On being a Christian who doesn’t go to church.

One of the more popular texts/emails I received after my last blog was from the Christian contigency of readers asking if I had found a church. If you’re not in Christian circles you might not be familiar with the very prevalent idea that once you find a church, you will also find a group of people to hang out with and thus never feel lonely.

I used to be better about accepting that ideology. Go to church, meet other believers, build your family around that church. When we first moved to the Quad Cities I was having a hard time finding friends with kids so my sister-in-law suggested I try a church she thought we would like. We did and I did. I ended up meeting some really amazing women there (you might remember it was at that church and with those women that the idea of Water for Christmas began.) I forgave a few things that bothered me about the church (namely that the pastor often said some rather sexist things in the form of terrible jokes) because I loved the women. But then the church waved proudly all the red flags I had been seeing over the years when, instead of helping some friends of mine after their world was shaken, they chose instead to kick them while they were down. It was an in your face way of showing how they really felt about sin-hide it, suppress it and don’t speak of it otherwise we will publicly shame you and push you out of the church.

Message. Received.

I didn’t go back to church after that and I started questioning everything I had once believed. I decided that if I were to go back to church, and take my family with me, I would no longer stick around if the pastor was a teeny bit sexist or if I thought the message was a teeny bit derogatory towards poor people. I didn’t (and don’t) expect perfection from pastors or a church but I certainly expect to hear more love and a little less joking at the expense of an entire group of people.

A few years later we happened upon a church that was taking place in a bar.* Sunday mornings they gathered, soles of their shoes sticking to the floor from the previous night’s shenanigans. It was a group of 50 or so who worshipped with their eyes closed, hands raised and their feet moving side to side coming unglued from the alcohol laden floor with the rhythm of the music. On our second time trying out the church a parade of members including the pastor and his wife got up on stage. As the music played they turned over cardboard signs with the worst sins they had committed written on them. These weren’t your “I stole an eraser from my friend in 4th grade” (I did that by the way) these were the big ones. And I started the ugly cry immediately. To be in a place where the leadership of the church was so openly admitting to their humanness was exactly what I needed.

Of course we stuck around. The two pastors were both equally amazing, always on point with their message. They never went for the easy sermons either, meant to make you feel ok about heading home to your cushioned couch to watch the football game on your big screen without a second thought to what it means to be a Christian. They were always asking us to do more, love more, give more (not to the church-but to community organizations or to the Water Party), volunteer more. Once a month on Sundays instead of a service, the whole church would volunteer at area organizations. Sometimes they literally just went to the neighborhoods surrounding the church and did little projects for the elderly that lived there. They welcomed refugees and helped them navigate life in America. They never confused a relationship with Christ and a relationship to a political party. We naturally became friends with people from that church, and continue to be today.

And then we moved. We moved to a small town in Michigan that features many churches. We’ve tried the largest church in our town that many of our friends go to. It’s not for us. I hold no ill feelings towards that church, its pastor or its members but I just can’t do it anymore.

I am no longer impressed by fog machines, cafes and hundreds of people. I am impressed by vulnerability, openness and authenticity. Those will always, always win out for me.

I no longer feel like church has to be a part of our routine “for the kids”. I would rather them experience God in nature on our Sunday hikes or in a book on our Sunday reading sessions. I would rather them get to know God because of how He talks to them in the quiet stillness that accompanies our relaxed Sundays than hear a bullet pointed kids sermon while they are gripping a climbing wall.

I would rather them grow up knowing God is love than grow up learning from the church and its people about what God hates. And by that I don’t mean what God actually hates but what Christians often hate.

I refuse to go to a church that dives into politics unless to talk about our commands to help the poor, welcome the refugee and love one another.

Any mention of an “us” versus “them” philosophy is a non negotiable for me. Whether that be Christians versus non-Christians, Republicans versus Democrats, Americans versus non-Americans, etc. If you’re into polarizing rather than uniting-I’m out.

If you spend more money on your church renovations and your coffee than you do on local community support, I’m not interested. If your church would close its doors and the community wouldn’t feel the pang of loss (other than the members), you’re doing it wrong-I’m out.

I don’t have much interest in piousness (as evidenced by my affinity for cussing and my aversion to the modesty culture for women) but I can’t get enough of the tenets of forgiveness, peace, hope and love.

I love Jesus but sometimes I find it so incredibly hard to love Christians.

In Rachel Held Evans’s book, Searching for Sunday, she writes, “I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.”

Yes.

I know many can grow in their faith and love in humanity through the hallowed walls of a church and, in some respects, I’m jealous of that. Because for me the times I’ve felt God’s presence the most have been when all 7 of us are snuggled on couches reading books, in the quiet moments right after my meditation when I’m breathing in the vastness of the world and in a tiny room in Ethiopia sharing tears and coffee with our special people.

In the end, though, I can’t quit the church entirely. Being surrounded by relatively likeminded people can be a salve at the end of a long week. A sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself is a powerful thing. Find me a church that’s not defined by who it leaves out but by who it lets in, and I’ll be there. Probably crying, definitely being vocal when I agree. Standing with my brothers and sisters who have done and seen the worst but still claim the worst powerless against love.

 

 

*Connection Church in the Quad Cities, go check it out or just listen to the podcast like I do!

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19 thoughts on “On being a Christian who doesn’t go to church.

  1. Love the insights. I need to re-read this, and re-read this, there’s a lot in it, and I think that if a lot of “church folk” read this, it may make change a reality.

