Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Unchurched Christians
Appropriate Subtitle Pending

Alex Tatistcheff
April 2013


I’m writing this to try and organize my thoughts regarding church attendance, being a follower of Jesus, salvation and how these are related to each other.  The purpose is not to promote a specific position or doctrine.  It’s really to make us think about why we do the things we do and  ask myself if I’m doing these things for the right reasons.

I’ve been a church-attender for a number of years now.  I’ve served on the church boards in two Assemblies of God churches and done my share of “church hopping.”  I don’t know why we do this here in the U.S. but that’s a topic for another rant.  I made a decision to give my life to Jesus at age 9 and have been walking that path for the past 42 years with varying degrees of success. I view this decision at age 9 as the preeminent decision of my life, one which has influenced all the rest of my major decisions.  My identity has always been based more on my membership in Christ’s body than the particular Christian organization (some would say “church”) where I happen to be spending my Sunday mornings. However, make no mistake, I have always made gathering at least weekly with other believers in a local “church” a priority.

Before I go any further I want to clarify a term we use today which does not generally carry the Biblical meaning.  The term is “church.”  Jesus called anyone who adheres to the revelation that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God to be the Church.  Today we:

  • Go to church
  • Build a church
  • Work at the church
  • Avoid the church
  • Drink a latte at church

The term church has come to mean a building or a particular group of believers.  We use the word church to name our buildings.  “What church do you go to?”  “That’s my church over there.”  “I go to the (insert yours here) Church.”  I wish we had come up with another word for these places because it really tends to detract from the concept of a worldwide body of believers.  This is what the Church really is.  As followers of Christ we are all members of the Church.  Yes, there is piece of the Church that meets here and part of the Church meets over there but they are not “churches.”  We each are members of Christ’s body, namely the Church.

What I will try to do in the rest of this rant is to be specific when I’m taking about a local piece of the church body or the Church universal.  I think it’s important to understand the distinction.

Ok, enough of the introduction now on to the point.

Some followers of Christ do not regularly attend a local gathering of like-minded believers.  These are sometimes (incorrectly?) called “The Unchurched.”  Do a Google search and you’ll see a lot of links on these people, how to reach them, why we’re failing them, who they are, etc.  If you’re one of these, you are my main audience.  To restate my goal, I am not attempting to convince you to “get back to church.”  As I stated above, if you are a believer YOU ARE THE CHURCH.  What I am attempting to explore is some considerations surrounding gathering with local believers - especially in a building dedicated to that purpose.  Why some do it, why some don’t, and to help us all consider why any of us do what we do.

For Those of You Who Do Attend

It’s the “why” question that is the crux.  It’s a difficult question, one that may elicit a quick response, but if we are to be honest with ourselves requires significant consideration.  If you do attend services regularly one might ask, “Why do you go to church?” (using the vernacular here, of course, you know you can’t actually go to church right?)  

Some answers might be:

  • Because my parents make me
  • Because I want to
  • Because I like the worship
  • Because all my friends are there
  • Because the Bible tells me to
  • I always have
  • The sermon helps me grow as a believer
  • Because I think it’s what God wants me to do

Yes, these are just a few reasons to attend.  It’s not an exhaustive list and I’ve left out some of the less legitimate ones like making business contacts, meeting women, etc.  Most people would have more than one reason they attend but when you get down to the nitty gritty and spend some time looking at your motivation you’ll likely come up with one or two key reasons you go to (a building called) church.  

Think about it for a minute, why do you go?  Really.

That is important because you will be tested.  Not by me - by life, by other people, by Satan.  You will be tested.  This is not easy, life is not a cakewalk for anyone - believers included.  Over the course of your life you will almost certainly encounter challenges.  I can virtually guarantee you that those challenges will include your local church body.  Looking at the list above let’s see how these might figure into some of the reasons for attending.

  • Because my parents make me
    • My parents got divorced and the one I’m with now doesn’t go
    • I go to college in another town
    • I moved out of the house and started my own life
  • Because I want to
    • It’s raining today
    • Too far to drive
    • Don’t feel like it
    • The house needs work
  • Because I like the worship
    • Don’t like that new worship leader
    • They never keep the words on the projector in sync with the music!
    • They’re singing that song again?
    • Wish we could sing more old hymns (or faster music, or newer music, or older music)
    • The drums are too loud
  • Because all my friends are there
    • Those people are all idiots!
  • Because the Bible tells me to
    • (Hmmm, maybe I’ll come back to that one)
  • I always have
    • A rut is just a grave with both ends kicked out
    • Nothing here is relevant to my life
  • The sermon helps me grow as a believer
    • These sermons are taking too long
    • I’m not being fed
  • Because I think it’s what God wants me to do
    • Ok God, I’m not sure you understand my situation
    • God wants me happy (I’m not happy here)

My point here is that your reason for attending a local body will be tested.  Depending on the extent of the test, your own determination, additional ties you might have, etc. you may decide this is no longer the place you want to be.  You might find another local establishment to spend your Sunday mornings.  However, depending on the severity of the pain you may pull out of this “church in a box” thing all together.  This also may occur because after decades of the same cycle of tests and moves you decide you’ve had enough.  

