Go to church!

by K.W. Leslie, 20 January
Church. tʃərtʃ noun. A Christian group which gathers for the purpose of following and worshiping God.
2. God’s kingdom: Every Christian, everywhere on earth, throughout all of history.
3. A denomination: One such distinct Christian organization, namely one with its own groups, clergy, teachings, and buildings.
4. A Christian group’s building or campus.

Ἐκκλησία/ekklisía, the Greek word we translate “church,” properly means “group.”

Yeah, you might’ve heard some preacher claim it means “a specially-called-out people.” It’s ’cause ekklisía’s word-root καλέω/kaléo means “call.” So those who like to dabble in language assume “call” must be part of ekklisía’s meaning. But words evolve, y’know. Our word congress used to mean “group” too… and nowadays it means “our do-nothing national legislature.” Ancient Greeks also used ekklisía to refer to their legislatures. But regardless of what it used to mean, hundreds of years before Jesus used it to refer to his group, it’s only a generic term for any group.

Yeah, Jesus used the term. Thrice in Matthew; 19 times in Revelation.

Matthew 18.17 KJV
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Nowadays people use “church” to mean a church building: “I’ll meet you at the church” seldom means “I’ll meet you in the group.” But church means group. That’s what it means in the bible, every time it’s used. Never the building; the church met in all sorts of different buildings. The church is a group of Jesus-followers, who get together to worship him, learn from him, and encourage one another to follow him better. Sometimes “church” meant only the local group; sometimes, as in Revelation, it meant all the groups in a given city; and sometimes all Christendom. Every Christian, everywhere, whether they regularly met together in groups or not.

But regardless of what the word means, a lot of people want nothing to do with it.

I know a lot of people, and have met a lot of people, who tell me they have no intention of going to church. They don’t believe in “organized religion”—by which they mean church.

  • They don’t wanna get up early on Sunday morning—their one day off—to go hang out with a bunch of strangers and hypocrites.
  • They don’t wanna sing a bunch of cheesy Christian worship songs, no matter how good the musicians might be (and sometimes they’re not, ’cause sometimes small churches have too few musicians to choose from… or the pastor picked a family member to do music, and yikes). And why must music pastors insist on repeating the chorus so many times?
  • They don’t wanna then listen to the pastor’s wife sing karaoke one of the songs, mediocrely, for all to applaud her, ’cause wasn’t she earnest? (Though not good. And not always earnest.)
  • They don’t wanna tithe to an organization whose pastors clearly have enough money to afford fancy suits, silk Hawaiian shirts, or whatever Urban Outfitters currently puts in their shop windows. (Depending on how old or young your pastors—and congregation—are.)
  • They don’t wanna sit through an hour-long lecture. They had quite enough of lectures in childhood. Now they’ve gotta again be told what to do, what to think, and that if they don’t, they’re going to hell. (Which, if they even believe in hell, they’re entirely sure God isn’t that wrathful, ’cause grace.)
  • Alternatively, they don’t wanna sit through a homily which does none of those things… which, instead, tells them nothing. It’s just some feel-good stuff devoid of substance, and as boring as all get-out (-of-the-building-now).
  • They don’t wanna force the kids to go to church. It’s hard enough getting ’em to go to school.

Look, I get it. I’ve been going to church all my life. I have all the same complaints as you. Probably more, ’cause I have a theology degree, so I can write a dissertation about every single one of my problems with church. You think I’m kidding? In seminary I was given an assignment to write about my problems with church, and my biggest problem with that paper was I was only permitted to write about one of my peeves. Not all thousand. So… much… bile…

Organized religion?

Let’s start with “organized religion,” which is what pagans prefer to call church. That’s their biggest hangup with it: They don’t want anybody else to organize their religion. They wanna do it. They’re in charge of organizing their religion… or not organizing it at all.

They don’t want anyone telling them what to do. What to believe. What to sing. What to like. Whom to vote for. Nothing. Their religion is entirely between them and their Higher Power—whether that’s the Holy Spirit, the Universe, the Force, or their own consciences. They choose whom to worship, and how. Not the church. Not any church.

Now like I said, I’ve been going to church all my life. I can tell you with absolute certainty my fellow churchgoers believe the very same thing. They choose whom to worship, and how. It’s why they don’t obey our pastors. And if anyone ever insisted they do obey our pastors, they’d immediately identify our church as a cult, leave, and go somewhere else. Or nowhere else.

