Do Christians Need To Go To Church?
In spite of a growing body of evidence pointing to rampant church and spiritual abuse, many still advocate for the importance of churches. But is attending church really necessary?
Recently, I opened an email and found this article written by Chris Gehrz and recommended by Dr. Beth Allison Barr. As an admirer or Dr. Barr’s work, I clicked through and read it. At first, it seemed to be one more article advocating for the necessity of church attendance. Although his ultimate conclusion turned out to not be what it seemed throughout the article, I could feel my rage building as I read it.
I have spent a great deal of time on Twitter in the last few months, and am well aware of the arrogant views that white conservative “Christian” men hold in regards to the LQBTQIA+ community and on women speaking in the church. The reason I’m so well aware of them, of course, is that these men literally never let a day go by without sending out an armada of Tweets reaffirming their views to their “audience,” which is mostly just each other.
As church attendance continues to decline in America, those still faithfully attending continue to assert that going to church is an important part of the Christian faith. In fact, in spite of growing evidence of rampant spiritual abuse in white Evangelical churches, even many of those who have been abused continue to search for a non-abusive or possibly even just a less abusive church.
What the Bible actually tells us, however, is to go out into the world and “preach the gospel.” It never once tells us to “bring our friends to church” the way white Evangelical churches do. In fact, churches are literally dependent on members bringing in new people in order to even have anyone to “Evangelize” in the first place. And if the only qualification for becoming a Christian is to “accept Jesus as your Savior”, then why do we need to keep going to church?
The truth is, the gospel is pretty simple. When I was in junior high, we used to go to the local mall and “witness” to people. We were taught a methodology by which we could explain the gospel in just around 5 minutes or less. Quite a few people were actually willing to give us that amount of time and I even “led several people to Christ.” So if it’s just that simple, why do we need to build giant multi-million dollar buildings and hire large staffs of people to provide a place for people to “go to church” every week and, even more alarming, several times a week in many cases?
The Bible actually tells us that once people “know Jesus” in some form or fashion, the Holy Spirit “indwells in us” (John 14;17) and becomes our guide. We literally do not need someone telling us every week what God wants from us or wants us to do because we all have our own inner “navigation system” that can help us make decisions and choices that are right for us in real time. This means that having that external voice telling us what to do can actually hinder our ability to learn to listen to that “inner voice” that speaks to us specifically.
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Men like to believe that not only are the answers the same for everyone, but that one man is qualified to tell everyone else what those answers are. Even worse is that they genuinely seem to believe that just because they read their Bible and can use the Bible to back up their answers, that makes them right. The truth is, what is right or wrong for each of us is going to change in different situations.
Not every decision presents a moral issue. Deciding whether to take a promotion is rarely a moral issue but your decision will have a very strong impact on your life. While the Holy Spirit. or that “inner voice,” can help us make every decision, religious leaders can usually only help you make the ones that represent some kind of moral quandary.
What is increasingly problematic, however, is that religious leaders can realistically only help guide you in situations that don’t affect them in any way. More and more frequently the moral issues people face have to do with things actually happening in their own churches. So how can church leaders guide you in making wise decisions when they are often the ones creating the moral quandary in the first place? When your decision will have an impact on them, it’s safe to say they are not the best source of wisdom or advice.
So, after posting a Tweet showing the decline in church attendance in America, Gehrz asks:
Why be religious, not just spiritual? Or, to put more of a point on it: why do we need the church?
Like almost every man and woman who has written on this topic, however, he overlooks something critically important.
The Church is not a building.
*A* church is a building. *The* Church is a group of people, a body of believers - and they do not all call themselves Christians. In fact, just calling yourself a Christian means nothing. Anyone can call themselves a Christian but it has nothing to do with your actual beliefs, nor does it in any way make you “like Jesus” as the name implies. Jesus said you will know his followers by their fruit, not by the name that they call themselves. So the real question is, why do we need to meet in little groups in specific buildings designated for such purposes on specific days of the week?
Gerhz wrote a “spiritual biography” of Charles Lindbergh, in which he wrote:
…seemingly out of nowhere, [he] discovered a midlife curiosity about spirituality and metaphysics… and didn’t satisfy it within Christianity or any other organized religion. If he could find truth and meaning in travel, nature, science, art, conversation, and his own idiosyncratic readings of Jesus, Lao Tzu, Plato, and Gandhi, why should he have paid more than his occasional visits to churches and temples?
