After going to church regularly throughout my childhood and not finding a relationship with Jesus until I was a junior in college, my answer to that question was the same as a huge percentage of American citizens who have tried church and didn’t stick—”Nothing that I can see.”
Here are some possibilities of the ways we might have viewed the church while we were, consciously or unconsciously, trying them out:
1. A building – No building, no church. In some parts of the country, a pastor’s success is irrevocably tied to how big a “plant” he has been able to erect during his stay at a particular church. However, the New Testament church, very much alive and well in an alien culture, met in homes, prospered, and ultimately changed the world. Church is much more than the building in which it meets.
2. An association of like-minded people with similar interests – To non-Christians, church is where religious people go to do whatever they do. Just as sports fans go to ball games, gardeners join garden clubs, and the civic-minded are in Rotary, Kiwanis, or the Chamber of Commerce, religious people go to church. Their thinking is, if you don’t happen to be particularly religious, there is no particular reason to investigate church very rigorously.
3. An activity performed to please God – Some people who are interested in being religious and do want to please God have the impression that going to church with some degree of regularity will accomplish that objective. They appreciate the music, the sermon and the reverent atmosphere because it all makes them feel good. All they need to do is to spend an hour each Sunday morning and maybe put a few dollars in the offering plate and they have left God with a good impression of themselves. They leave the service with no more interaction with fellow parishioners than a casual hello, and they are “caught up” on religion for another seven days.
The church portrayed on the pages of the New Testament, on the other hand, was anything but a pleasant, religious activity. Controversy swirled around it as it confronted the culture of the day, and it eventually brought the Roman Empire to its knees.
4. An organization to which “good” people belong to get “better” – As a boy, one of my friends went to my church regularly. His parents would drop him off before Sunday school and pick him up after church. They never once attended themselves, and my friend told me that they made him go because they were concerned that he “get some moral training.” They had an intact family, but they wanted to rub a little religion onto Richard so he would have Christian moral standards.
This attitude reflects the thinking of many Americans. “If I belong to a church, I will become a better person, maybe even good enough to get to heaven when I die. God certainly won’t hold church membership against me!” That philosophy is somewhat akin to the idea of putting a roller skate in the garage in the hopes that in the morning it will become a brand new Lexus.
5. A cultural tradition in America because it was a Christian nation – Church as a cultural tradition is more prevalent in some parts of the United States than others. Where I live in the Northwest, there is little or no tradition of church attendance, while in the South, the Bible Belt, almost everyone goes to church, at least they did when I lived there. Unfortunately, it is often little more than a cultural practice and doesn’t indicate true interest in God Himself.
However, cultural Christianity does leave those who grow up in it with some tremendous advantages. First, the foundation of several generations of believers is a powerful force to hold children until they arrive at personal faith. Second, it is much easier to stand for one’s faith when others are at least not antagonistic to it. Finally, when whole cultures are transformed by the gospel, as was Western civilization by the Reformation, those who follow enjoy the fruits of the obedience of those who went before. Scientific advancement, social reform, political freedom, and economic prosperity are all results of cultural Christianity.
On the other hand, the danger of cultural tradition is always that the next generation will miss the life that brought morality and fruitfulness in the first place. To a great extent, this has happened in the South. For many, church has become a form without life. Still, when cultural Christians are exposed to genuine Christianity, the real disease, they often contract it very readily, just as I did in college.
6. An optional weekly activity – For years I believed church to be an optional weekly activity. I was eager to serve the Lord, and the only thing that really mattered to me was my individual, autonomous, relationship with Him. I had come to faith outside the organized church, and frankly, I couldn’t see what the church had to offer me. All the things I did that were associated with my Christianity–Bible study, prayer, obedience to God’s law, witnessing, and having fellowship with other believers–I had discovered outside the church.
I believed I was doing fine in my personal walk with the Lord, so, I figured, why bother with getting involved with the squabbles, gossip, backbiting and church politics?. Who needs it? I felt the church would really only hold me back from being in the real spiritual battle on God’s first team!
Another Christian to whom church becomes an optional activity is the one who has “invited Jesus into his heart,” walked an aisle, or been baptized, but without a genuine repentance from sin or even a recognition of his personal, desperate need for a savior. He has been told that he doesn’t have to give up anything or do anything to be a Christian. After all, “Wouldn’t you like to have eternal life?” So, they never face their personal sin, yet they become members of the church.
The third class of casual church attendee is the man or woman who, fearing vulnerability, shuns close personal involvement with others in the church. He fears that the inevitable conflicts that will arise will expose his sin, making it necessary for him to look at himself and his own imperfections. He would much rather be in control of his situation, getting to pick his friends and not having to deal with anyone to whom he isn’t naturally attracted. He can keep all his relationships shallow and never have to be faced with himself. He naturally gravitates toward a parachurch organization for fellowship, because he can choose one with an emphasis with which he is comfortable and familiar, thereby avoiding the full range of church life.
7. An obligation or a duty that a Christian must fulfill – Finally, there is the person who sees church as an obligation or duty. This is the “church is like medicine” Christian. He surely doesn’t want to be actively involved, but he knows he should, and so he is. He has a sense of duty that drives him. He knows that church is a part of biblical Christianity, but there is nothing exciting about his participation.
To this dear Christian, who may not even realize there is anything else, I want to sound a note of encouragement. Yes, God has much more for you in your church experience. Church should not be like a weekly dose of castor oil. It may involve learning new things, biblical things, which, at this point, may make you uncomfortable. It may involve doing things, biblical things, which you have never done before. But if you truly desire to come home to a genuinely meaningful church, do not give up. Keep on asking; keep on seeking; keep on knocking, and God will open the door for a vital experience with Him in His church.
This chapter has been an outline of Chapter 1 in my book, A Glorious Church: Attacking the Gates of Hell, available on my website. Due to supply problems and increased paper costs, any printing has become impossible for me. As a result, I am making all my books available immediately, as eBooks (pdf), completely free of charge. Order any of them as eBooks, with no payment, and I will email the book to you.