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.)