Why skipping church messes us up.

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. People 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 wholly 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 heads. Or “in your heart,” which they figure means their feelings—which are still only in their heads.

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

As for going to church… well they don’t. Maybe on the holidays. ’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. It’s “Sunday funday,” their weekly holiday.

Nobody’s ever explained to them that if “Christians” don’t go to church, it makes us heretic.

Seriously. Heretic. No, heretic doesn’t mean they’re going to hell; it only means they get God so wrong, it can be argued they’re not properly Christian. Contrary to what a lot of go-it-alone “Christians” imagine, there are valid standards for what makes us Christian; it’s called orthodoxy. Among these standards is “the communion of saints,” or the church. It’s in our creeds. True Christians deliberately interact with fellow Christians. And not just to have coffee or watch a game: For the purpose of encouraging one another to follow Jesus better, and to worship him together.

If we avoid the 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 When we won’t obey Jesus, we’re not followers. When we figure we can love one another just fine without ever intentionally coming together to do so… we can call ourselves Christian, but I seriously doubt Jesus recognizes us as such. 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 won’t go to church—when we don’t regularly interact with fellow Christians who keep us accountable, who keep us from slipping off the rails—we get weird.

It happens all the time. Seriously, all the time. It’s how cults start.

First you get some wannabe prophets who’ve convinced themselves God talks to them, but who never confirm whether he does. (Or who have been lying about it the whole time, ’cause they mean to defraud you.) These folks put no structure in place where mature Christians have any authority to tell them, “Er, I’m not sure that actually was God, ’cause scripture, tradition, experience, and commonsense.” Often they deliberately have no mature Christians around them—they’re sick and 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. Nobody points out Christians already tried to blaze a trail in that direction—and it led ’em off a cliff. Every heresy of the ancient Christians keeps cropping up time and again under different names, because 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 jazzed about.

Fr’instance whenever Christians decide the trinity is too hard to understand and believe, so they invent alternative ideas. These folks usually have no idea Christians already tried their alternative ideas, and found they don’t work. Instead the go-it-alone church stubbornly plows ahead, and ignores all the resulting damage they’re doing to their relationship with God.

Heretic churches tend to specialize in weird insights which no other church is teaching. (Anymore. Like I said, these ideas aren’t new, no matter how much they think they are.) Heretics often give God credit for their new insights. ’Tain’t God. But pride blinds people to the fact they stopped listening to God long ago, and have been talking to themselves ever since we fell in love with their own cleverness… and out of love with God.

It’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.

But it’s also really easy, once we find out we’re wrong, to walk ’em back. Assuming 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.

When we’re not in that kind of healthy environment; when 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 always being right—we’re gonna frequently, regularly be wrong. Wrong about a lot of things. Wrong about vital things. But we’re gonna fight everyone who dares correct us. We’re gonna assume they’re trying to usurp our authority instead of trying to help. We’re not gonna trust anybody or anything but our own clever brains. We won’t even trust the Holy Spirit.

There are so many such 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 not staying separate and staying pure. We’re staying separate and getting twisted and weird.

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. They have 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, this idea that evading church is heresy: It’s not something Evangelicals traditionally teach. Because your average Evangelical doesn’t base orthodoxy and heresy on the creeds… because they go it alone. Their individual churches came up with individual statements of faith. Their own mini-creeds. And these faith statements don’t always address the need for the communion of saints.

Some of our faith statements do bring up the topic: “We meet in church.” But they seldom press too hard on the idea. Maybe a little. Too much, and it feels kinda cultish. (Those churches who press much too much, tend to be kinda cultish.) So I understand why Christians get leery of the idea. I get wary whenever pastors start to mandate stuff on their own, without Jesus making clear statements so we can see it’s his idea, not theirs. ’Cause when pastors start stating, “You need to regularly attend, or…” Or what? You’re gonna enforce this rule? We’re going the legalist route now? Too far, guys. Back it up.

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 fellow Christians who listen to him. Churchlessness doesn’t just mean we’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 we’re dodging the Spirit. He wants to minister to us through other people. But we’re too hung up on how those people aren’t “good enough” for us. In so doing, 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 do church stuff, it doesn’t count at all—and stop trying to find loopholes around following Jesus.

Because we aren’t properly following Jesus unless we regularly, intentionally, sacramentally meet with his other followers. So go.