Why indeed? And that is the question, isn’t it? If we can find God in nature, philosophy, art and even science, why do we need to go to a certain building on a certain day to listen to someone tell us what they think God wants from us? Isn’t the whole point of “Christianity” to have a personal relationship with God? While it can certainly be argued that many marriages have been enhanced by seeing a therapist, how well do you think a marriage would work if a husband were constantly seeking someone else’s guidance about how to relate to his wife rather than just talking to his wife? That is essentially what happens in churches. Instead of simply seeking God’s wisdom on our own, we have been taught we have to go listen to a “professional” who will tell us what to do.
Gerhz goes on to state:
“flying solo” spiritually has its own set of dangers, different from but no less serious than those that typically present in organized religion.”
And then shares this quote from his book:
While his “spiritual but not religious” journey left him free from the hypocrisies of institutional Christianity, it also left him free to ignore whatever teachings of Christ he found inconvenient. Grace, humility, and unqualified love of neighbor simply did not fit within a worldview that took racial difference for granted and turned racial competition into a divine imperative. Having made God in his own image, Charles Lindbergh saw no image of God in people who didn’t resemble him.
What is dangerous about this assertion is that it implies that people who attend church are somehow less likely to pick and choose which parts of the Bible they follow or to remake God in their own image. I would assert, based on the highly prolific Tweeting by a large number of white pastors on Twitter, that this is not only untrue of your average churchgoer, it’s not even true of pastors. In fact, it’s not even that they simply pick and choose which parts of the Bible they pay attention to, but they actually weaponize it. Which is not something your average non-churchgoer has much of an opportunity to do.
I addition, I think it is very fair to say that going to church has not in any way helped most church-goers to avoid developing a “worldview that took racial difference for granted and turned racial competition into a divine imperative.” In fact, I think we are seeing the deep connection between white Evangelicalism and White Supremacy playing out very publicly on a national stage. So the idea that going to church somehow helps curb notions of White Supremacy rather than fostering them would appear to be patently false. In fact, I think a strong argument could be made that those outside of white churches are doing a far better job of combatting White Supremacy than those in it.
If I can invert what I wrote next, I’d warn that while a faith like mine cannot guarantee that its adherents will love their neighbors or seek justice for them, a religionless spirituality provides no inherent defense against bigotry. In fact, seeking the spiritual apart from religion can easily lead mere mortals to double down on their worst instincts and ugliest biases.
Although this article did not end as I expected it to, that doesn’t mean there weren’t still a number of concerning assertions in it. One is that he seems to hold himself up to be some kind of model of virtue here, implying that he not only loves his neighbors but seeks justice for them and that his “faith” (not his religion) offers some kind of defense against bigotry. So he apparently believes himself to be capable of being “righteous” on the basis of his faith alone, yet everyone else apparently needs religion in order to “walk the straight and narrow.”
He goes on to say:
I don’t mean to affirm the value of religious authority alone: we Christians know better than Lindbergh how easily such power can be exploited and its abuses covered up. But the solution to that problem isn’t to make any individual’s fallible judgment reign supreme, or to hesitate to proclaim a gospel that challenges as often as it reassures. One strange value of religion is that it sometimes teaches the spiritual that they’re just wrong.
Another red flag here is his use of the term “we Christians” - which automatically implies an “us” and a “them” or an “in group” and an “out group.” It also asserts that he is a Christian, while Lindbergh was not, although Jesus said you would know his followers by their fruit not the name they call themselves. In addition, like most Christians, he seems to confuse going to church with being a “Christian,” which is also confusing Christianity (a religion) with being a follower of Jesus. Jesus was not a Christian and we were never called to be Christians. Just because you self-identify as a Christian also doesn’t actually make you a follower of Jesus.
Even more problematic, however is that he asserts that “his group” knows far better than Lindbergh how easily power can be exploited and abuses covered up. As an intelligent man and an activist, however, I would assert that Lindbergh was perhaps all-too-aware of how easily power can be exploited and abuses covered up in churches, which might be why he (like so many others) avoided them. Based on how shocked most Baptists seemed to be by the Guidepost report, it would also seem that people in the church are far more ignorant to how easily power can be exploited and abuses covered up than those outside the church.
