What is this 'church' of which you speak?
Why I No Longer Attend Church
Most of the activities and trappings of modern American Christianity were unheard of by the early church.
This is my response to a tract produced by Good News Publishers entitled
Why Should I Go To Church? The opinion expressed therein gave four reasons: 1) Fellowship, 2) Corporate Worship, 3) Personal Growth, and 4) Ministry. Following a brief outline of my personal background, I will deal with each of these reasons, explaining the errors they present as they attempt to make the case for going to church.
Background – I was raised in a fairly religious Catholic family. We went to church every Sunday, because the church taught, and we believed, that it was a mortal sin to miss Mass. Once in college, I participated briefly in the available Catholic activities, including playing in the 'worship band' (this back in the late 60's when this sort of thing was still quite unconventional). However, the rigorous philosophical climate of the dorms and beer bars led to questioning of many things religious, including the 'infallibility' of the Pope and even the existence of sin. I began my hiatus from the church and organized religion, and remained adrift for about seven years.
After nearly flunking out of school and realizing I didn't like school much anyway, I joined the Navy and discovered I enjoyed that even less. Following my discharge, I returned to college, and it was then that I squarely faced the fact that I was incompetent to manage my own life. I found hope (and a measure of faith) in the Gospel of John, and on a cold January morning in northern Wisconsin – alone and discouraged on my living room floor – I submitted my life to the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was no choir singing Just As I Am or an evangelist explaining the "Four Spiritual Laws." I didn't expect to go to Heaven, nor was I asking to. My problems were much more immediate; I needed someone to clean up my life, and I needed him NOW. It was in this context that I first understood the Lordship of Christ, and I believe that submission to His Lordship was foundational to my relationship with Him. Like most people who are truly converted, I quickly developed a voracious appetite for the Bible.
In those early years, I visited a LOT of different churches, including Church of Christ (non-instrumental), United Church of Christ, United Pentecostal, Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical Free, non-denominational “Body Fellowship” and quite a few more. I read everything Biblical that I could get my hands on, and also enrolled in a program that, combined with my two-plus years at the University of Wisconsin, would lead to a B.A. Degree in Biblical Studies.
After my degree was completed, I started looking seriously for any church or ministry where I could work full time. Every door to 'professional' (that is, paying) ministry closed (thank God!). I spent many of the next sixteen years teaching Sunday school, leading home groups, participating regularly in prayer groups, church choirs, Christian activist groups, tape ministry, men's ministry, etc. I was no hero or super-saint by a long shot, but I believed in the local church and I was energized by my belief.
Several things: a little disillusionment, a reality check, and a fresh look at the Bible sans the American church paradigm. I owe some of my transition to Dr. R.C. Sproul and the outstanding work he is doing through Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Sproul majors on the Holiness of God, something that is sadly neglected in many churches. God is holy, majestic, awesome, and fully deserving of more praise and respect than we are capable of delivering. And yet, on Sunday mornings, the fact that it is an extreme privilege for us to even come into His august presence is lost on virtually every so-called 'worshipper'. I became disillusioned by the social club atmosphere during the time leading up to the service, as well as the mindless and repetitive 'worship' choruses. My appeals to church leadership fell on deaf ears, for at least two reasons: they thought it was an issue of my personal taste or preferences, and didn't think I had the right to impose my opinions on everyone else. They didn't see it as a biblical issue at all. And second, they knew that what they were doing drew a crowd, and that was what they thought they were supposed to be doing.
Then, we had a senior pastor who wanted to break away from the Willow Creek model on which our church had been founded, and develop a stronger emphasis on discipleship. “Commendable,” I thought, but the church leadership thought otherwise, and the senior pastor ended up resigning. Then things got interesting. One of the other staff ministers told the elders that his career track led to the senior pastor position, and that if he did not receive the position he would also leave. So the elders had a prayer meeting and announced that the Holy Spirit had revealed to them that the staff minister was His choice to become the next senior pastor of the church.
