[This series of posts, which are to be columns I submit to the Community Press newspapers, for whom I've been writing since 1996, are heartfelt letters to non-churchgoing people. My hope is that whether people are active participants in the lives of local congregations, only occasionally worshipers, Christian skeptics, or atheists, all will find them useful.]
Since you and I may never meet personally, I've decided to send a few letters to you about why so many people choose to be part of the church. And why you might want to make the same choice.
If we did actually talk together, our conversation wouldn't be as one-sided as these letters are. I could ask you questions and listen to your story. But at least for now, that option isn't open to us.
Nonetheless, I do think I have some understanding of why you might not be part of a church. For more than a decade of my life, I considered myself to be an atheist. I had little use for churches or Christians.
Most non-churchgoing people aren't atheists, of course. They just don't see the need for being part of a church. This leads me to the most common reason I hear non-churchgoing friends give for not participating in a church. They say, “I can be as good a Christian without the Church as I can be with it.”
If you you said this to me, there are two main things I might say in response.
The first thing is that being Christian isn’t about being good.
Don't misunderstand me. God does care about whether we treat others well and that we not violate His will. But good morals aren't the object of the Christian life. Better morality is a byproduct of a strong relationship with God. (Although no Christian will ever be morally faultless this side of the grave. I'm speaking from personal experience here. More on that in a future letter.)
Being a Christian is really about having a relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ. That relationship begins when we acknowledge our moral deficiencies, asking God to help us to turn away from sin and to surrender our whole lives to Christ. Turning away from sin is what the Bible calls repentance. Surrendering to Christ is what it calls faith. When we repent and believe in Christ, God sends His Holy Spirit to initiate a makeover of our souls. He also intends for us to be part of a church where we can be supported in living our faith and support others in living theirs.
That leads to the second thing I might say if you told me that you can be as good a Christian without the church as you can be with it.
I would tell you that it may be theoretically possible to maintain a vital relationship with God outside of the fellowship of the church. But only theoretically.
Two-thousand years of church history suggest that no one is likely to remain a faithful Christian without a connection to the living organism of the church, which the Bible calls "the body of Christ."
"What about Bono, lead singer of the rock band, U2?" you might ask. "Isn't he a Christian who doesn't belong to a church?"
Bono, who is one of my heroes, is often described as a nonchurchgoing Christian. And it's true that he doesn't belong to a congregation. But Bono is networked with the church. Much of his work on debt relief and AIDS-eradication in Africa is done with the cooperation of the church. Bono is more connected to the church than even he might realize.
Asserting that we can be Christian without the church is sort of like saying, "I don't need to regularly eat food or drink water to live." Those who forego food and water will die. Without the fellowship of the Church, our faith dies.
Tell me what you think.