I was brought up in the Evangelical tradition to believe that Church attendance and being a Christian were synonymous. I could not imagine a scenario where anyone could truly call themselves a Christian and not regularly attend a church. And where I knew of people who did, I presumed that they were self-deceived. If people didn’t show up to Church, it was presumed that they were falling away from the Lord, and we would fervently pray that they would see the light and return to the safety of the flock.
There is no way you can be a Christian and not go to church!
Or so I thought.
Fast forward three decades, and I am now part of a growing cohort of Christians who have forsaken the institutionalized church without forsaking their belief in God. (My former self would be horrified!)
According to Barna — a Christian research organization — those who “love Jesus but not the church” now account for around 10% of the US population. Despite leaving the church, this group has maintained a robustly orthodox view of God. According to Barna, without exception, their beliefs about God are more orthodox than the general population, even rivaling their church-going counterparts.
Their faith consists of a mostly full acceptance of the fundamentals of the Christian faith, combined with a full rejection of the church. Now that makes for an interesting combination! And, it begs the question, “Why?” Why have these people walked away from Church without walking away from Christianity?
Another survey of over 4000 people conducted by Pew Research sheds some light on this phenomenon. Pew asked survey participants to state the reasons why they either do or do not attend religious services. The top reason respondents gave for not attending church was that “they practice their faith in other ways.”
This is something that, as a young Evangelical, I would have thought impossible. Now, I find it hardly surprising. In fact, I have arrived at the position that the church does not have a monopoly on the practice of Christian faith, and, in fact, it never did.
I have sat through innumerable church services where you would have to conclude that most people are… well… bored if you were to look around. I grew tired of these soulless meetings when the kind of faith I was really longing for was something much more vibrant and alive. It was almost as if, in a spiritual sense, the lights were on, but nobody was home. “Is God even here?” I would ponder.
Maybe he isn’t.
When God first left the Church
If God weren’t in church this Sunday, it wouldn’t be the first time. There is a part of the crucifixion story that is often overlooked. As Jesus breathed his final breath, the Bible records that a strange event occurred in the temple in Jerusalem, simultaneously:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split.
There are many things about the crucifixion story that are both interesting and compelling, but the tearing of the temple curtain was, perhaps, the most significant moment of that fateful day. Let me explain why.
The temple curtain was hung to demarcate the inner sanctum— where it was believed that the very presence of God dwelt — from common people. Its sole purpose was to keep God separate from the people, and the people separate from God. God was far too holy to be in the presence of ordinary people, and ordinary people far too sinful to be in the presence of God.
And so, the lengths people went to to keep God separate cannot be understated. This was not some flimsy curtain like the $3.99 ones you can buy at Walmart to hang in your shower. This was the mother of all curtains. The Bible records it as being 30 feet wide, 60 feet long, and requiring some 300 men to carry it in and hang it in place. It was not the kind of curtain that you could accidentally rip in passing.
What is more, nobody ever went behind the curtain apart from the High Priest and, even then, only once a year to make sacrifices on behalf of the people of God for the forgiveness of sin. Moreover, the temple priest who ventured into this sacred space would have a rope tied around his ankle apparently — just in case he was struck dead when he encountered the presence of God.
And yet, at the moment of Jesus’s death, the temple curtain rips, without the help of human hands, from top-to-bottom, exposing the world to all that lay behind its protective linen wall.
What does it mean?
This was the moment that the very presence of God broke out from its darkened corner of the earth — behind a wall that man had built. God didn’t live in the temple anymore! Like a roaring lion escaping from his enclosure at the zoo, God was suddenly on the loose! He had escaped from the building!
The symbolism is both powerful and clear. People now have unrestricted access to God. From that moment on, God could be approached by anyone, anywhere at any time — inside the church or outside the church. But, there was no longer a need for a priest to mediate, a wall to separate, and a sacrifice to appease. God could be approached freely!
And how terrible for the workers of the temple — the priest and teachers of the law — who suddenly found themselves out of work. “If God doesn’t need a building, then what are we to do?” they bemoaned!
Sewing up the Curtain
So, you can imagine some horrified priest walking into the temple that day and, upon finding the curtain torn in two, getting out his sewing kit and furiously stitching it back together — if that were even possible.
It might seem comical to imagine, but the reality is that the past two thousand years of church history have demonstrated time and time again that those who oversee the temple of God have, in a metaphorical sense, tried their darndest to put God back behind the veil.
To be fair, many church leaders don’t go about intentionally hanging ‘curtains’ that inhibit people from seeing an approaching God. It just kind of happens — as if it were human nature to construct barriers and lines to demarcate systems of belonging that define who is “in” and “out.” It kind of makes us feel special — like we are the people of God — and well others… they are poor lost souls who need our help. And that keeps preachers employed!