I was upset and disgusted by the mechanics of this "unspiritual" transition. I thought it totally inappropriate for Christian "church leaders" to function in this carnal and political fashion, so I left. The new "senior pastor" is still there, and the organization appears as strong as ever. In retrospect, the actions of the new "senior pastor" (actually the CEO) and the board were correct and proper, in view of their primary responsibility of maintaining the vitality of the corporation. Any aspiring CEO would have played the "promote me or I'll walk" card to advance his career. That's how the game is played in corporate America. But at the time I mistakenly thought I was participating in the church. Silly me.
So I went to different "churches" just about every week for the better part of the next two years. And I came to some uncomfortable conclusions. Of course, the truth of the matter was in my face every week for the past ten years, but I was too blind to see.
Most “churches” are actually 501(c)3 religious organizations. They are legally structured entities; creatures of the state. Pastors don't know, don't care, and don't understand the implications of this standing.
The majority of Christian leaders are afraid of their people. They will not confront sin or take any unpopular stand. This is most clearly seen in the abortion issue, but shows up in virtually every moral issue. Pastors want to be popular, and are afraid to be vilified or abandoned. They especially don't want to do anything that could be counter-productive to their goal of numerical growth.
Most American Christians are woefully and inexcusably ignorant of all except the most self-evident Biblical truths, and this is not a concern to them. They think they know enough, and they think they're growing.
There is practically no Biblical worship in any of the churches. Instead, we have Evangelical Sales meetings designed to appeal to the comfort level of unbelievers. For most 'believers,' evangelism means inviting people to church on Sunday morning.
There has been a wholesale abandonment of the Law of God. Most Christians either feel that the law is obsolete, that it has been replaced by the general commandment to 'love others,' or that any appeal to the law or effort to use it to regulate behavior is legalism, a doctrine to be condemned.
The American church experience, or church involvement, does not significantly change those who participate in it. Church-goers view the same sleazy movies, default on their just financial obligations, fornicate, murder their children, get divorces, etc. at the same rate (slightly worse, actually) than the population at large. Years of research by George Barna and others documents this.
You might think I condemn this sad state of affairs, but my appeal is simply to Truth In Labeling. Just as a can of soup or box of cereal must be accurately labeled concerning its ingredients, I think these religious franchises should simply be honest about who they are, who owns them, and what they are about.
What they are about, of course, is taking man-centered RELIGION, wrapping a Christian veneer around it, and passing it off as God-pleasing, Biblical Christianity. Biblically speaking, they are not churches at all. In my ignorance I used to help them, especially by pointing out egregious errors in either their practice or doctrine that were unbiblical. In retrospect, I see that all I was doing was enabling them to become more convincing counterfeits, or at least giving them a heads-up so they could marshal some biblical-sounding argument to support their activities if any inconvenient questions were asked. But at the core, they remain consumer-centered businesses. Peter the Apostle is out, and Peter Drucker is in. Ministering to the felt needs of the members is their sine qua non.
And they should have the basic decency and honesty to say so. By God's abundant grace, many Christians are figuring it out anyway, and like me are quietly making their exodus. We don't go to “church” any more, because these religious franchises are not the church.
Rather, I believe they are more properly and correctly denoted Christian Community Centers. Most have some sort of spiritual or religious (sometimes it's hard to tell which) heritage, and often they claim the Bible as "authoritative" though the extent of that authority varies. But they are, at their core, religious not-for-profit corporations that provide valuable community services and a safe haven for family-friendly activities.
It's actually just the Pharisees all over again; religious people, and many of them are very nice people. But not Christians in the Biblical sense and, because of that singular infirmity, they are unable to worship. They are unable to grieve because they just can't see how serious sin really is. Sit outside any “church” in America and watch the people come out after the service. Is there any evidence that they have been in the presence of a holy God? In the Bible, people were frequently either devastated by God's holiness or horrified by their own sinfulness. Paul cautioned the saints in his day not to trifle concerning things consecrated to God, pointing out that such misbehavior had cost some their lives. Ananias and Sapphira found out the hard way.
