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19 April 2018

“It counts as church, right?”

When Christians figure their various spiritual activities are equivalent to “church.”

Though four out of five Americans identify ourselves as Christian, only one of these five actually go to church.

Nope, not kidding. Yes, the polls indicate half of all Americans are regular attendees. That’s because they play mighty loose with what “regular” means: They think it means once a month or more. Once a month counts as “regular.”

How often are Christians expected to go to church? Well check out the standard expectation found in the scriptures:

Luke 9.23 KWL
Jesus told everyone, “If anyone wants to come with me, disown yourself.
Take up your cross every day. Follow me!”

Looks like the first Christians took Jesus’s “every day” idea and ran with it:

Acts 2.46-47 KWL
46 Daily they stuck close together in temple, breaking bread at home, sharing food in joy,
with uncomplicated motives, 47 praising God, having grace with all the people.
The Master daily added to them those whom he saved.

They were even able to make daily counts of their attendees:

Acts 16.5 KWL
In fact the churches were made stronger in faith, and went over and above their numbers daily.

And when it came time to instruct non-Christians, new believers, and new students, it also took place daily:

Acts 5.42 KWL
Every day, in temple and at home, they didn’t stop teaching and proclaiming Christ Jesus.
Acts 17.11 KWL
These people were better-educated than the Thessalonians and daily received the word with all goodwill,
examining the scriptures to see whether they said these same things.
Acts 19.9 KWL
When some hardened and disobeyed, cursing the Way before the crowds,
Paul, backing away from them, took aside his students daily, discussing subjects in Tyrannos’s school.

So the fact the usual Christian practice is to only meet weekly for church? That means those of us who consider ourselves “regular” for attending every weekend, are actually meeting a seventh as often as the ancient Christians did. Less, considering those Christians would meet for hours-long services, whereas American Christians get antsy if the service lasts any longer than 90 minutes. We suck.

I know the polls say half, but as the last presidential election has proven, people lie to pollsters all the time. They’d like to think they’re regular churchgoers. But whenever I’ve pinned down some of these so-called “regulars,” and ask ’em the last time they set foot in a church building, they gotta think about it… and when they’re being honest, the last time was either Easter, Christmas, or for a wedding. “Regular” means twice a year. If that.

Heck, I’ve caught people claiming they were regulars at my church. After all, they visited for Christmas. Sometimes I’ll mess with them a little: “Oh, and how’d you like Pastor Dave’s message?” Oh, they’ll respond, they loved it. But our pastor’s name isn’t Dave. Four other churches in town have a Pastor Dave; we don’t. Still, a regular should know the pastor’s name, don’t you think?

Likewise if none of the pastors in your church know who you are, y’ain’t a regular. I’ll grant you some leeway if you attend a megachurch, where the pastors can’t possibly know everyone, but someone in your church’s leadership oughta be able to identify you in a police lineup. But no matter what people imagine, twice-a-year Christians aren’t regulars.

How about once-a-month attendees? Meh. I consider they’re doing the bare minimum to be considered “regular.” The standard in the scriptures is daily, remember?

But when I talk with strangers, and they identify as Christian, quite often they won’t bother pretending they’re regulars at any church at all. They’ll admit they have no church. At this rate, they’re not planning to find one either.

The unchurched.

So why don’t these Christians go to church? Lots of reasons.

Mostly they have to do with irreligion. These people don’t wanna go to a church who’ll tell them what to do—how to dress, how to behave, whom to vote for, what to think.

Nobody gets to tell ’em what to think. Their Facebook friends tried in this last election, but they blocked ’em. Not even Jesus gets to tell ’em what to believe. And I know; these folks just claimed to be Christian, who’re supposed to believe as Jesus teaches. But they don’t go to church, remember? Stands to reason they’d be heretic. After all, refusing to interact with “the communion of saints” is heresy.

And yeah, there are all sorts of reasons why they really don’t wanna go to church. Bad experiences with bad Christians, busy weekends, Sundays are the only free time they have, churches are boring, yada yada yada. If you’re not already using one of these excuses for your own inattendance, you’ve likely heard them before too.

But a growing number of Christians will insist they don’t need to go to church. ’Cause that’s just what the ruling religious oligarchy wants us to think. That way we’ll be herded into their buildings, taught what to think, get conned into giving up tithe money, and live under their control. Wake up, sheeple! You don’t need church. You just need you and God and a few Christian friends, and you’ll do just fine.

I always catch such people by surprise by telling them, “Oh of course you can gather a few Christian friends together and create your own church. Nothing wrong with that; nobody stopping you. So why don’t you?”

Yep, I’m calling their bluff.

