Why skipping church messes us up.

Treating it as an optional practice blinds us to the fact we’re going heretic.

Whenever I share Jesus with people, most of the time I discover they’re Christian. Or at least they imagine they’re Christian.

In the United States, most folks have had some exposure to Christianity. Some of us grew up churchgoers. Others said some version of a sinner’s prayer at one point in our lives. Others had Christian parents, or were baptized, or attend Easter and Christmas services and figure that’ll do ’em. They figure they believe in Jesus, and that’s all it takes to make ’em Christian. Confess, believe, and we’re saved. Ro 10.9 Right?

So by this metric, they figure they’re Christian. They believe in Jesus. Following him is a whole other deal. They’re not religious. They’re “spiritual,” as they define spiritual, which usually means imaginary—’cause like I said, they imagine they’re Christian. Their Christianity exists in their heads. You’d be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere in their lives, but it’s in their heads at least—and somebody’s assured them it counts if it only exists in their head. Or “in their heart,” i.e. their feelings, i.e. still only in their heads.

So to them, Christianity’s how they feel about God. Not what they do for him. They don’t do for him. Well sometimes they do; they’ll pray every so often, and it won’t entirely be prayer requests, but some actual sucking up praise. They’ll drop a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle.

As for going to church… well they don’t go. Just on the holidays. Rest of the year, don’t go. ’Cause Sundays are their time. Their one day off; the one day of the week they get to sleep in, or have no obligations, or can get drunk during brunch. “Sunday funday,” their weekly holiday.

’Cause nobody’s ever explained to them that if “Christians” don’t go to church, it means they’re heretic.

No, seriously: Heretic. No, not meaning they’re going to hell; that’s not what “heretic” means. It means they got God so wrong, it can be argued they’re not properly Christian. See, contrary to what they imagine, there are actual standards for what makes a person Christian or not—they’re called orthodoxy—and among those things is that we deliberately interact with fellow Christians in worship. It’s called “the communion of saints,” or the church. It’s in our creeds.

If we avoid this communion of saints—and it might sound like we have perfectly legitimate reasons—the cold hard fact is we’re heretic. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to go it alone. He ordered us to love one another. He made it a full-on command. It identifies us as his followers. Jn 13.34-35 And when we don’t follow it—when we figure we can love one another just fine without ever bothering to come together to formally worship Jesus—we’re not following Jesus either. We can call ourselves Christians, but does Jesus recognize us as such? I’d say he doesn’t. Lk 6.46 And if he doesn’t identify us as his, Mt 7.21-23 we’re not.

Hey, somebody had to warn you. Better you hear this now than when you stand before Jesus.

This is why churchless Christians get weird.

I’ve stated more than once that when Christians don’t go to church—when we don’t regularly interact with fellow Christians who keep us accountable, and keep us from slipping off the rails—we get weird.

It happens all the time. Seriously, all the time. It’s how cults start. You get some wannabe prophets who are convinced God talks to them, but who never confirm whether it is or not. Who have no structure in place where mature Christians have the authority to tell them, “Er, I’m not sure that actually was God, ’cause scripture, tradition, experience, and commonsense.” Who sometimes deliberately have no mature Christians around them, because they’re tired of the constant correction! Much easier to blaze their own trail when nobody’s around to point out the existing trail.

The downside? Nobody’s around to warn these folks Christians already tried to blaze a trail that direction—and it led ’em off a cliff. This is why every heresy of the ancient Christians keeps cropping up time and again: Go-it-alone Christians don’t know our history, so they’ve no clue they’re hardly the first person to have this “new idea” they’re so thrilled about.

When Christians decide, fr’instance, the trinity is much too difficult an idea, and try to invent alternatives, we’ve no idea people already tried these alternatives, and found they don’t work. We stubbornly plow ahead, and ignore all the resulting damage we’re doing to our relationship with God. We sometimes even give God credit for our new insights. ’Tain’t God. But pride blinds us to the fact we stopped listening to him long ago, and we’ve been talking to ourselves ever since we fell out of love with him, and fell in love with our own cleverness.

And that’s a common pitfall. Happens all the time. Even when we are in a church, when we do have an accountability system, when we regularly double-check ourselves against the scriptures and the Spirit and the other Christians who listen to the Spirit. It’s just that easy to make mistakes. It’s also really easy, once we find out we’re wrong, to walk ’em back—that is, when we’re not too proud to admit we’re wrong, because we’ve had plenty of practice being wrong, because we’re surrounded by fellow Christians who are frequently and admittedly just as wrong.

But if we’re not in that kind of healthy environment—if instead we’re in a position where we’re always expected to be right, where we’re constantly fighting tooth and nail to prove ourselves right, where our self-esteem and power kinda depend on us constantly being right, instead of constantly being humble—we’re gonna frequently, regularly be wrong. Wrong about a lot of things. We’re gonna fight everyone who tries to correct us; we’re gonna assume they’re trying to usurp our authority instead of trying to help us get it right. We’re not gonna trust anybody or anything but our own clever brains. We won’t even trust the Holy Spirit.

Now yes, there are a lot of wrongheaded churches out there. Obviously being part of a church is no guarantee we’re gonna get everything right. (Or anything right, in some of ’em.) But staying away from church is indeed a guarantee we’re gonna be wrong. ’Cause its entire premise is wrong: We’re avoiding the body of Christ. We’re not gonna get any better till we finally realize we’re building on sand.

“But…!”

I know: Those who really don’t wanna go to church, have a billion reasons why they don’t go, shouldn’t go, and are never gonna go. Sometimes they’re very impassioned about why they’re not going. They had really bad experiences in their last church. Or serious prejudices against organized religion. Or they’re pathologically antisocial, and can’t imagine Jesus really wants them to love fellow Christians in any other way than from afar.

And yeah, most of you haven’t heard the idea that evading church is heresy. Because it’s not something Evangelicals have traditionally taught. See, your average Evangelical doesn’t base orthodoxy and heresy on the creeds, but on their individual churches’ statements of faith. Which tend not to press too hard on the idea of regular church attendance. They’ll press a little. Too much, and it feels kinda cultish. Those churches who press too much tend to be kinda cultish. So I understand why Christians get wary of the idea. I get wary when pastors start to mandate attendance: “You need to show up to this church function, or…” Or what; we’re gonna get penalized, or threatened with hellfire? Really? We’re going the legalist route now? Too far, guys. Back it up a bit.

Like I said, heresy doesn’t mean we’re going to hell. It means we’re wrong. But not just a little wrong; seriously wrong. The Holy Spirit’s trying to keep us from falling into serious error, and one of the ways he does this is by surrounding us with other people who listen to him. Churchlessness doesn’t just mean you’re dodging mediocre music, lackluster sermons, hypocritical behavior, and the hassle of getting the kids up for another function on a day all their friends get to sleep in. Churchlessness means you’re dodging the Spirit. He wants to minister to us through other people, and we’re so hung up on how those people aren’t “good enough” for us, we’re resisting his grace.

Yeah; it’s not a minor error. It’s a big honking one.

The solution to the problem is obvious: Go to church. If you don’t have one, or your church sucks, find a better one. Don’t do the lame excuse of “I hang out with my Christian friends, and ‘two or three gathered in Jesus’s name’ counts as church.” Unless you’re gathered to actually be a church, it doesn’t count at all, and stop trying to find loopholes around following Jesus.

Because we are not properly following Jesus unless we regularly, intentionally, sacramentally meet with his other followers. So go.