Should we “go to church”?


Welcome back. You belong here.

Alex,

I need your advice. I have a friend who is going to another extreme.

He feels that all churches teach legalism, all pastors have their own
agenda and churches should not have walls but “engage the darkside”.
For this reason, he has decided to not attend church at all. He has no
plans or possibly even no desire to seek out a church to be a part of
but he realizes he needs a mentor and he needs community, fellowship
with other believers.

However, his idea of fellowship is e-mailing me and other Christian
friends and talking about spiritual topics. He listens to people on the
radio and TV (and I know this is probably
confusing him more).

I see you and Erwin as my mentors although I have never met you. I probably have learned more from you than from my current pastor but I don’t separate myself from my local church.

Could this be considered going too far?
Could his desire to be missional lead him to a dark side that will bring
long-term effects? How can I encourage him to join a group of believers
who have the same passion for lost people as he does? How can I make
him realize that he needs to be part of a community of Christ’s
followers?

Dear Reader,

In some ways, your email reflects the mood of the age. There is among many a deep sense of angst and dissatisfaction with the whole idea of “going to church”. Some have grown tired of “going to church” and listening to campaigns to build bigger buildings. Others feel a loss of a sense of mission and community in the local church. Still others feel a disconnect with the institutional church and the celebrity Pastor.

This reflects a conversation that is going on today regarding the nature of the church. This branch of theological inquiry, called Ecclesiology, has many practical, challenging and relevant aspects for where we are today.
Personally, I’ve always told my kids that “going to church” is impossible because we are the church. If we “go” anywhere it’s “into all the world” or “to the nations”.

However, it is important that as we go, that we go together as much as we can. Unfortunately, your friend may have, in some ways, substituted one form of dead religion for another. However, the solution for him may not be “finding a church to go to”. For him, the solution may be to find like minded friends to join him in his quest. He seems to know he needs community. If he does this, maybe he can show the rest of us how it should all be done. Certainly complaining about how bad the church and her leaders are is not a solution. Sure, it’s fun to poke fun at others, but then what? In the end, it’s just whining. The real solution is for your friend to develop friendships that are like minded and missional, and then do something to make the world a better place in the name of Christ.

About his use of email and the internet…As you know, this is an age of connectivity. We are now all in the matrix of cyber culture and this reality offers both dangers and opportunities for the church on mission. Yes, there are new dimensions of relationships available to us via the net. We’re all feeling our way forward here. But still, courtesy and relational intelligence dictate that one cannot presume a relationship just cause we can send an email. Before the internet, I would occassionally meet guys who would say something like, “I belong to all churches”. How stupid is that? In the same way, we can confuse “feeling” connected with “being” connected. Your friend may be making this mistake. At least it sounds like he’s seeing you as part of his community and you’re seeing him as imposing a relationship on you that doesn’t exist. You are not his church.

In some ways, I share your friend’s feelings about “going to church”. I don’t like going to church either. Regardless of how great the show, I eventually get bored. Being the church, however, is an entirely different thing altogether. There isn’t anything more subversive and exciting than being the church.

I hope that helps. See you in the mystic,

Alex
ps register for HUMANA 2.0 before November 15 and enjoy that early adopter discount.

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22 thoughts on “Should we “go to church”?

  1. A shift from “going to church” to “being the church” pretty much sums the journey I’ve been going through…being the church is so much more exciting. A group of people on a shared mission together…that’s the sort of churches we need as we progress further into the 21st century. Thanks for your thoughts as always, Alex.

  2. Here is Southern Ontario, Canada, this article hits home more times than I can count. I, and others in my “church” community have used a sister pair of phrases, “doing church” versus “living the church”. Many attendees of a church “do church” very welll, but do not “live the church” as the Bible commands. A difficult thing to do, but the end does justify the means, does it not?

    Thanks for your emails and articles, Alex

  3. I wanted to contribute a slightly different perspective.

    I don’t believe that this man’s frustration with the church or his wanting to live his life as a Christ-follower outside the walls of a church is anything new. And I don’t think it’s simply the “mood of teh age” or even at all unique to 21st century cyber-world realities.

    I’ve known people my entire life who have this view, including people who died of old age decades ago. I have a brother with this same view of “going to church” with the hypocrites and all, and he has held and sought to live out this view since somewhere around 1960 – long before the advent of the internet.