Stop here and let me state again that I’m not saying any of the above are right or wrong.  I’m leaving that determination up to you.  I’m not even trying to imply that any position is right or wrong.  I am skillfully skirting the moral issues of what God wants for the Church body as a whole.  My intent is to spur you to introspection, prayer and to honestly evaluate your reasons for whatever position you are in.

The Unchurched

If you do find yourself in the group of believers (members of the Church body) who don’t regularly attend a local gathering you fall into the category often referred to as “The Unchurched.” Rightly or wrongly that’s a man-made label placed on people who once attended but don’t any longer.

If this is you, chances are you had a single event or string of events take place over years that caused you to stop regularly attending.  Believe me, I’ve seen some pretty heinous things done in church settings to and by believers.  I’m not even ruling out the possibility that I’ve been part of the problem at times myself.  I won’t try and get into motivations or accusing people of being Pharisees, control freaks or the like.  These things happen because this world is full of imperfect people.  The Church is full of imperfect people with (mostly) good intentions.  The church buildings also contain what the Bible calls wolves or goats.  Dressed up like sheep (believers) but not actually part of the Church.  As you know, going to a church does not make you a believer (part of the Church).  These wolf/goats are imposters, non-believers in church to further their own goals or agenda. They may look just like sheep on the outside but they are not followers of Jesus.

Unfortunately, it’s not all black and white.  Believers (the Church) are on a path to be more Christ-like.  On a path... That means we still do things that are in line with our old nature.  Hopefully we do these less and less as we progress toward maturity but the fact is - we do them and sometimes we hurt others as a result.  

All of this provides more than enough opportunity for our own flesh to cause problems in relationships.  Add to this the fact that we have an enemy determined to attack the Church as often as he can and you get -- pain.  

My point here is that when the pain level overshadows the reason(s) for attending a local gathering people leave.  It’s pretty simple - not rocket science as they say.  I dare say that given enough pain any normal person would remove themselves from virtually any situation.  Like pulling your hand back after touching a hot stove. When this happens in relation to church attendance the question then becomes - what next?  You decide if this is a temporary or permanent condition.  You evaluate your reason for attending in the first place and see if that is still legitimate.  Consider the fact that you will likely experience pain again if you go back to ANY church - is your reason for attending important enough to risk that?

What is at Stake?

Is church attendance just a minor consideration? I mean what difference really does it make? Personally, I think questions like whether to attend a local body, or which local body should I attend, are fairly important ones for a believer.  You may not agree in which case this entire treatise probably seems a bit over-the-top.  However, the life of a follower of Jesus is one of -- following.  That is, obeying the lover of your soul.  It means obeying in every area.  The question of where and how to fulfill your role in Christ's Body seems like a pretty big one to me.  

Conclusion (for everybody)

I’ll just cut to the chase.  The ONE THING you have to honestly ask yourself is - what does God want me to do?  It’s a tough question, one we can’t just sit down and answer in a 5 minute meditation session.  I believe this is the single most important question anyone can ask.  Other questions we need to consider:

  • Does God care what I do?
  • Does He have a plan for me?
  • Does his Word have anything to say about it?
  • Will He reveal Himself to me if I pursue Him?

(Hint: the answer to all of these is YES!)

The Path of Least Resistance?

As you are seeking God's direction, the path He lays out will likely not be the easiest one.  We have to remember that He never said following would be easy.  On the contrary Jesus said on several occasions that the path was not easy.  It may mean putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.  It may require stepping out in situations where you can't see the outcome ahead of time.  This is a walk of faith, I have to tell you that there are no guarantees that you won't encounter future situations even more painful than those in the past.  I can guarantee (because He did) that God will be with you on the path.  Traveling along a treacherous path with God at your side is far better than being on the wrong path, ask King David about that (Psalm 23).

My final admonition is to take some time, do the introspection, meditate on God’s Word, listen to His Spirit, ask Him to guide you.  I don’t know what your answer will be but I know God has one for you.  The key is that it's your answer, you heard from God and you are joyously (if not always happily) headed down the path He has guided you to. ⭅