  2. It comforted me to read this. I’m not alone in the strong aversions I have! You nailed it: the veiled sexist jokes, political / theological mashup, unspoken rules of the culture we discover when we don’t conform to them, and the reality of exclusivity while portrayed as inclusive of all. Not all churches are like that, but increasingly so. I am in my 50’s, so I’ve had time to witness much of this enter the culture, along with heavy pressure to conform to it. I’m appalled to never hear it challenged by people within. Maybe because those of us who show even the subtlest signs of noncompliance pay a price for it. What option are we left with but to leave? I’d love to land in a great church, but I also realize I may be in one already — the community of believers who don’t have a specific church membership, but do closely resemble the 1st church.

      • You’re welcome! I recently took a 6 mo. class on church history, so I’m in “big picture” mode, pondering a consistency to the trend of God’s people over thousands of years. The patriarchs, Jews, and early Christian church all, over time, added human crap to God’s purity. Those who did it strongly defended their crap, capitalizing on groupthink. Eventually God applied pressure using their enemies to deal with them. The result was not an extinction of the Jews and later Christianity, but a spread of it, as a remnant was always spared to retain the purity and truth of right relationships with God. I wonder if we are in the middle of a trend we can’t see yet. Who needs a Babylon to carry the church into exile? Many of our churches are applying perverted pressures on their own members! Groupthink is again being used to quash objectors. Polarization is actually expected of “uncompromising Christians” (i.e. Legalists?). Those who won’t endorse the crap find themselves shamed (often publicly, using social media) and squeezed out. It gives me goosebumps too, to discover more and more people who are just like you: outside the institutional church but in no way apart from God, committed to his ways only, and to serving humanity in his love. Are you maybe a part a present day remnant? Only time will tell, but it makes me wonder … (I’m done now, but I SO needed to get those thoughts out. Thank you!)

  3. Yes yes yes. Overall I love your desires, priorities and observations. However I think your resolution is flawed. Sitting back and disengaging the church until you find one that meets your high expectations is a flawed solution. It also goes against the NT, thousands of years of church tradition that would show us how to go live out the Jesus Way.

    Only in community (family, friends, CHURCH) can the gospel be lived out. We are called to a personal faith, not a private one. Only in the context of community, the gospel shapes and forms us through forgiveness (given and received.) I would encourage you not to sit back in passive criticism, but rather get involved, have influence, help create the sort of community that you’d like to experience. I would encourage you to engage a small, local, neighborhood church and contribute rather than criticize. You sound like you have a ton to offer, even if you feel like “the church” doesn’t have a lot to offer you. You’re missing out and so are they.

    #gotochurch

    • Thank you for your comment. I wasn’t writing to criticize, only observe what I no longer want in a church. I don’t think they are high expectations at all, especially because I know anything less than that doesn’t work to bring me closer to God but pushes me further away. That’s not good for anyone involved.

      I also believe thinking in terms of a physical church is an outdated and myopic view of our present reality. I’ve found many podcasts that help to keep me immersed as well as the many Christians around the world that I’ve had some form of relationship with in the past. Community is no longer defined by physicality so I think it’s important to acknowledge that the gospel can still be lived out without entering a building.

      • There are tons of great podcasts, preachers, online churches, etc… The trouble is that none of those folks know you. A local pastor, while may not be perfect or a great preacher, has the opportunity to know you, know your family, know your struggles. That sort of “leadership” or service is invaluable. They are able to pray directly for you, encourage you, support you in a way that a Tim Keller, Bill Hybels or whomever’s podcast just simply cannot. Podcasts don’t offer much in terms of accountability or intimacy.

        While the idea of a physical building may be “antique” the regularity, the rhythm, the opportunity for relationships is certainly not. In fact, our society seems to be reaching back out for friends with proximity. Without physicality or promixity you can simply login or logoff of relationships without much actual emotional collateral. So while I do agree that the gospel can be lived out without entering a building, I will reaffirm that the gospel cannot be truly experienced outside of actual human interactions. And I will suggest that it is far easier to connect with and create friendships with people who you actually get to see, have coffee with, have dinner with, grab a margarita with, rather than an online relationship.

        Finally there is a fairly clear model put forth in the NT for church community (regular gatherings, worship, preaching, eating meals in each others homes, communion.) While it may be old, it is certainly not irrelevant.

      • While I understand your desire for genuine people and something that “works” for you and your family in the crazy world, I have to ask, have you considered what God’s Word says about the local church? I’m so glad we as Christians do not have to find our own way in this life, but we are instead guided by God’s Word! He has made everything so simple all we have to do is obey him!

  4. Yeah, we should all think like this. Oh wait, then None of us would go to church.

    When a persons environment (concept of a local church) dictates their ability to worship, they are not worshiping Jesus, they are engaged in hedonistic self worship. Don’t like weakness’ of a particular congregation fine, find one that doesn’t bug you as much. But the attitude of ‘perfect church or nothing’ is a logical fallacy. Stop whining and thinking church is all about You.

    Oh and when Isis comes knocking on your door let me know how that ‘unity’ stuff has worked out for ya.

    • Joe, S, Where do you go to church? I don’t know who would want to go there after reading your comment. You just provided a great example of the problem. There is no shortage of dogma and condemnation in far too many churches. Fellow Christians are targeted the worst. You made sweeping presumptions about the author, then condemned her for imagined violations of your creed. Christlike? Not remotely.

  5. Jesus said upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Which would mean that church will exist. The bible also commands you to gather on the calling of meetings by the elders. It says in the last verse of the bible do not add or take away from the world! This seems clear that its a persons personal obligation, to follow the words to find this existing church, it must follow the scriptures because if it doesn’t it is not Christ’s church representing him that he tells you still exists! And if a christian is a true follower of Christ they have found, or are actively searching for his church and attendance is to be as Christ stated when called by the elders. Any thing less than this is the lukewarm that is spewed from his mouth..not a true christian or follower of christ. Unless you believe Christ was a liar..

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