    For my brother it always comes back to money. “Bricks and mortar,” he cries. “All they ever want is money!” What I’ve realized, though, and this obviously doesn’t apply with everyone who dislikes churches, is that what my brother also doesn’t want is the accountability that comes from being part of a community. A lot of people don’t want to be accountable to anyone, and it’s a lot easier to throw stones than to really dig in, humble yourself, learn to work with others, and try to make a difference.

    I think it is important that we “go to church”, and by that I mean that we are part of a community of believers. Worship can be personally intimate for sure, but I think the notion of worshiping privately one’s whole life is a little bit weird.

    When I worship at my megachurch each weekend I’m reminded that it’s not about me. I’m surrounded by people, and cannot escape the truth that the church is much bigger than just me. And, in this ego-centric world, that’s a good thing for us to be reminded of on a regular basis.

    Finally, I think we all have to ask ourselves why we go to church. Do we go just to take, or do we go to give? Do we go to sit quietly and put up with the things we don’t like, or do we go to work as agents of change? Do we go because we want to be served, or because we want to grow and be challenged to serve God and others in everything we do?

    Perhaps the most profound words I ever read on the subject were on Mosaic’s old website, and also maybe in one of Erwin’s books.

    They are: “. . .some ask, “What exactly are the benefits of membership?” The truth of the matter is that we don’t have benefits of membership. We’re not American Express. If you join our congregation as a member, you get the benefit of serving. You move from being a taker and a receiver to being a giver and an investor. Our goal is not related to numbers of members. Our goal is to have a community of life transformation that honors, glorifies, and serves God.”

    And I’d suggest that this kind of life transformation is best kindled and sustained in community.

    If this man was my friend, I’d tell him that there are a lot of different kinds of churches to go to. Find one that fits you! If you can’t find an existing church that does, maybe God is calling you to start something new. Find some like-minded people, get some appropriate training and mentoring, and then start your own.

  4. Thank you, Alex; this is a necessary dialogue. I have planted one church and am currently leading another church through transition. Being in my current place has taught me that God still has alot of people who are seeking Him in traditional churches. They attend worship and Bible study, pray, tithe, and serve. They are doing exactly what they have been taught to do for 30 years. Unfortunately, most of their energy is being exhausted in taking care of each other (it seems to be the typical course of aging). They want to be missional but they have a hard time overcoming internal attachments. They are skeptical of young pastors who talk about being culturally relevant; they have been taught to mistrust this kind of talk. Often they are confused and don’t know who to trust. Yet they are seeking God. And they have something to contrubute to the Kingdom. I have seen “old dogs learn new tricks” even after years of resisting change. I have a hard time describing churches with people such as these as “dead.” I agree that many who are fleeing the church are really just looking to avoid any kind of spiritual accountability. Others seem to resent it when leaders, whom they do not trust, challenge them with the demands of discipleship. Others just seem to have a hard time forming relationships with anyone who isn’t “perfect.” I think that more “going to church” (whatever you want to call it) is needed, not less: more corporate encouters with the Bible, more corporate prayer, more corporate confession of sin, more working together on mission, more dialogue, and more intimacy (Acts 2:42). Hanging out with Christrian friends is no substitute for a covenant community. Cyberspace is a step but it’s not a substitute for fellowship. “Let’s not give up on meeting together….” Blessings, John

  5. Alex, I’ve really enjoyed your thought-provoking blog. Thanks so much for sharing your heart. Your honesty is refreshing. I appreciate your comment, “I don’t like going to church either. Regardless of how great the show, I eventually get bored. Being the church, however, is an entirely different thing altogether. There isn’t anything more subversive and exciting than being the church.”
    Well put!
    Why is it that even with a great “show” we often are bored in church? I think in part its because so often when we “do church” we often leave out the personal, life on life, intimate parts of “being church” that make the Christian life alive and vibrant. Things like: personal testimonies of how God’s been working; honest and open requests for prayer from those that are struggling and prayer by those assembled in response to this; heartfelt prayer for our friends and relatives and co-workers that are lost; prayer for needs in our lives, our church, our city, country and special needs around the world; discussion of how God would have us apply the message we just heard, counseling/ministry time for those in whose hearts God is moving.

    One great thing I’ve found with our house churches here in China is that I rarely ever get bored. I think this is because when we “do church” we are simultaneously are “being church.” When a house group gets together they always talk about how they obeyed or struggled to put into action the previous week’s lesson. Testimonies and struggles are shared and the members pray for and minister to each other. This then helps facilitate even richer times of praise and worship. Also the group studies a passage of scripture and discusses how they have or should obey what they’ve just learned. Much time is also given to praying over special needs people have.