My specific responses to the points raised in the tract:
- Fellowship – The tract correctly suggests that Christians should be in closely-knit relationships with other Christians. It does not emphasize the fact that these relationships should be 'in Christ,' though I think this requirement is obvious. Authentic Christian relationships should be anchored in Biblical truth. However, is being a member of a church the only way, or even an effective way, to cultivate these very necessary relationships?
I doubt it. Let's face it: sitting next to or behind someone and listening to a sermon, or singing along with others does not strengthen personal relationships. The American way of 'doing church' does not build community. It doesn't produce solid, courageous Christian people, and it obviously doesn't please God. It has devolved from vibrant Bible-believing groups of disciples to consumer-driven religious franchises, serving the desires and interests of its customers. Fellowship and accountability are minimized, NOT because of anyone's bad intentions, but because of the design of the model.
- Corporate Worship – We've been heavily conditioned to believe that God wants us to get together with other believers on a weekly basis for an event called a "worship service." However, nothing remotely like that appears in the New Testament. Rather, Romans 12:1 tells us that our bodies and our lives make up our spiritual service of worship. In the early church, and in the true church, believers gather to edify one another and encourage one another. They didn't do liturgies or have "symbolic" fellowship or a "symbolic" meal. Again, the tract starts with a flawed premise, then drifts into flaky theology. None of the scriptural examples of corporate worship connect with today's Americanized 'go to church' habit. “David couldn't keep his praise to himself.” So we go to church, listen to a "praise band," and do a scripted liturgy managed by religious professionals? “Even Christ, in the darkest hours of His life, asked three of His closest friends to 'watch and pray' with Him” — yes, He didn't have anything like today's typical 'church service.' This non sequitur is followed by a misapplication of Matthew 18:20. This passage deals with conflict resolution with an erring brother, something that rarely happens in most churches and has nothing to do with "worship services."
- Personal Growth – This is the 'trump card' of the “You ought to go to church” position: Hebrews 10:24-25, which states in part: "...not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together..." is presented as a direct commandment from God Himself to join a local church and attend as often as possible. However, this cannot be properly construed as a commandment to attend church services for at least two reasons. First, "assembling" in the Biblical sense is precluded by formalized, non-participatory, liturgical activities - the very features that make "church services" what they are. In a typical church service, people are "gathered" but they are not assembled together. Gathering all the parts necessary to build some device is insufficient. It is not until the device is assembled that there is function. Similarly, gathering believers for a "worship service" simply does not equip them for the work of the ministry.
Second, there is nothing in this verse that speaks of 'going to church,' or going anywhere, for that matter. The admonition is in the context of holding fast the confession, stirring up love, good works, and mutual exhortation -- things conspicuously absent in most sit-quietly-and-listen church services. This passage is talking about a healthy and integrated Christian lifestyle and developing vital and authentic relationships with other disciples. This does not happen in today's structured and formalized church services. “Going to church” fosters compartmentalization, the exact opposite of what this passage admonishes.
- Ministry – In Ephesians 4:11-12 we read that Christ placed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in the Body to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This, to me, is the flashing neon sign saying 'counterfeit' that is in front of almost every American church. The saints aren't being equipped! They can't defend the faith because they don't understand it. They are being 'fed' ... nothing. They go into a 'worship service' that has a few 'praise choruses' that are mindlessly repeated or sung by a 'worship band' and then there is a pop-psychology 'message' that is launched from a scripture text but goes no further than the opinions currently in fashion in the culture.
Now, I know this sounds very critical and quite nasty, but let's face it: We have thousands of folks in virtually every community in this country claiming to be “Bible-believing Christians” and the country is going to hell? In the first century, using a model that did not involve going to church on Sunday, church buildings, professional clergy, Sunday school, and all the other trappings that have eviscerated the church in our land, those early disciples turned their world upside down. Those early Christians, and many since, risked their LIVES for the sake of the church. Would you risk your life to go to church? Is your church worth dying for? Would your Christian brothers and sisters risk their lives for you?
The “Go To Church On Sunday” model is a FAILURE. It cripples the church. This model can't be fixed. It must be abandoned.