There is an expectation—and it’s kinda small—that the people of a church will kinda agree with the church’s leaders. When the leaders say, “Here’s what we believe,” the people respond, “Amen, yes we do.” (Or at least, “Yeah, close enough.”) When the leaders say, “Jesus wants us to do such-and-so,” the people respond, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” When the leaders say, “Saturday we’re gonna go feed sandwiches to the needy,” the people respond, “I wholeheartedly approve of that behavior, but I gotta do [ANYTHING ELSE] that Saturday, so… good luck!” But generally if they don’t agree with the church’s views, bible interpretations, or how the leaders run the show, again: They’ll call their church a cult, and leave. Or they’ll be nicer: “Nothing against you, but I just don’t feel ‘called’ to this church,” and off they go.

Y’see, Christians have free will. And options. I used to live in Santa Cruz, which is a mighty pagan city, and we had maybe 50 different churches to choose from. (That’s a conservative estimate. There were probably more. Not all churches advertise.) Plus pick any direction, go to the next town, and there’s another 50. You could go to a different church every single week, and avoid relationships and responsibility in all of them—as I did back in seminary, ’cause I considered my church back home to be my real church.

Okay, other countries don’t have as many options. They still have options though. And one of those options is always the sort of church which expects nothing of you. Or which is such a large church, you can easily hide in the crowd and never be tapped to serve. It’s why megachurches are so very popular in the United States: They have all the ministries and resources you could ever want—and you don’t have to lift a finger to help if you’d rather not. Most would rather not.

But even if we’re neck-deep-involved in church, here’s the thing: Unless we really are talking about a cult, we individual Christians are still in charge of organizing our own religions. We have free will. Our pastors and bishops (just like some random dude with a Christian blog) may tell us what they think Christians oughta focus on, but we ultimately choose whether to follow their advice. Or not. And usually not.

We choose how often to attend church services. We choose whether to embrace the church’s beliefs. We choose whether to participate in the ministries. We choose whether to financially contribute a dime. When it comes to the usual practices which are central to growing as a Christian—praying, reading bible, and practicing the Spirit’s fruitwe choose how often to do ’em, and when, and how, and why. Sometimes not even Lord Jesus himself can convince us to do it his way.

So really, this worry about “organized religion,” and how it might domineer our lives, is an irrational fear. You organize your religion. Your church helps—but only if you let it. In most cases it’d be a really good idea to let it.

Why even go?

Jesus created his church as a support system.

It’s really hard to be Christian in the world we live in. I know; you may not believe this statement at all, ’cause the United States is so predominantly Christian. But it’s really not: It’s predominantly Christianist. Tons of people enjoy the Christian veneer, but don’t do jack to further their relationships with Christ any. Everybody’s a Jesus fan, but few are followers.

Because whenever people try to truly follow Jesus, a lot of the non-followers recoil in outrage: “What’re you doing that for? You don’t have to do that. None of us do; we’re saved by grace. You self-righteous Pharisee; you think you’re better than me? That’s just legalism.” And so on. They wanna slack off, and want you to stop reminding them Jesus expects so much more of us.

It’s hard in our day. ’Twas even harder in the Roman Empire. Before Jesus, there was no church. There were things like the church:

  • Temple, where Jews went to perform the rituals the LORD mandated, and offer ritual sacrifices which conformed to his instructions.
  • Synagogues, which were Pharisee religious schools in which Jews learned to read, then learned bible, then learned how Pharisees interpreted it. (Or found loopholes.)
  • Town councils, in which the chiefs of a city would get together and deal with civic problems. Like the Roman senate, which expanded to deal with a whole empire; like the Judean senate, which ran not just Jerusalem but claimed to speak for Israelis everywhere.

Christianity didn’t begin in a friendly environment. Your neighbors might be fellow Christians, but they might also be Sadducees who thought Jesus was politically disruptive, or Pharisees who thought he was heretic. Or Greco-Roman pagans who were happy to accept anyone who worshiped any god… till they found out you rejected any other god. Namely theirs.

With this hodgepodge of beliefs and religions, what support system was there for a practicing Christian? Well, the fellow Christians. Hence Jesus invented the church. It’s our support system. It’s family. It’s fellow daughters and sons of God, adopted through Jesus. We’re meant to love one another, encourage one another to follow Jesus and do good works, and worship God together.

We lost this support-system focus over the centuries. The church took over the temple’s worship, the synagogue’s bible study, and largely dropped the support system. (Twelve-step groups picked it back up, and a lot of them are way better churches than many churches.) Worship and bible study are important, but they’re not why Jesus started his church. He started it to fill a gap in our lives, not to Christianize all the other religious institutions already in existence—which, frankly, a lot of large churches really strive to do.

Look in your bible, particularly Acts. Christians still went to synagogue and temple, interacted with other people there… and got ’em to come to church. At church the Christians ate dinner, prayed, supported one another emotionally and financially, and shared Jesus. They were family. Sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, in Christ. They were family for people who lacked family. When there’s no one else to turn to, when our biological families are too physically distant or spiritually useless to be any comfort, church is family.