    Of course some of this is a little more difficult in a big church, but it has and can be done with great impact.
    A disturbing trend in America to me is that there seems to be less and less prayer in churches. Why is that? When it is done it’s usually done by one person with others just “listening in.”
    I’ll never forget one Nazarene church I once spoke at where the pastor facilitated a powerful ten minute time of prayer. He said something like this, “Lets take a couple minutes for each person to silently thank God for some of the good things he’s blessed you with. … now let’s ask God to search our hearts and show us ways that we’ve acted selfishly and hurt others or offended God. Silently confess those and ask God to forgive you and help you to change. … Now lets pray for friends, family, or people we know that don’t yet know the Lord. That God would use to share with them. Now let’s silently pray for the Jim & Heidi Smith who are from our church doing relief in Afghanistan, that God would lead them to Muslims that are interested in knowing more about Jesus. … Now lets….. Well you get the idea. I think we need more and more to “be church” while we “do church” and then carry it out the door and keep “being church”.

  6. There are good models for being the Church, aka the body of Christ. Those to model after are dead or are soon dying. They are the martyrs. Only a body connected to the head can be the church. Only a branch attached to the vine can be His body. It’s no wonder carnal christians are bored with church. The representives of Christ are often not truly His, but false brethern. The teaching ministry of the church has failed to preach discipleship as Jesus taught it. Instead you get worldly people trying to get a free ride to heaven without any pain. Cheap grace. No discipleship. Alex is right that it’s not about going to church, but being the church. But the church will meet together. The church will pray individually and corporately. Out of prayer, all else will flow. Without prayer, nothing will happen. Absolute surrender is required of the Church. Holy lives. If the mindset is lets go to the “sunday show”, then that’s all anyone will get. It’s not about adding God to our busy lives. It’s about total surrender of life to the point of death to the only one worthy. A bored church is asleep not doing the masters work, not cognisant of it’s own destiny or potential in Christ. A powerless church is boring. A church full of the Power of the Holy Ghost is an authority upon the earth which must be reckoned with. (Dare I say, an Unstoppable Force?). When the authority to build the church is exercised by those violent men who seize it, then the kingdom will be seen again in power upon the earth.

  7. I recently read a book called “Dear Church: Letters From a Disillusioned Generation” by Sarah Cunningham in which she addresses this frustration with the church, particularly with the twentysomethings. While Sarah has some great perspectives, she concludes, and I agree that we need to recognise that we as part of the church are the Bride of Christ and should not give up on what Christ established.

    Wade, John and all the comments here and yes, Alex, your comments to, reflect that we as the church need to return to the churches first love, Jesus. From that we will become his disciples and love and prayer will flow. It is when we add these man-made things into the equation that Jesus starts to recede to the background.

    I too believe that prayer has taken a back seat to ‘contemporary worship”! Keep it up Alex!

  8. Wade, Good to hear from you. There is an anecdote that flows around of a guy who went to a U2 concert and wished that going to church could be like that. I think it was originally published in a magazine like Time or something in an article about religion in America.

    I remember thinking that this guy probably grew up going to church, and what he wished for was a better show.

    Since I didn’t grow up going to church, and since from the moment of my conversion I was on mission to reach people and change the world, I couldn’t relate to this guy. There is no concert in the world, not even a U2 concert, that compares with the thrill of being a part of the subversive plot to make the earth blossom again.

    Greg makes a good point when he points to Erwin’s comment. There is a difference between “going to church” and enlisting in the resistance. One way or another, we must team with others to advance the cause.

  9. This is a great conversation to be having. I’ve had it a number of times recently with folks I live with as well. I live with my wife and 5 other adults other one roof, living in community together. We are trying to figure out how ‘church’ (as in the Sunday morning thing) and our community fit together and if they have different roles, etc.

    I read some of the comments and conversation and I feel maybe we are all coming from our own agenda and justifying it, or throwing out a Bible verse to support the view we want to take.
    I really think there is a great need for us to open our Bibles, start looking up verses and discussing what we see in Scripture and let that be the creating force for what ‘church’ looks like today.

