Its Sunday morning. I am sitting in the place where Americans gather to laugh and love and converse about life, the place where lives are encouraged and transformed for the better, the place that has come to be one of my favorite symbols of comfort and rejuvenation. Yes, it is a beautiful bustling day at my local Starbucks. You walk in, you pick your version of hope in a cup, you walk out feeling a little bit wiser and just a little bit more prepared to handle the troubles of the day. Isn’t that what Sunday mornings are for- grabbing a little hope in a cup to take with you for the rest of the week?
I didn’t go to church for nearly 3 months. That might not be shocking to some, but for me that is a huge statement. I have spent most of my post-college, adult life highly involved in everything church related. However, this past winter due to some uncontrollable circumstances combined with transitional timing and life in general, church was not a place in which I could be found. After a few weeks I became aware of my absence and I began to take note of some changes that were going on in my spiritual life. I started questioning why, as Christians, we go to church. I started questioning why I go to church. What is church anyways? I know the answers I have been given from a life time of sermons, catechism classes, and Sunday School teachings but I needed to discover the answers for myself. So I decided to talk to God about it as I trekked through an unusual winter sans church. These were my findings.
- Church can exist outside of the a building.
Now I know that wherever 2 or more are gathered in His name then Jesus is present but during my dry spell from church I actually experienced a completely different idea of what church could be. It was so simple and reminded of how Jesus would often meet with people throughout the bible. It was all about the food. Friends, family members, and people we had just met would gather around our dining room table during the winter of no church and we would commence in some pretty spectacular discussions on faith, the bible, and pretty much everything you could think of that we experience on a daily basis. You know…. Life.
I remember one particular evening sitting at the table after a big enchilada and Spanish rice dinner with some guests and thinking to myself that the dinner conversation was one of the most spiritually stimulating discussions that I had participated in for a long time. The conversation was honest. I wished that I could have this all the time. Wouldn’t it be great if this was how church happened always? But of course, that is exactly how church began. Jesus didn’t always sit in a building and wait for people to come to him. He went to people’s houses and shared meals with them. Even after Jesus had left this earth, His disciples would gather together in their homes and just talk. They would share about what Jesus had done in their lives and how they experienced Jesus in their personal lives.
2. You can still have a fruitful growth/ healthy walk with Christ without going to the physical building of a church.
No church did not equal no relationship with God. In fact, I was clinging to my faith even more during those quiet months. It was uncomfortable. It felt wrong to not be going to church as if I was going to have my Christian card revoked. I was constantly thinking about it. So, I was constantly praying about it and journaling and reading. I spent a lot of time alone, with nothing more than my bible, my journal, a cup of coffee and my conversations with God through prayer. I wish I had the time to share with you right now all of the things I discovered about Jesus, myself, my faith, and the world around me during those months of alone time with God. We’ll just save those stories for another time. I had such a fear that I would withdraw from my faith if I did not go to church consistently. It was a refreshing relief to realize that church is not at the center of my relationship with God. Nope, GOD is actually at the center of my relationship with God. I think in a lot of ways attending church and serving in church ministries and participating in church activities had become a point system for me. I had always been warned about that but never thought it could happen to me. Those months with no church were a reset button on my spiritual life. It was a time for God to clear away some of the gunk that was crowding our relationship and get my eyes focused on what was actually more important. Him. Which leads me to my next observation:
3. Without the distractions of church your eyes are opened to be able to see the world around you and the people that God loves who aren’t going to church.
What am I going to wear? What am I going to make for the church potluck? What is going to be my lesson for Sunday school class? These were just a few of the questions that would fill my brain in previous seasons of churchgoing. Notice that God is not actually a part of any of those questions. But I was serving. Right? Serving has always been one of my arguments as to the necessity of church. We need to be serving others and church always needs volunteers. This is true. But you know who else needs volunteers? THE WORLD.
The winter church- solitude brought with it acquaintances with non-church goers. Real people with very little to non-existent faith in a God who can bring peace to your life. People with real problems, addictions, and pain. People that churches had turned away in one way or another. People who did not feel comfortable going to church because the church goers would ask you to take off your hat or to cover up your tattoos or to pretty much change your entire self before you come to the altar. People who Jesus said to love and to win over with said love. I guess, you could count all those months without a steeple as research as to why people do not go to church. Plain and simple: the church can be a very judgmental and daunting place sometimes especially to someone who is not accustomed to the culture of church.