The tract also includes suggestions for “How To Choose A Church.” Consider these in the light of the first century:
- Does the church base its teachings on the Bible? Do they teach the fundamentals of the gospel? “What could be wrong with that?” you might wonder. “Teachings based on the Bible” are a poor substitute for expository preaching. The movie Titanic was based on a historical event, but that doesn't mean the movie is true. And the same can be said for most churches whose teachings or doctrines are 'based on' the Bible. The Bible may be the starting point, but flawed hermeneutics, political agendas, and other influences corrupt the message and confuse or deceive the hearers.
- Is there a sense of community? Are the people friendly? If so, then so what? So you meet with these friendly people for an hour or two every Sunday, you sing songs together, and you listen to a message. Does this equip you? There's great community among many cults, and even among the patrons of the corner tavern.
- Does the church have programs that meet your family's needs? Just imagine the Council at Jerusalem, and Peter suggesting to James that what they needed was to set up some programs to meet the needs of families. Are there classes for your children? Is there a group for your teenager to get involved in? Christian busy-work ... something that has a proven record of immunizing children against the gospel message. They come through our 'youth groups' and 'children's programs' and go on to college, and they never have anything else to do with Jesus. Need I say more?
- Does the church support missions and encourage evangelism? Folks, evangelism is NOT SALES. Most 'evangelism' has a 95% failure rate. The reason why is because it's anchored in the failed “go to church” model and the totally unBiblical “invite Jesus into your heart” theology.
The tract concludes with a number of suggestions, all predicated on the belief that joining a church and attending regularly is the right thing to do. The final suggestion is “Pray that you may discern God's will for your family's spiritual growth.” Good advice; your prayer has been answered:
1. Re-build your family altar. Your family's spiritual growth happens at home under the authority of the father of the family. It's not going to be easy, and especially if the father and mother are not on the same page. But prayer for guidance in this area should lead the one praying directly to the Bible, not to a church, denomination, pastor, priest or minister.
2. Find like-minded Christians and develop deep, vital and relevant relationships with them. Find or start an organic church.
3. Learn to recognize superficial “Christians” -- those who speak the language but are not transformed. Lovingly approach them and challenge them with these insights. This is an age of counterfeit faith, and you may as well learn to discern it.
4. Study and meditate on God's Law. Get away from the warm and fuzzy, feel-good theologies of the age and train yourself to think Biblically.
5. Avoid a critical, condemning, or 'holier-than-thou' attitude. When you walk in the light, never forget that you also were once in the darkness.
6. Learn to study the Bible expositionally. By this I mean study to understand what the scriptures meant to those who first received them. The newest evangelical fads and creative interpretations are simply recycled ideas that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. Fanciful eschatologies and new revelations will not engender mature faith.
May God richly bless you as you study the scriptures for yourself to determine whether or not these things are so.
More Good Stuff:
Case Studies in Easy-Believism — This is probably the main reason why American churches are filled with unsaved people.
Church Practice and God's Eternal Purpose — From the beginning, God wanted a bride to marry, a house to dwell in, a family to enjoy, and a visible body through which to express Himself. This, and not simply weekly meetings, is what the church is all about.
The Epic Event — There is no command in the book of Hebrews to attend weekly church meetings. The admonition regarding the 'assembling of ourselves together' is a lot more exciting, and a lot more relevant.
Find An Organic Church — Looking for a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs? Organic church life is the "experience" of the Body of Christ. In its purest form, it's the fellowship of the Triune God brought to earth and experienced by human beings.
How America Destroyed the Gospel — American Christianity has sold us a lie, which is that following Jesus is about money. This is actually a satanic Gospel. In this video I hope to correct the way many people look at Jesus and the Gospel.
Not A Fan — It wasn't the size of the crowd Jesus cared about; it was their level of commitment.
Pagan Christianity? — Most of what present-day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles.
Reimagining Church — The model of church community envisioned in the New Testament has been abandoned in America and replaced with corporate structure. This is an effort to regain what has been lost.
23 Minutes in Hell — In 1998, the Lord gave Bill Wiese a vision of hell. Hear his testimony and deepen your understanding of what Jesus Christ really did for you. This presentation is the end of "cheap grace."