  10. Church as community is not often modeled these days, but is perfectly valid (more so?) when we exam the scriptures. (Thanks Ariah for comment!) The idea of people living together, having all things common is anathema to a Western anti-communist mindset. Joining a community to further the Gospel is thought to be like joining a cult. Yet, the scriptures model both disciples that lived together in community and also those that lived in their own homes and came together to the church that met in other peoples homes. In one sense, we owe a lot to those who centuries later drew apart into monastic communities to copy by hand the scriptures. There can be much accomplished through the synergy of a community which lives together for the purposes of God. An army that lives, fights, and dies together is a little different than weekend warriors. The weekend warriors can be taught a philosophy about being in the battle against a bigger picture of the world in which we live, but won’t appreciate it from the same perspective. We’d all do well to understand the benefits and the dangers of this kind of community-church model. Without the authority to rule, as James had in Jerusalem, as Paul had in Corinth, a community model has many issues. The Lord has to build His church. He gave gifts to men. Without his gifts — an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, or evangelist — the church is unable to thrive the way God intended. It must be a community of the willing, submitted to God given authority. Whether living in community or apart, being accountable and submitted to authority is why some avoid coming to church. Every man must ask where is my mentor, my Paul, and where is my disciple, my Timothy. When we understand this, we’ll understand better how to do and be the church in this day and age and in whatever culture trappings we find ourselves in.

  11. Great conversation here.
    But it seems to me there is a lot of getting hung up these days on “going to church.” Maybe sometimes it’s just an issue of semantics? I definitely realize that there are ‘churches’ out there that have need the Holy Spirit overhau, but the flavor of this decade of knocking ‘church’ I think is just one more way that we have been brought into disunity instead of unity, which is where the strength will be.
    I think it is also a matter of whether one is just ‘going’ to church (as in a permanent observer), or being an active participant (both in the Sunday morning time as well as in the world.
    I am blessed to be part of a church where we meet Sunday mornings, and it excites me to be there every Sunday. We are challenged to be ‘marketplace Christians’ and make being a follower of Christ a lifestyle.
    Of course there will be those that prefer to just sit and not be a part. There always will be. And the more ‘cyber’ we become, the greater the chances of that happening are.

  12. Alex, it seems all too easy to stay away from the church, but you have it right when you raise the issue of community. Can the Church be the Church outside of community? I don’t think so. In fact, church history will show the failings of the church again and again because of a lack of community. Whether he attends worship expressions in a building is one thing. Whether he is connected to other believers, sharing life in Christ together is another. You know, the biblical precedent is best here. The Acts 2 model still works best.

  13. A lot has been said here about church as community; living together with others, sharing things together. I’m a huge fan of this. It has also been mentioned that this way of life is anathema to a western democratic capitalist society. That also is true. But I’d like to throw out another idea, just because I don’t believe in black-and-white, there’s-only-one-right-way-to-do-church philosophies.

    Why is it anathema? Is it because mainstream American society and the modern church is full of greedy selfish egocentric people who don’t want to look farther than their own back yard? Maybe. But let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s look at what started the Protestant Work Ethic that brought America to where it is today, beautiful warts and all.

    It was persecution, people. Americans are such die-hard believers in freedom and self-sufficiency– or at least, their grandparents were– because the founders of this country were no strangers to persecution. Sure, we understand, we all read it in Jr. High and Highschool history text books– No Taxation Without Representation. But that was only the political culmination of an issue that reached far further back: freedom. Religious freedom. The ability to do church– and life– in whatever way they believed best: whether with a large congregation of Catholics or Anglicans in a cathedral, or in a small meeting of Separatists in somebody’s house.

    Sound familiar?

    So here’s my point: go ahead and form your community house where each shares all; but understand that it is a moral imperative that people be allowed to attend megachurches if they so choose– and not be condemned for doing so! If you think your house church has more life than the mega church across town, awesome! Sweet! Go and live life together in such a way as to show that to the world. And the same goes for the megachurches. Acting or talking like one way is somehow better than the other won’t get us anywhere.

    Talk less. Live more. Love most.

  14. Your response was very refreshing. Let me throw out something in reference to community. I was struck by a comment in a book by Wayne Jacobsen called “Authentic Relationships” (written for people journeying with Jesus outside church buildings). He said biblical community is not based on commitment but affection. I had always though the opposite.

    Here’s the quote: “For the past two thousand years the church has been passionate about commitment (but) you will not find the word ‘commitment’ anywhere in the New Testament; and you will only find the word “commit” when it encourages us not to commit adultery or other acts of wickedness. The word translated ‘devoted’ in this passage (he is referring to Rom 12:10) is a relational word that speaks of having kindly affection for others.”

