on Mondays – even if all other fundamentals are in alignment.
My “needs” are simple: discipleship, service, and worship – but i hear very few people discussing these things. After awhile, on just feels lonely and disconnected.
…we have been so pummeled in the last 6 years, we are not eager to put ourselves into a dysfunctional setting.
Gary, you are on to something, I think. There are certainly cases where whole systems or congregations have become unhealthy or abusive. You have to decided, between you and God, where you ought to be and what is best for your growth.
There ought to be no guilt for anyone in choosing to set a boundary for the health of their family or spiritual journey. Especially when there is healing that needs to happen.
I think the governing principle is what you said: “I felt a need to stay open to the Spirit’s leading.” I think that’s what I was getting at in the post by asking people to evaluate WHY they are participating or not, and consider the possibility that God might want to do something bigger or other than their expectations.
I can, for example, set a boundary and withdraw from a relationship for a couple different reasons. In once case, it’s because the relationship is really unhealthy for me, and it’s a God-honoring thing to step away. In another case, it’s because I’m afraid of conflict and that relationship is causing me to push into uncomfortable spaces. My withdrawal is a kind of denial and control, and in that case, might actually be against God’s guidance. Trouble is, both of these cases look the same from the outside.
That means, I think, that staying open to the Holy Spirit and being willing to trust God’s process is vital.
By the way… can I just express how sad and frustrated I am at the wounding you’ve experienced at the hand of the church? It shouldn’t be so. I’m very sorry you and your family had to go through this.
You think!? 😉
There are some good books out there covering the issues of spiritual abuse and cult-like behavior. Too often certain leaders (lay and clergy) adopt a Messiah complex and seek to save everyone – often forgetting themselves. Left unchecked, these attitudes and dysfunctions can fester and infect others for years.
Denominational overseers are often ignorant to this dysfunction in individual churches – especially if the core thought-leader is very good at stifling dissent and dissatisfaction. When someone arrives to challenge this system, they often do so at their own peril (hence, my departure from paid pastoral ministry).
This is one of the reasons we were motivated to church plant – to create a fresh DNA that avoided much of this. We were very assertive about setting good boundaries and discouraging disgruntled church attenders from dead churches from joining our ranks. Of course, this drew a lot of angry criticism.
As a survivor of childhood bullying, I’m very sensitive to these behaviors and attitudes. Often, within minutes of walking into a church, I can sense a trend towards healthy growth (recognizing progress, but not always perfection), or dysfunction.
The last year of unemployment, wilderness wandering, poverty, and uncertainty has brought some great healing. Like a year of sabbath jubilee, we feel rested and ready to bear fruit again. This is why I am more open to the Spirit’s leading in our decision of where to lay our allegiance. I am still timid. I’m also humble – recognizing my own failures and mistakes.
At the same time, I am emboldened by not being the leader of the church body we participate in. I feel more free to be me, and less inclined to fix the systems we encounter. This is a good place to be.
Boy, I’ve sure been there, Gary. (The whole trying-to-save-people-but-not-being-Jesus part.) I’m thrilled for you and your family that you feel enough recovery has happened that you are feeling able to step into community in an influencing fashion. You have a lot of value to offer any community that will hear you.
Yeah, we are treading very carefully. As we continue to church shop, we have a few more places to experience.
I am not an intentional church goer. Use to be. 15 years ago it was not uncommon to find myself or whole family at church several nights a week, serving, learning, teaching, etc.
We were in a season of growth, in a church that was growing and becoming an influence to the community and the world. We had a tight knit group of friends that became like family, and some of those people still are. We lost a child during this time and if it weren’t for this church family and love that God showed through them, well I really don’t know where we would be right now.
Then we moved to take a job in another state, and boom. The hammer fell. We were asked to leave one church (from the same denominational group from before) went through several mega-churches just to be left lonely (little fish in great big pond) and spiritually unfed, tried an emergent community, loved them and were accepted but they never talked about Jesus; we found that with the evangelicals you never did enough, and with the Calvinists you don’t need to do anything because either God chooses you or He doesn’t.
This all happened over the course of about 10 years. We watch some of our favorite pastors online, we read, we talk and discuss and we love God and love others. But we are tired of ‘doing’ church.
I’m not anti-church, I love the body that is Christ’s bride. But after all we have been through, abusive pastors, uptight cliques, programs and bullet point, fill-in-the blank sermons, we’re tired.
We go, when we want. We entertain, we visit, we connect. We just don’t do church anymore.
