I used to really overthink what church should and should not do.
Having swung all over the map on church meetings, I’ve realized that anything from candlelit high liturgy to a group of friends gathering in a living room can serve just fine as a church. In fact, I’m grateful that we have so many different ways to worship God in community. That can actually be a tremendous asset for us because we can seek out the places where we can find life—sensing the deep, healing breath of the Holy Spirit as we gather together.
Healthy Christian community is an essential, but not because skipping church is a sin. The command from the author of Hebrews to not give up gathering together (Heb. 10:25) hardly demands the formation of a nonprofit organization that constructs a building, hires a pastor, and holds a morning and evening service every Sunday with a worship band and a sermon. The author of Hebrews was thinking of the life that comes when we worship God together (most likely with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper), encourage one another, and hold one another accountable—the details are wonderfully sparse.
Here’s what we need from Christian community:
- We need to confess our sins to real people.
- We need friends to pray for us.
- We need to be challenged to get off our couches and serve our communities.
- Everything about Christian growth is very specific and personal, and there is no better way to draw near to God than with the support of a community.
Sometimes we turn Christian fellowship into an all-or-nothing matter where you’re either fully involved in a church and its “discipleship system” of Church INC or you need to abstain from it fully. We need process more than we realize, but that process doesn’t have to be a discipleship program with study guides and graduation certificates.
Throughout the Gospels, we see the disciples and especially the apostles as people who are immersed in a process with Jesus. They frequently missed the point of his stories and failed to step out in faith at crucial moments. We don’t ever read of Jesus saying, “That’s it! You’re all fired. I’m getting a new group of apostles.”
Perhaps we imagine Jesus audibly sighing or needing to step away to skim rocks along the Sea of Galilee, but he stuck with his apostles right through Pentecost when he shared his Spirit with them. If it takes us some time to figure out a healthy and life-giving form of church, I think Jesus can stick with us.
From the perspective of American Christianity, there is a strong expectation that good Christians go to an official church service. For everyone who feels like the church has let them down or has caused more problems, these expectations can be suffocating. Sometimes we feel like our only option is escape, and for those who attempt an escape, the condemnation that follows may serve as justification for fleeing a supposedly sinking ship.
When it comes to church, we have so many options available to us. I have seen friends who felt liturgy too constricting and therefore joined a network of house churches. Other friends found that liturgy provided a wonderful order for their worship as an alternative to the three-hymns-and-punt approach in their former churches.
There come times when we need to suck it up and join a community where we can find strong relationships despite other trappings that are less appealing. However, if a particular church becomes difficult to attend, it’s not like Christians today lack options. God’s Spirit is alive and working in many places, even among small groups that simply meet together for prayer and encouragement.
We need community, but we don’t need that community to come wrapped up in the trappings of Church INC. We need the support of our Christian family to help us stay focused on God and to pick us up when we fall down. That is something sleeping in on Sunday morning can’t do.
This post was adapted from my new book
A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline for Faith and Growth.