When I wasn’t busy with churchy activities I really began to observe how there is this group-think mentality that is plaguing our churches. It is this nebulous bubble that, if you are not careful, you can find yourself trapped in. I really never noticed it before and I really didn’t even know that I was a part of it, but during those 3 months I could really see it clearly because I was on the outside with the outsiders and looking in did not look so good. This is what it looked like. As followers of Christ, we adopt all of these other beliefs that really have nothing to do with Jesus dying on the cross for our salvation. These beliefs might have more to do with politics or cultural preferences. After a while, each church begins to appear homogenous in that its congregants tend to agree on ideas not in the bible. The average outsider cannot tell that there is a line between biblical truths and personal preferences because everyone seems to agree on just about everything from dress code to radio stations to political party to social graces. The outsider sees this and thinks that being a Christian means knowing better than to wear a hat in church or knowing which way to vote. To the outsider it is overwhelming and it is clear when you don’t fit in. We wear these beliefs as badges and present them on social media. These “belief badges” have nothing to do with the love of Christ but we excuse it as love or pride even though it looks and feels unwelcoming and exclusive. We relish in the us versus them mentality and when we go to church we join the congregation in cheering each other on and shaming the behaviors of the very souls that we claim to be praying for all the while failing to see our own shortcomings and forgetting to first take all of our concerns to God through prayer.
Yeah, I’m guilty of joining in on the group-think. The idea is that we can all band together and encourage each other’s soapboxes that distract us from the sermon on the mount which says, “but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Mathew 5:44. We claim that we pray for our enemies and we are happy to post on our social media of choice that we are praying for our enemies. But what about Mathew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” and Mathew 6:5-6 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
There is a real world out there that needs to know what love truly is. In my research, the world thinks we look angry. Maybe I now sound angry and judgmental too. Like I said, I am guilty of all of this as well. I have been convicted that this cycle is not helping the world it is actually driving people further and further away from Jesus. I’m ready to try something new. You too?
4. You fall in love with Jesus all over again.
Ok, I might have gotten really passionate about that last one and I hope I didn’t lose you because this one right here is my favorite. When I didn’t go to church for 3 months the best thing happened to me: I fell in love with Jesus all over again. I don’t know, maybe the time away from the rows of pews was like a vacation for me and my savior to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Since I was often alone with nothing more than my prayers it became easier to pray throughout the day. And while I was praying/ meditating throughout the day I began to see more and more how I need Jesus in every second of my life. Left to my own devices, I am nothing but selfishness and mischief. I already knew that I need Jesus every single day of my life but because I was in a state of heightened awareness my self-reflection was highlighted. In evaluating myself all I could think was thank God I have my Jesus. Thank God I have a savior who saves me from myself!
5. I miss church as a community.
I’m still not exactly sure what is at the root of #5. Maybe it’s the Catholic school girl in me that just adores systems and organization and the routine of going to church on Sundays. Maybe it is because the new testament speaks of gathering together to pray for one another and to worship together. Maybe it is because I really missed hearing about God from someone else’s perspective. Whatever it is, I really missed going to church as a family. Please understand that this list is not an encouragement to not go to church. I did not purposely skip out on church. I think it was a gift; a short season of my life for me to reflect on why I do what I do and a season to listen to what church needs to become for me. It was a time of preparation. I’m pretty sure I already knew some of this but I needed to be reminded and my thoughts refreshed. It’s one thing to be told these things, it is another to experience it firsthand.
All across the country churches are changing, adapting to the next generation. I have been to churches held inside of coffee shops. I have been to coffee shops housed inside of churches. Sometimes I wish that church could be as simple as the experience of going to the coffee shop. You walk in at your own pace wearing whatever you just so happen to be wearing because you are going to a place where you know you will feel comfortable. Someone pours something wonderful into your cup or places something delicious on your plate. You sit down with a small group of people and listen and speak and pray and savor. Perhaps you take a moment to enjoy the music that plays in the background. You pour out your heart as Jesus is poured into you. Pass the sugar and cream please- I could get used to that!