It’s interesting that he claims “the solution to that problem isn’t to make any individual’s fallible judgment reign supreme…” when isn’t that exactly what churches do with pastors? Is that not exactly how the Mark Driscolls and Brian Houstons and Ravi Zachariases of this world just go right on abusing people for years? Isn’t that exactly why the abuses of almost 700 sexual predators were covered up for more than 20 years in the SBC? Because we platform pastors so high that we consider their judgement to be infallible, which allows them to reign supreme in “their” churehes.
He also asserts that “[the gospel] challenges as often as it reassures,” but if that were the case, wouldn’t there be significantly less abuse in churches than in businesses or in the world at large? The “gospel” (or at least the one it seems is preached in churches) doesn’t seem to be challenging White Supremacists, misogynists or sexual predators, so who is it challenging exactly? It seems to me that churches and religion provide exactly the opposite. The means for evil-doers to avoid having to face their evil deeds by offsetting them with good deeds they can point to instead, like church participation and financial giving.
In fact, in the movie The Godfather, where was crime boss Micheal Corleone while his rivals were being murdered at his command? Oh, well he was in church of course, attending the baptism of his tender infant son like any good church-going man.
Gerhz also claims that “One strange value of religion is that it sometimes teaches the spiritual that they’re just wrong,” but who is he to say they are wrong? Who is anyone to say that the “spiritual” are wrong? The White Supremacists, the misogynists or the sexual predators? When White Supremacy, misogyny and sexual abuse seem to thrive in religious environments, it doesn’t give the religious elite very high ground on which to claim superiority over those who are simply “spiritual.”
From there Gerhz turns his attention from Charles Lindbergh to his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. He states:
While her husband had virtually no religious background, Anne Morrow Lindbergh grew up in a devoutly Presbyterian home that practiced weekly worship and daily devotions and inculcated liberal Protestant values of lifelong education, public service, and social reform. The influence of that upbringing never went away, and Anne continued to attend church periodically and (more regularly) read Christian literature (C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot) and listen to Christian music (J.S. Bach). But her own spiritual but not religious journey led her to redefine grace — not the work of God, but “inner harmony… which can be translated into outward harmony” — and to nourish it by reading poetry and meditating on the beach. Church attendance, she wrote in her most popular book, remained “a great centering force… more needed than before,” but religious practice alone was insufficient to provide the holistic harmony she sought in the middle of modern distraction.
Clearly both Anne and Charles seem to have found a faith that works for them, one which includes church attendance for one but not the other. Gerzh then quotes Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, which says:
… I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified me and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church day after day he fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life.
And there it is. It is not a pastor that we need to lead or guide us through the dark of night but the Holy Spirit. It is not a pastor that we need to help us interpret God’s will for our lives but the Holy Spirit.
If churches truly existed to simply meet the spiritual needs of the community, then members of the community would be free to come and go as they needed. Instead, churches have to almost demand participation (and giving) in order to meet the financial needs of the staff and the building. When congregations grow too small to generously support a pastor and staff, they instead demand that pastors and staff work for pitifully small salaries - all so that they can keep their own community separate from all others.
Growth really isn’t so much about expanding the Kingdom as it is keeping the coffers full to pay for the staff and building. God intended tithes and offerings to be used to care for the poor and needy but in most churches, 75% of the monies collected goes to paying a staff and maintaining a building while only a paltry 21% goes to what the entire thing is intended for: missions and programs for the poor.
As I mentioned, the end of Gerzh’s article threw me for a loop because he was not heading where I thought he was heading. So I will end with his conclusion, which actually turned out to be a good one.
I’m asking a more practical version of the question… that’s being asked… by an increasingly post-Christian world that doesn’t assume the necessity or propriety of religion or the rightness of its truth-claims, but observes and evaluates the visible fruit of such belief, behavior, and belonging.
And what do they see? A church full of Christians whose lives are marked by works of the flesh like anger, enmity, jealousy, impurity, and idolatry of power and wealth. By contrast, how can the world look at people as admirable as Anne Morrow Lindbergh and not conclude that spirituality is more healthy when disentangled from religion?
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