The altar call came and no one raised their hand indicating a desire or need for salvation. While the music played on, the pastor remarked, “I take that to mean everyone in this room is a believer…”
Mind you, the sermon had nothing to do with ‘getting saved’ or coming to Christ for that matter. The speaker prattled on about the fact that Jesus “spake” in parables. His final point was that if we did not grasp or agree with the importance of the message, the problem was a matter of the listener’s heart. With those words in our ears he called us to bow our heads and consider the condition of our soul before God. His ‘invitation’ felt more like an angry agenda punctuated with his kindly caustic remark about everyone in the room being a believer.
I’ve gone to church since birth. Dad was a pastor. It was mandatory. Even for pastor’s kids–maybe more so (so it felt). Once my kids started asking “why?” “Why do we have to go to church?” “It’s boring, everyone acts polite, people aren’t real.” All my feelings about the same surged forward in my heart…
I love cathedrals. Once I discovered the intent behind Gothic architecture, which was to cause the viewer to look up in awe, I was confirmed in my childhood desire to ‘go to a church like that’. But those kinds of churches were not of our denominational stripe so it did not happen until I was much older. Even then, I felt a weird sense of guilt that I was entering verboten territory combined with the same awe I always felt looking on from the outside.
I enjoyed the liturgy, the beauty, and grander of the event. But I still felt the same leaving as I did leaving church in my youth. That was that. Now back to the business at hand. Something was missing. I knew it. But frankly, I think I was too afraid to follow my heart into some of the radical thoughts passing through my mind. So, I kept ‘going to church’ the same way I had done all my life.
What do we mean by ‘going to church’? We think we mean, “not forsaking the assembly of ourselves” (give up meeting together) but what the phrase has come to mean is something pastors have complained about for a long time. Church has become a religious social gathering. Going to church could have the same weight as going to the club, the lake house, and even have the same feel as ‘going to work’. The phrase seems to imply doing something apart from…real life; apart from primary relationships; apart from… well, myself. The compartmentalised life of work, home, school, friends, sports events, and what ever else we cram into life has spilled over into “church”.
Is it any wonder people stop going to church–especially our kids?
“Church” may have overtones of life-in-community (we called it fellowship) but somehow that gets lost in the religion of it all. Well-meaning pillars of the church may get all excited when our kids memorize lots of scripture but don’t have much to say to the person who can’t seem to shake their depression, or is unable to find a job, or is bowed under consuming doubt. Well meaning pastors gently shame their congregation with phrases like I mentioned above, or worse, outright criticise their flock for not giving enough, not being committed enough, not doing enough. Loving God and loving others in the context of a worshipping community has somehow gotten lost in all the activity associated with ‘going to church’.
According to Scripture, church is not something you go to; it’s who you are. ‘Church’ is the people of God in Christ Jesus. It’s a family of missionally minded servants empowered by God’s Spirit to make disciples for Christ.
Understanding church as who we are, not what we do, pulls us from a static and programatic image of church to something dynamic and relational. It gets us closer to reflecting the reality of our God-in-community. Our union with God and communion with fellow believers begins to take on new meaning beyond a personalized spirituality to something that cannot happen apart from community.
So, as a family, we have stopped going to church. We still gather with friends to study the Word, worship, pray, and learn how to share life together as participants of the divine life. We even call this little gathering “house church” because we can’t think of anything else to call ourselves. What’s more important to us is that we learn how to be Christ’s church in the community within which we live.