First, welcome to my site. Thanks for being willing to share something like this. Sounds like you are “being” church rather than “doing” it. I’m sad that you’ve not found a healthy, growing, supportive community, but I understand the reality of that situation. It’s too common. I’ve been a part of fostering some of the very things that you found hurtful–and man do I regret that. I hope that you’ll hang around here and share more. I’d love the opportunity to encourage you and cheer you on in your journey. Blessings.
Bart, my family and I are in a similar situation. The details are a bit different, but the outcome is about right.
We haven’t given up – yet. Mostly because we have two young kids. But man is it a struggle sometimes.
This weekend we attended a church (we just moved to a new city and we are church shopping) that some new friends attend. The worship service started at 11am, but after committee reports, two separate baby dedications, three (not-so) special music selections, and some other chatter I was going stir crazy. So, I slid out of my seat and went for a walk. I came back just after noon and the sermon was just getting started. Aurgh!!
To me, this is not worship and is pure incompetence.
Ugh… been there. (Maybe even caused it to be so a few times.)
Bart, your experience sounds quite similar to my own. We are also in the stopped doing church boat. It’s not that we don’t want to be there, it’s that we can’t be part of anything that is going on in our community. I have good friends and prayer partners I can rely on and who rely on me. But we don’t do church.
All the wrong reasons you listed for
going to church? I’ve done them all, and yes, they all eventually
failed. There came a point where I realized that my attitude was
toxic to my fellow church goers, and that’s when I stopped
completely. We’d stopped going for a while once before because
somebody verbally abused our son when he disagreed with them, but we
had been going again for months, and I constantly struggled with
feelings of judgment toward the congregation I was attending. Being
a dedicated Sabbath keeper in a very small town, there aren’t many
choices, so there really wasn’t anywhere else to go, but this
congregation (though I actually do love the people) worships in a way
that is deadly boring and annoys me to distraction. Finally I
realized that unless I could attend without judging them, I was worse
than useless to them and doing myself harm to boot. I tried finding
a different attitude, had been working on it for weeks, but I failed
utterly in the attempt. Do I think it would be better if I had
succeeded in changing my attitude and continuing to attend church?
Hmm, something in me doesn’t think so with this particular
denominational congregation. They seem to take my attendance as
confirmation that they really are doing something right, even when
I’m obviously not on the same page as they are. I wish it were
different because I miss the rhythm church adds to my week, but I
will not go back unless something changes drastically.
Something about recognizing that I’m bringing a destructive attitude to church with me feels enormously mature, Cherise. How many times have I attended and sat in judgement on what was going on? That really provokes me to think. Thanks for sharing.
“The church is messy but we can’t give up on it”
Adventures in Churchland – Chapters 17-18
I read through your article and the resulting comments with an open mind. I have awakened to the horrendous disarray of the Christian Body…on our end. I tend to view the humanistic creation of denominations and organized religions and reference to their buildings as “churches” as a cancer to the Body of Christ. One can ask, “Well, what are you bringing to the table ?” and indicate that because I do not agree with the humanistic church system…I am the problem. However, it could be that God is stirring sincere seekers of Him to speak up on the misleading humanistic church system. The very definition of an assembly is a variety of parts coming together to produce something. Each part has a contribution to the process. The humanistic contrived church system prefers an assembling of parts that do nothing but sit there while a “titled” part spins the same old rotations year in and year out. This is why there has been decreasing fruit production over the centuries since Jesus ascended back into heaven. To give one (of a bazillion) injuries this cancerous system has inflicted is the “Sunday school idea”. It has always been God’s intention that a child’s father and mother were to initiate his or her spiritual education. God knows that there is no greater influence for a child than to witness their parents sincere relationship with God. But this all came to an end when the parents decided, “Hey, who better than a seminary degreed Pastor can teach our children?”. So, Jesus was moved out of the home. What I have observed at many different professed Christian Sunday schools has been more worldly school activities like making Mother’s Day cards, Father’s Day cards, crayon drawing, etc. So, now we have a world that wants to hear very little about Jesus or God.
I believe that God ran humanity through the Old Covenant to show us that it could never work. The humanistic church system is a mostly Old Covenant system, accepted by our humanistic need to “see” something or have an “identifier” to prove we are accepted by God. God does not want Jesus confined to buildings and organizations. I believe that God wanted us to “in Christ” include Him in every area of our lives. A community known as the Church that exists within the world as a light for the lost.
No question. Living “in Christ” in every area of our lives is the goal, and it’s a far better one than living “in the church.” Blessings.