“Why church?” is the wrong question

by Kristin on September 8, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by kouk

Lately I’ve been running across more and more people who are rejecting the idea of “church,” even as they embrace the idea of God. They talk about churches full of bad worship songs and fake people, hypocrisy and often more evidence of hate than love. Rather than entering a “house of worship” on Sunday morning, they opt to “do church” by communing with God while taking a walk, or by going out into the community to serve “the least of these” the way Jesus commanded.

First of all, I want to be clear: Spending time alone in prayer and out serving others are both very important spiritual practices. We should all do more of both. But they don’t have to take the place of church—it’s not like we’re given two options and we have to choose one. We still have to decide—if we believe in God at all—if it’s worth it to be a part of a church.

My own journey away from church—and back again

I completely get it when people decide the answer to that question is “no.” Not many years ago, I was right there—I decided I was better off without church, and I even questioned what my belief in God was all about. After several months away from organized religion, a friend convinced me to not let a bad experience at one church color my opinion about all churches. “There are so many different churches out there,” she reminded me. “Just see if you can find one that feels right.”

I did—no doubt by the grace of God—and for the past five years I’ve been immersed in a faith community that has gradually undone most of my negative feelings about God and church. I’ve seen and experienced real love, compassion and grace. I’ve become more in tune with who I was created to be and how I want to live out my life. I’ve straightened out many of my misconceptions about God and the Bible (at least I think I have, for now).

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy and breezy. Even within this community I love, even when we’re working really hard at getting it right, we mess up. Sometimes I still wonder “Why church? Why do any of us bother?” When I hear news stories about pastors who are doing all in their power to spread hate, like the pastor in Florida who has plans to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I’m tempted to distance myself as far as possible from all pastors and churches. If churches represent hate to more people in the world than they do love, I want to find another way.

Reminding us who we are

My pastors do represent another way, though, within the context of church (although we avoid the word “church” and call ourselves a “fellowship,” and we’ve avoided denominational ties, too). This past Sunday, Pastor Ron brought up the “Why church?” question in his teaching on Hebrews 9, 10 and 11. His answer: “I need to be with brothers and sisters in Christ so I don’t forget what I’m about—what God wants to do through me,” he said.

This really resonated with me. Where I spend my time, how I spend my time, and who I spend my time with all have the power to remind me who I am. And I need to be reminded. When I stray too far from myself, my days are filled with anxiety and wants, rather than a deep peace and contentment.

Ultimately, when we ask ourselves the “why church” question, it’s too tempting to lump all churches—all the people who go to them—into one category. Maybe we should be asking a different question, one more like this: If you seek to spend time with a community of people that can remind you who you are, what should that community look like and be about? Does that look anything like your church (or any church)? If not, what can you do about that?

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  • http://comfortjoy.blogspot.com Sharon

    Yes! I love this!

    I sometimes say that the church is the laboratory where we can practice what Jesus was about (forgiveness, peace, love, boldness, etc.) precisely because church is a place where we do mess up. In the church we have been given a way, or some ways, to reconcile and start over and grow and learn and become, together.

    And then some days, I find that the very same people who have high expectations of “the church” have low desire and expectations of themselves to be that well-functioning church. At those times, I consider other avenues myself.

  • http://atravelersstory.wordpress.com/ Esther

    So I’m wondering if you think church is the only place that you can really find a “community of people that can remind you of who you are”?
    From personal experience I have found that it is in church that I have lost more of myself than anywhere else.
    I would agree that “why church” is probably not going deep enough but I’m not sure if your question really draws me towards church or further away from it.
    I wish I had another option for a better question but right now I’m coming up short.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sharon, I like the idea of church being a laboratory. Too often, many people think of church as a place for the “perfect people,” who can then go out into the world and grace others with their perfectness. Ugh. Self-righteousness at its worst. I really like how you put this: “In the church we have been given a way, or some ways, to reconcile and start over and grow and learn and become, together.” But yes, there are those inconsistencies between what we want to be and how hard we’re willing to work at it—a frustrating state, for sure.

    Esther, you’re exactly right about my own ambiguities and wonderings. I don’t know if my question draws me towards the Church (big C) or drives me away, either. I do know, though, that the question makes me want to work harder at transforming *my* church and relationships. It gives me a different way to look at and think about them. So I guess I’m saying this: If we can’t say that the church we’re going to reminds us of who we are, either we need to find a different church or we need to closely examine what’s getting in the way at the church we’re a part of. In general, I don’t advocate walking away from churches that aren’t perfectly meeting all your needs, but I do wonder if a big part of the problem with the Christian faith right now isn’t our complacency—our willingness to be comfortable and “make do” rather than fight for something better.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    I love this post. I spent seven years outside of a traditional church for a variety of reasons, including four years in a small Vermont town where my options were REALLY limited. However, I weary of attending church because it’s just the right thing to do. We should ask what church is supposed to do and whether it’s actually do it. I think your post addresses those questions. Is it just a worship service we’re after here?

    I have no loyalty to the organization of church, but I am loyal to my pastor as a Christian leader and the other people there. So long as we serve one another, our community, and the world, I’m not too concerned about our building or worship service.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ed, “I weary of attending church because it’s just the right thing to do,” too! We are naturally rebellious types, after all—how long will we be willing to keep something up if there isn’t a better reason? I admire your willingness to stay away from church when you needed to, and to once again embrace its people when you’ve found those who can remind you what you need, who you are, and what you have to give.

  • http://www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    As usual, your honesty and cutting-right-to-the-heart-of-things is refreshing, Kristin. I love your writing.

    I think you’ve probably read a lot of the same books I have and been part of the same types of conversations about why institutional church/organized religion was never something Jesus wanted to be started in his name. The models we’ve all grown up with of what church is include all sorts of elements (a stage, a paid pastor, pews, sermons, tithe, etc.) that were not part of the early New Testament church at all. Organized, institutional Christianity in its traditional form more closely resembles the Judaism Jesus was reacting against than it does the early church!

    Lots of Christians have tried to go back to a simpler version of fellowship/togetherness, and from what you’ve written about your church, it sounds like it might be closer to this model than traditional institutional models. That appeals to me, at least in theory.

    The reality, though, is that I’m not even sure what I do/don’t believe about God and I have reached a point where I’ve realized that I am just not going to BE sure. Like…ever. :) And I’m happy with that. That feels right and honest to me. I certainly don’t feel sure that the Bible is inerrant. I know I don’t believe in a “sky God” that’s “up there” and I’m POSITIVE I don’t believe in hell.

    Does that make me even “kind of” a Christian? Probably not. I’m certain I’m not an “evangelical Christian” any longer. I don’t believe there’s “one way” to get to heaven and avoid hell. If I were to identify with a branch of Christianity it would be something more like universalist/unitarian. I’ve visited a couple of those churches, in hopes that I would find a community there, but it still felt too structured. I think if I end up in any kind of physical spiritual community it’s going to be something more like a house church. Anyone ever heard of a unitarian/universalist house church??? I guess I should google it… :)

    I don’t think I’m right and others are wrong, though. I guess that’s where I feel like I part ways with most Christians. I am truly happy for those, like you, who feel at home and comfortable within a spiritual community. I’m jealous sometimes. It’s lonely to be in the spot I am.

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