I quit being part of a church for a few months when I was in my mid-twenties. I had been a regular churchgoer my whole life, so it wasn’t something I (or those who knew me) expected.
It happened after I moved to a new city and started looking for a church. Every time I’d visit one, I felt lonely and lost in the sea of congregants. And I found no comfort in the familiarity of the services — if anything, it felt too familiar. I had the evangelical liturgies memorized — from the call to worship to the benediction. All of the tradition and rituals had lost their meaning.
It was a blogger — a former pastor, actually — whose posts finally led me out of the doors of the church. He was a winsome guy who had grown disillusioned with the institutional church and he eventually left it for a less formal, more relational experience. The more I read his posts, the more I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I was ready to let go of the institutional church, to just “do life” with other believers.
It initially felt liberating to skip Sunday services and give up on finding a small group where I fit in. I could sit by a lake on Sunday morning instead of singing Chris Tomlin songs with a bunch of strangers. I could hang out with other believers and be the Church, rather than just attend a church service. At least that was the plan. It didn’t work out too well in real life.
I only had one Christian friend in town to hang out with, and ironically, I met him in a church small group just before I gave up on church. When my friend moved away, I was socially stranded and spiritually dry.
Eventually, my loneliness and desire for home cooking got the best of me, and I accepted an invitation to a weekly potluck hosted by some affluent, theologically conservative Anglicans. All it took was one bite of the enchiladas to bring me back for more, despite the fact that I had to watch a video sermon and sing praise songs accompanied by a single guitar to get the dinner.
The soul food was what got me in the door, but the kindhearted believers at the church kept me coming back, even after the dinners ended. Potlucks and videos were replaced by quiet, liturgical church services where the only meal served was the bread and wine during communion. The enchiladas were now served to me at the members’ dinner tables.
That was 16 years ago. Three moves and four churches later, I’m still showing up on Sunday mornings, still singing the songs, still in a small group, still listening to sermons.
It’s Sunday morning and the ghost of my 25-year-old self is waiting for me when I pull into the parking lot of my church. He’s got his arms crossed and looks very disappointed. The minute I step out of the car, he tears into me.
“You’re a sellout, man. I can’t believe you’re bringing your kids here, making them think that this is the Church. This is just a corporation and that pastor is the CEO. You don’t need that guy to teach you and you don’t need ‘church membership’ to validate your status as a member of the Body of Christ. What are you getting out of this that keeps you coming back?”
And to that proud young man, I’d say this: “Can we talk later? I’m trying to get my kids to Sunday School on time. I don’t want them to miss out on singing the praise songs with the other kids. I also don’t want to be late for the service. I want to stand in the midst of a crowd of believers singing and listen to the sound of the voices of God’s children around me.”
“It’s just a bunch of rituals though,” he protests.
“Yeah — worship, communion, baptisms. Definitely some rituals.”
My 25-year-old self sees that he’s not getting anywhere with me but he’s not giving up.
“So, maybe we can talk after the service?” he asks. “We could meet in the foyer and finish the conversation on the sofa.”
“That’s not going to work for me,” I reply. “I’m keeping an eye out for my friend John who’s in my small group. His wife is dying and I know he’s struggling. I want to let him know I’m thinking about him and invite him to meet up for breakfast on Saturday. You’re welcome to join us.”
My 25-year-old self turns me down and returns to his empty apartment. He doesn’t need church. It’s just him and Jesus.
Recently, the wildly popular blogger/author Jen Hatmaker wrote a viral Facebook post in which she announced that she has stopped attending church. She’s been burned by leadership, hurt by the hypocrisy, and left “alone with the ghosts of the sanctuary.” She says that, for her, church now “feels like my best friends, my porch bed, my parents and children and siblings. It feels like meditation and all these leaves on my 12 pecan trees. It feels like Ben Rector on repeat. It feels like my kitchen, and my table, and my porch.”
Jen sums her new direction with this: Church “feels like Jesus who never asked me to meet him anywhere but in my heart. . . Wherever you meet Jesus, and his people, and his love for the world, and his ways, and his healing work, it is good.”
Actually, Jesus met us in our sin, adopted us into an eternal family, and started a supernatural movement that was defined by believers getting together for worship, teaching, and serving together. It’s defined by people in relationships that are centered on Christ. Church is bigger and more mature than a life of casually hanging out with your favorite people on your porch. Church, in some formal way or another, has been around for millennia and it’s going to be around a lot longer than Jen Hatmaker’s pecan trees.
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, a higher ranking demon advises his apprentice that he should try to tempt his human subject to pray in a way that’s “entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised.” Screwtape says, “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
Whatever your body does on Sunday morning affects your soul. Getting out of your house, driving to a building, singing in unison, listening quietly (to a biblically solid sermon), being friendly to other worshipers — it takes humility to keep showing up and it makes a difference. It forces us to remember that the Christian life is bigger than us, that it’s meant to be lived with others — not just in our hearts.
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