    When I read these words, I wondered if affection (and all that’s in this word devotion) really is enough to hold people together. I have ALWAYS said committment is the key to community. But perhaps community based on effort, obligation, and even commitment is destined to fail. It’s like what Paul says about the law leading to sin. Trying to achieve something good by enforcing a rule inevitably causes the opposite result.

    On the other hand, affection is more powerful than the word at first appears. Affection is a magnet. Unlimited affection that comes from being in Christ as a simple reality has no bounds. We will never know the depths of his love.

    Personally, I have been moving away from effort and commitment (away from me being in control) and toward Jesus and his love. I have desire and passion to hear from God, love others, and engage outwardly in the world that remind me of the early days when I first began walking with Jesus.

  15. Andy, Jacobsen’s quote of the term “commit, ” I do see the worth “commit” in other contexts (thought not as frequently), e.g.
    Acts 20:32 – I commit you to good and to the word of His grace.
    Luke 23:46 – Fther, into your hands I commit my spirit.
    Psalm 375:5 (and others): Commit your way to the Lord, and 1 Peter 4:19, …should commit themselves to their faithful Creator.
    Granted, these terms to commit are more toward the Lord.

    But the word “submit” is found in the context of one another and authorities.

    There are also plenty of “one anotherings” – especially loving, honoring, teaching, living in harmony, accepting, agreeing with, serving in love,
    admonishing, encouraging, loving.

    Some of the words above could be used in a commitment type sense, and some of the words in affection, although some of the things we are called to “one another” are not always easy (submit, admonish, etc.)

    A word study in Greek and Hebrew also reveal a great deal on the words submit, commit etc.

    I think it’s all in how we view things. Affection can be based on our feelings, but these can shift. In marriage, there is a commitment for the other even when those feelings are not there.

    So maybe commitment and affection need to go hand in hand?

  16. Yes, I think his point is that commitment (and the “One anotherings” which he made the subject of another book) result from being in Christ (in the love and grace of God) — maybe you could say from affection-styled devotion rather than religious devotion. I would add that being “in Christ” and knowing his love needn’t be an exercise in navel gazing. That only happens when we try by some kind of faith-effort to know Jesus, not when we encounter Jesus in reality. For most of my life I practiced the former and doubted my chances of experiencing the latter. But I’m finding that being in Christ and knowing his love I have both freedom and desire to stop worrying about myself and act outwardly in the world. In contrast, I’ve seen countless sermons making strong and even stirring cases for “shoulds” and “oughts” and “going” that resulted in nothing.

  17. Andy – Thanks for further explanation. I can see where you are coming from and it sounds like it was a very restrictive place. It is good you are finding yourself and your freedom in Christ’s love. I think once people come to this place, then it makes the ‘outworkings’ of one’s faith fruit of the spirit indeed

  18. Hmm, not so restrictive overall. In fact, I’ve had some wonderful experiences in missional community in college and afterwards, and that gave me a taste for more. At this point, I don’t think I’m moving away from organized church life out of rejection. I’m still a “member” of a church and have good relationships with a number of traditional churches. Rather, I’m seeing that the best moments of being alive and active in my faith are ahead, and that’s partly a factor of moving further outside the box of religion (though primarily due to my renewed discovery of the reality of walking with Jesus).

  19. Roman Catholics see the church as a conduit of grace to the believer, contemporary American Christians, or evangelicals, tend to see the church as an added bonus, an extra added to salvation. It is important to realize that the Bible describes the church as salvation. But the church is neither of these things, Conversion is not an added “religious layer added to our public life. Christianity is not a private religion. It is itself a new way to be publilc.

    When we are born from above we are made citizens of a new polis, a City of God. The Church with it’s visible manifestation of this new civilization, is what the assembly of the reconciled looks like. And like any city it has a government and a constitution. Evangelicals are like ecclesial anarchists, rejecting the authority of the church and ideas about church discipline. granted, a very big granted is that the church has let people down in a big way, the leadership is by and large very corrupt but this is because biblical church discipline has been lost.

    Without a healthy perspective on the church as the mother of the believer, and an acceptance of it’s authority in the lives of the believer, unlike Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, they will never fully become citizens in the alternative counter cultural civilization and the beneficial sacraments that go with it. They will never grow up into the full stature of Christ, a thing we can only do if we are members (appendages) of his body.

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