Because for all people’s talk about how they can worship God on their own, they’re not worshiping God on their own. They’re not doing anything, and not gonna do anything.

Still, what’s stopping them, or anyone, from creating their own churches?

Do-it-yourself church.

Unchurched people are awfully fond of misquoting this verse:

Matthew 18.20 KWL
“For I’m there in the middle of it whenever two or three come together in my name.”

In its proper context, it’s not about worshiping outside a church building, nor even about agreeing in prayer. It’s about church discipline.

But according to Christians who are trying to dodge church, it’s Jesus’s license to do just that. It means they can go hang out at a coffeehouse for a few hours, talk Jesus briefly, and therefore he counts that as church.

They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re not entirely right either. First of all, Jesus isn’t keeping attendance records; that’s our practice. Second, to be an actual worship service, there needs to be some actual acts of worship: Group prayer. Worship music. Christian rituals. Christian teachings. Stuff where we actually support and foster spiritual growth, instead of go through the motions inbetween espressos. Otherwise this is dead religion—just as dead as the unchurched Christians claim you’ll find in an organized church.

Now if you honestly wanna hold an actual Christian worship service at a coffeehouse, pub, or restaurant; or in somebody’s living room, dining room, basement, garage, or barn; or in a community center, high school gym, elementary school cafeteria, or public park; or even if you wanna rent a building and have it there: Beyond getting permission from the person who owns or runs the space, what’s stopping you?

In the United States, anybody can start a church. Seriously, anyone. You don’t need an “official,” existing church organization, network, or denomination. You don’t need seminary education, a college degree, a license, or an ordination. Lots of pastors totally lack all these things, and start churches just the same. (Me, I’d absolutely insist on some sort of education, formal or not. There are plenty enough churches run by morons as it is.) Still: What’s stopping you?

But if you truly, seriously wanna create a formal, regular gathering where you support one another as Christians, lemme warn you right now: Running a legitimate church is a lot of work.

You can try to keep it as simple as possible: Meet in your garage, incorporate nothing, hire no staff, take no donations, take no tax deductions. Problem is, healthy churches tend to grow. And your house church, if healthy, is gonna reach a point where it’ll no longer fit in the house. You’ll either have to divide into multiple house churches, or become a more traditional-style church.

The reason I say you should hire no staff, take no donations, nor take tax deductions: Money opens a huge can of worms. And not just among Christians. This is why churches have to incorporate: When they don’t, the leader is personally on the hook for everything—and individuals can’t be tax-exempt! Any hint of money impropriety, and people hire lawyers and call the cops, or Internal Revenue sends agents. So if you wanna keep things uncomplicated, stay away from money!

But like I said, healthy churches grow. Beyond a certain point you’ll find you have to involve money. And therefore have to incorporate.

Once your church becomes a nonprofit corporation, you’re no longer uncomplicated. American tax laws require you to have a board and president. (Christians might call them “deacons” and “pastor,” but it doesn’t matter what Christianese terms you use for ’em so long that somebody’s in charge, and others are there for accountability.) For your own sanity, I’d recommend at this point you plug into a church network or formal denomination: They already have the resources to help churches out with this stuff. But if you insist on remaining independent… well like I said, money opens a huge can of worms. Any church which tries to stay unaccountable to fellow Christians tends to either turn heretic or become a cult, and size and money tend to speed that up.

Oh you weren’t really thinking of starting a church?

Some years ago I was speaking with an unchurched Christian who was trying to tell me, “If we meet in my home, that counts as church right?” So I told him all the stuff I just wrote in the previous section. Laid it all out for him.

Weirded him out a little. Because he didn’t actually have a house church, and had no plans to start one. Really he was trying to use the excuse, “Worship at home counts,” so he could avoid attending an actual church. Instead I took him at face value (facetiously, I admit) and made things sound all serious and complicated.

But they are complicated. Do-it-yourself church is a lot of work. It takes way more self-discipline than devout Christians have—and irreligious Christians create the worst churches.

Besides, you don’t start a do-it-yourself church because you wanna avoid organized religion. You do it because you honestly believe God wants you to. (In fact you likely should’ve known for a good long time that God was calling you to do such a thing.) You start a church because God made an apostle out of you. You don’t start a church on a whim or a dare.

And if God doesn’t want you to start a church, he wants you to join one of his existing churches. He also wants you to stop making lame excuses, get over yourself, and go to church already.

If the house-church idea sounds really good to you, you do realize plenty such churches already exist. Betcha there are already a few dozen in your town. Start asking around. One of them likely has space for you. Or is on the verge of dividing into two house churches, which means you can definitely join either of the two.

But the “two or three gathering in his name” line? It’s a cop-out and you know it.