This may surprise you, considering that I called the Church ‘The Ugly Bride’ in my last post – but I love church.
I’ve had my share of struggles and disappointments within the church and other Christian organizations (just as I’ve had with secular groups); but throughout, God has ultimately blessed me through these fellowships of faith. During the past three months, our family has been travelling, and although we’ve attended church when we could, we have missed the regular communion with other believers. We’ve missed the worship. We’ve missed the encouragement. We have missed the growth. Now that we’re getting settled again, at the top of our list of priorities is finding a new church home.
In my life, I have seen people fall away from the church with any number of excuses, and I’ve seen more stay away for plenty of other reasons.
My own grandparents were irregular attendees at their local church – I don’t quite know the history there, but I know that my Grandpa’s choice was often to go fishing on a Sunday morning. West’s grandmother (currently 94 years old and going strong) was memorably given an ultimatum by her church minister: lawn bowls or church. Her bowling scores improved immeasurably.
Good friends of ours were involved in the church and our cell group until they had their first child. Their baby girl’s naptimes coincided with the first service – and they were very particular about scheduling – so they stayed home with her instead of taking her to church. As she grew, they set aside Sunday mornings for family activities. And, just like that, they became people who used to go to church. They still believe in God, but it has become a distant belief, and their girls have grown up entirely outside of the church and its nurture. Family Time has become their new god.
Other friends were raised in strict Catholic households, where church and Christianity were so bound by rigour and rules that these things eclipsed the heart of Christian practice. Growing up they felt, alternately, not good enough for the church and that it was not good enough for them. As they grew up they were denied the opportunity to know God’s heart because the people around them represented it so poorly. Some of the most committed atheists I’ve met are products of unloving Christian education or upbringing.
For all of these people, choices were made by them or by others (or both) to alienate them from the church. Some possibly reasoned that these choices were best; some probably didn’t even realize that they were making a choice at all – it just worked out that way, that now they’re just not church-goers. It doesn’t make them worse than me, or me better than them – but it does leave them worse off (and if you read on, I hope you’ll see how that is).
There is no one-size-fits-all church format, and you may well find that a church works for you well in one phase of life but that you need something different as time goes on (I know of families who have moved from one beloved church to another when their teens have been drawn to a congregation that affords them more opportunities for fellowship and growth; our own family has felt very much at home in one church but then felt called to go and serve in another – and we have been blessed beyond our imaginings in doing so). That’s not to say that it’s all about what you can get from church involvement, though – there are plenty of opportunities to give (lots of ways of using your own particular gifts and talents) as well.
‘As for me and my household, we choose to serve the Lord’ – and for our family, that includes being part of His fellowship through regularly attending church.
It’s important to recognize the benefits and the limitations of being part of a body of believers (i.e. the church). There are a lot of misconceptions about what church provides (and what it doesn’t), so to begin with let’s just whittle these down to a few bullet-points – and then I’ll look at (and respond to) some of the reasons people give for not going to church.
Church doesn’t offer:
- A golden ticket to virtue
- All the answers
Church does provide:
If we value what church does and is in our lives then we have to be intentional about going there. We have to be committed to participating in Christian fellowship.
If you’ve never been to church, you have to give it a try – there is a world of warmth that you have yet to discover.
If you have been upset or disappointed by your church experiences, you have to try again – God wants you to seek His heart within the fellowship of other seekers.
The Top Three Reasons People Give for Not Going to Church (and my responses)
I Don’t Need Church to Be a Christian
People claim that they don’t believe it’s necessary to be part of a formal community of believers to grow or flourish spiritually. And they may be right – but I have never seen any proof of it. In fact, I find quite the opposite; the more disconnected a person becomes from a formal fellowship of believers, the more likely there will be a disconnect between themselves and their Christian faith.
When people who believe in God and crave spiritual enlightenment sever their connections with the church and then claim to have grown as a result of the separation, I believe that (without being patronising) it is a human-centric ‘spirituality’ and not a God-centred faith that gives them a sense of increase. This is like someone who seeks to grow physically healthier and more robust by eschewing vegetables and substituting bread, and who offers his weight gain as proof of the success of this endeavour. That he has grown as a result of his dietary regimen will be obvious – the bread diet will have made him feel full, and it will have helped pad his body with fat – but without vegetables he will not have been sufficiently nourished.
