Note: This is the final entry (for now) of my Church Search series. If you haven't read the others, I encourage you to check them out for the fullest context. Of course, you can read this as a stand-alone document, but isn't that like reading the final the chapter of a book?
I’ve had numerous conversations with people who’ve “opted out” of church and others who were kicked out. I know those who stopped going slowly over time, by choice; I’ve heard the stories of the ones who left abruptly, given no choice. I’ve talked with Christians who feel they don’t need the church, and also the folks who were told the church didn’t want them. I’ve listened to some were are indifferent toward the church, and those who have anger and resentment against the church.
I’m aware there are churches/pastors who would have us believe that NOT being in church is sin, and not belonging to a church is equivalent to apostasy. I’ve read articles on all the reasons why we should/ought/must go to church. I heard the sermons that imply (or proclaim) those who go to church are “better” Christians than the “backsliders” who don’t. When I was young, our Pastor let us know that loyalty and fidelity to the church was a clear measure of one’s devotion to God. If you love Jesus, being in church proves it.
So I completely understand when someone reads our Church Search experiences—the time and energy exerted, the frustration, the disappointment, the rejection—and ask me, “Why bother?”
Author’s Note: And those were the polite ones; some have been openly, and harshly, critical of me for even wanting to go to church. I’ve had folks insist I could find the same benefits by attending a book club, joining a support group, volunteering at a charity, participating on Facebook, or even watching religious programming. (UGH!)
It's a valid question, but not easy to answer.
First, let me say that I don't see our desire to find a church as superior to someone who doesn’t/won’t attend church. These posts were not a thesis on the importance of church. I’m not attempting to convince anyone they must go to church or give reasons they should go to church. (I would never do that!) When someone tells me they won't go to church, I don't argue with them.
Because I get it!
Second, I want to make it clear that my response to the question is not intended as a dissertation of ecclesiology. I am speaking for myself only—my understanding, my reasons, my motivations. As I've said, I respect those who made different decisions. So I will ask for—no, I will insist on—the same consideration.
For me, I’ve always been drawn to that original expression of church in the New Testament, found in Acts 2:42. Those early converts “spent their time learning...and they were like family to each other.” (CEV) They heard the message of Good News, they believed, and they saw themselves connected.
The simplicity of that speaks to me. Intrigues me.
The word used in the original language is ‘koinonia,” usually translated “fellowship.” Sadly, it’s one of those over-used, often misused words in modern religious culture. We think we can add it to the name of the church, and it magically happens inside the building. We use it to describe the dining room where we have our pot luck meals. But Fellowship is not being in the same room. At the core of the meaning is SHARING, and carries the idea of partnership and participation. (In fact, later in Acts 2, we’re told that these first church-ers shared almost everything with one another.) These first-gen Christians took care of one another.
I’ve made it clear that I don’t equate the church with the building—a monument to a specific religion, a tribute to a denomination, or as a edifice to honor (or appease) God or impress others. More than an organization, I see church as a community, which is another meaning of the word “fellowship.”
That's what I'm looking for. (Pardon the bad grammar.)
I’m not naive enough to think we can return to that first-century model; we are too steeped in the traditions of what constitutes “church” in our culture—our pews, paid staff, programs, the prestige, etc. But my mind has always come back to the basic elements of their activities, and my heart yearns for those priorities that made them “like family to each other.”
Let face it: I can read great teachers on my Kindle, and I study the Bible regularly on my own. I can stream powerful sermons and messages on my computer. I can download hymns and praise songs on my tablet, and sing at the top of my lungs in the solitude of my home. (Which is where my singing voice belongs!) And I have some wonderful, meaningful and diverse virtual relationships/online friendships with other people of faith.
But something is still be missing:
It's that sense of community.
It's the reality of being connected.
For me, church is a place where we work out our faith together, and where love is practiced—in real time, around real issues...with real people. (The various analogies of the church in the writings of the New Testament bear out this concept—building blocks, vine, flock, nation, body with many parts, etc.) I think “faith” in seclusion is devoid of depth perception, and "love" in a vacuum is mere theory. Within a community of people who are different than I am, but who welcome, embrace and accept me, I see how my love and faith interacts and engages with the faith and love of others. I get to experience how faith and love responds to hurt, to disagreement, to need, to conflict.
Just like...a family.
My Pastor (the one who believed so strongly in church attendance) used to tell us "If you ever find a perfect church, don't join it because it would no longer be perfect."
We know all churches have problems and faults. Many are in transition and undergoing transformation. Some are in upheavals. The purpose of church might need to be viewed more as potential than actual, accepted as a work in progress more than place of perfection.
But isn’t that true of each of us, on our journey of faith?
And isn't it true of all our significant loving relationships?
More than wanting a church, I want a church home.
More than wanting a place to go, I want a place to belong.
More than a building, I want to community.
More than a "welcome," I want to be wanted.
These days, I'm seeking to look beyond the faults, the ongoing transition and uncomfortable transformation of churches and their people. More than that, I see that reality as a potential point of connection. I have my own faults. (Try to look surprised!) I am also in transition and experiencing my own transformation. That provides a common foundation for empathy and understanding. With our combined imperfections, perhaps we can connect. We share with one another, and care for one another. We work together to transform our church from what it has been to what it can be. We become a Fellowship community. Our love and our faith are demonstrated, not by doctrinal stances on moral issues, but by involvement and investment in actual solutions to real problems in the lives of real, hurting people.
That kind of church ignites my passion.
Yes, that kind of church appeals to me.
Not just personally, but on a morbid note, with my health issues, I also want to know, if something happens to me, my partner will have a caring group of people to love, support and comfort him. I want us to find a "church family" because I don't want him to be alone.
Am I being realistic?
Those are questions yet to be answered...as we continue our quest.
THANK YOU for the responses to this series. I value the kind words, the encouragement, the re-posts on Facebook, and the many comments from those who identified with our experiences. It’s humbling that my quirky insights and twisted observations resonated with others as well. If there's more to the Church Search in the future, I will share an Update.
As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and especially any personal insights or observations you have.