That’s the point.

Trouble is, a lot of people grew up in dysfunctional families, and don’t know how to do family. Or grew up in dysfunctional churches, so they don’t know how to do church either.

Bad parents think parenting is about manipulating and controlling the kids. Not teaching them to make good choices for themselves, not supporting them when they try and fail. They don’t practice unconditional love. And the very same is true of Christians. It’s why our churches can turn into cults: We don’t wanna love one another. We only care about going to heaven, and figure other Christians’ sins get in our way. We get just as messed-up as bad parents.

So when I tell people, “Go to church,” their gut reaction is, “Oh hell no. I’ve been to church. I’ve seen what they’re like. Bunch of phonies and hypocrites who pretend they’re sweet and good and helpful. Then they turn round and judge and condemn and manipulate. They’ll just treat me awful, and make me feel awful about myself. I don’t need them. Just me, my bible, K-LOVE, a few Christian friends to share verses with on Facebook, and of course Jesus.”

I don’t blame ’em. I’ve been a part of dysfunctional churches. They’re awful. They put me off church too. Thanks to one of them, I wouldn’t go to any church whatsoever for six months. Some Christians quit forever, and dodge church the rest of their lives. ’Cause it’s depressing: We wanna follow Jesus, yet all we get from those people is condemnation. We go there for help, and all we get from them is more grief.

And if you want to leave such churches, by all means do. Don’t stay there; leave! They’re toxic.

Other bad parents think parenting is just about providing the kids a roof over their heads, food in their mouths, clothes on their backs, healthcare… and that’s it. No guidance; not necessary, ’cause the kids are bright enough to figure out the world for themselves. (Plus they don’t want to be the control freaks their own parents were.) No guidelines, no rules other than “don’t burn the house down”—unlimited freedom and acceptance. Meanwhile, the folks have a billion other projects they’re working on, so give ’em a holler if you need anything, but otherwise you’re on your own.

That’s a family in name only. And some churches are likewise churches in name only. They’re not any kind of support system. They’re just a non-profit business which cranks out bible lessons, hands out communion wafers, or stages a sing-along rock concert every week.

If you wanna minister, these churches will have some busywork for you. But relationships? No no; relationships are counterproductive and time-consuming. These churches work with numbers, not individuals. There are a lot of “souls to be won,” and they can’t waste time dealing with one lost sheep when 99 need tending.

Are you in such a church? Look past the catchy music, the clever preaching, the church’s programs, and see whether there’s an actual church in there. Can you see Christians supporting one another to become better Christians? Are they showing people how to grow in the fruits of the Holy Spirit? Are they doing good works, not just ’cause it looks charitable of them, but because they see Christ in the people they minister to? Are they friendly?—and I mean actually friendly, where they don’t just get to know you ’cause they want you to buy their essential oils.

You don’t need to flee these churches like you do the toxic ones. These churches are reparable. You can actually create a support system within such a congregation. Start a small group, like a bible study or craft group or softball team or youth club, and structure it so the people actually get to know and care about one another. Invite any of the Christians whom you see are likewise struggling to follow Jesus. Meet frequently. Keep it informal. Hang out with one another. Do what you can’t really do with anyone but Christians: Talk Jesus. Share what you’re going through. Share testimonies. Share experiences. Share worries and concerns. Share what God’s taught you lately. Share.

And if no one in your church is interested in such a thing (which I doubt), or the leadership absolutely won’t permit such a thing (which is more likely), then leave. Shake the dust off your feet as you go.

Pick a church and go.

If you have a church you only dabble in—you only go for Christmas and Easter—start going the rest of the year. Start with one Sunday service a month. Work your way up to weekly.

If that church doesn’t work for you, or if you have no such church you’ve connected with, you might have to resort to church-shopping. It’s where you try out a few churches and see whether they fit you. Look for good people who’ll treat you like family. Look for good teaching, good music, Christlike behavior.

Don’t bother looking for perfection. People are sinners, and the church is people. We’re gonna be wrong. What we want is a church which is trying. If the church humbly recognizes they’re not perfect, and is striving to do better, that’s the kind of “perfect” we want. In contrast: If the church consists only of flawless people, who do everything right and never experience anything but success, they’re clearly hiding their flaws; you got a bad case of hypocrites. If you take nothing else from this article, take that.

Read my article on church-shopping. That’s how you find your support system. Most of these churches belong to Jesus, and he’s fine with all of ’em. They’re not just any old Sunday morning gathering. You, and I, and every Christian, need one. We need support. We need a family. Jesus knew we can’t do this alone. So go to church. Go love and be loved.