Bread on its own is nutritionally deficient. People on their own can become spiritually deficient.
Church is Ritual, Not ‘Spiritual’
There are plenty of people who feel that attending church and being truly spiritual are mutually exclusive. They consider it spiritually restrictive to be bound to expressions of worship and liturgy they determine to be prescribed rather than inspired… Instead, they figure that they can do more soul-searching by removing themselves from all formalities and throwing the doors open (as it were) for all kinds of ‘spiritual’ experiences. Often they’re drawn to New Age philosophies and Eastern religions, which seem just exotic and mysterious enough to be beyond the staid exterior of the traditional Christian church.
They seek to be enlightened, but they are often looking in the wrong direction: these philosophies tend to direct meditation inwards, instructing us to ‘empty our minds’; Christianity lifts us to gaze on God’s glory, fills us with His spirit, and opens our eyes to the humanity around us.
People who seek a generic ‘spirituality’ often end up following a philosophy of self. But navel gazing should not be confused with soul searching.
Navel gazing focuses on self; own feelings, own subjective outlook; own happiness. Soul searching means seeking to grow; to serve; to represent God better; to more clearly shine our lights in the darkness of the world.
As far as the accusation of spiritual restriction goes, there are indeed churches in which ceremony and ritual can threaten to overshadow authentic communion with God. For some, the predictability of prayers by rote and a prescribed service order is restrictive and inhibiting; but for others it is comforting and meditative.
There’s a wide spectrum of churches out there – tiny churches, mega-churches, Pentecostal, High Anglican and Catholic, and everything in between – who all do things a bit differently from one another – and who thus appeal to different people. What matters is that they serve the needs of those around them generously; that their leaders preach the Bible faithfully; that they love God wholeheartedly.
Church is Full of Hypocrites
Critics accuse church-going Christians of talking the talk without walking the walk – and it certainly may be true that there are hypocrites in the church, just as there are those outside the church who pay lip-service to philosophies without engaging in practices that lend credence to their words.
If you’re expecting to find perfect people in the church, you may need to adjust those expectations. I, personally, can be lazy, self-indulgent, bitter, envious, greedy, impatient, and unkind – and I’m one of the nice ones*!
*NB This is a biased opinion, supported only by the few who love me too well to admit how entirely my flaws eclipse my virtues.
In truth, most churches contain all the types of people exhibiting all the types of idiosyncrasies you’ll find in wider society. Being a Christian doesn’t make you exempt from the frailties and failures of the flesh. Our faith helps us guard against these flaws, and the Holy Spirit guides us towards right choices – but we all fall short of the ideal.
People who attend church generally understand that doing so doesn’t make them perfect. They ‘get’ that we’re all sinners and undeserving of God’s grace, but that we receive it anyway. Avoiding church doesn’t help you avoid difficult people.
Removing ourselves from difficult people perpetuates the cycle of hurt and hostility that has likely caused them to become unhappy and unlovely in the first place, anyway. And loving people – even unlikeable people – is Christ’s most heartfelt command:
So embrace the sinners in your life. You’re one of them, and so am I. And we’re all offered the same gift of grace.
Anyone who knows me well will have no trouble believing that, not only do I make New Year’s Resolutions for myself, but I also make them for those around me as well. So, with that in mind, please would you allow me to add one to your list for the year ahead?
If you’re not currently attending a church, could you try out a service sometime between now and the end of January?
If you are attending a church but you’re not really involved, could you look for an area of service that would allow you to use your God-given talents; could you make a commitment to being fully present in the life and work of the church?
A little over two thousand years ago, the Christ child was coming – but there was no room at the inn…
Will you make room for Him?
Will you clear space in the busyness of your life to connect with His people?
Will you let the star guide you to the manger and will you welcome the One you find there?
Merry Christmas to all my readers, and thank you for the gift of your time!