Call me cynical, but I don’t believe God went to all the trouble of sending his only son into the world to die for the purpose of tearing down the walls between humanity and the divine, only to have humanity build more walls. We ought to call these walls out for what they are: Man-made barriers that make difficult the easy access that God has ordained for us. Let’s take a look at some of the “temple curtains” that get in the way!
The barrier of performance-based religion
The barrier of performance-based religions says, “You can only come to God if you perform to a certain standard.”
The church loves to define who is “in” and who is “out” by an often unspoken set of behavioral expectations that include things like church attendance, not drinking or cursing too much, putting money in the offering plate, generally being a nice person, and not sinning too much (at least in public).
Performance-based religion demands that you pull yourself together and achieve a certain level of “goodness” before you can have access to God — requiring us to strive for that which Christ has already given freely — his favor, his presence, his love.
The barrier of semantics
The barrier of semantics says, “You can only come to God if you use the correct words.”
When I was a teenager, I was taught that to become a Christian required me to pray a certain set of words — more commonly known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” In it, I had to apologize for my sin, ask for forgiveness and then ask Jesus into my heart to be my personal Lord and savior.
Even though there is no such prayer in the Bible, it was implied that as long as I said these words, hey presto! I was suddenly a Christian! Transformation and growth were optional from that point because I had said the magic incantation. I realize now just how silly this kind of prayer was.
Christians really do get hung up on words. If you want to make a Christian upset, then use the wrong words. If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Catholic Priest Father Matthew Hood:
It all started in August 2020 when Father Hood, associate pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, was innocently watching a video of his own baptism from way back in the nineties and discovered, much to his horror, that instead of using the Catholic church’s ancient liturgical formula — “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” — the presiding priest unforgivably uttered, “We baptize you….”
Apparently, this innocuous slip-of-the-tongue was enough to rend Father Hood’s baptism invalid. Not only that, because the sacraments of confirmation and holy orders can only be conferred upon validly baptized Catholics, Father Hood was “devastated” to learn that not only was he not baptized or confirmed, but he also was not a validly-ordained priest. Therefore, the many others that Father Hood has gone on to baptize may have also received an invalid baptism, unleashing a chain of would-be Catholics who don’t even realize that God doesn’t recognize their baptism… apparently.
Do you think God is really concerned over one little word? Or, since he is God, does he know what we mean anyway? Maybe, our words are actually immaterial. Maybe God looks straight at the heart.
I have a friend who described to me that little voice inside that seems to guide him in the way he should go. He calls it “an awareness.” Others might call it “consciousness” or even “conscience.” I might call it The Holy Spirit. But in the end, it’s just words.
And if the heart is right, but the words are wrong, I don’t think that God cares so much! It’s just another curtain to be torn in two!
The barrier of sexuality
The barrier of sexuality says, “You can only come to God if you live and promote a heteronormative existence.”
Back in 2008, the Barna Group surveyed 16–29 year-olds, asking non-Christians about their perception of Christians. The study explored twenty specific images related to Christianity, including ten favorable and ten unfavorable perceptions. Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top ten perceptions were negative. For example, 87% of those surveyed said Christians were judgmental, 85% said Christians were hypocritical, and 78% said Christians were out-of-touch.
Above all, Barna discovered that the most common perception of Christians among non-believers was that Christians were anti-gay, with 91% of non-Christians saying they believe that Christians showed excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards homosexuals, and made homosexuality a bigger sin than anything else.
That was 13 years ago, and even though I am assured by many of my church-going friends that Christian churches are much more accepting of members of the LGBTIQ+ community, I have my doubts. Many churches these days may say, “We welcome members of the LGBTIQ+ community,” but when you get down to the details, you’ll find that they aren’t welcome to participate fully in the life of the church (in leadership positions, for example), and are treated as objects of suspicion and scorn, if not overtly, then just beneath a thin veneer of forced niceness and fake smiles.
In reality, if you really want to be allowed ‘behind the veil,’ you must promote and maintain a heteronormative position, even if it means faking it and suppressing who you really are.
The barrier of normalization
The barrier of normalization says, “You can only come to God if your life reflects normal, traditional, evangelical patterns and beliefs.”
This goes hand in glove with the previous point but is not only limited to matters of human sexuality. There seems to be a bunch of other social norms that “set Christians apart” from ordinary people.
For example, many Christian churches ascribe to a form of “benevolent patriarchy” commonly known as Complementarianism. This belief gives men authority over the wife and children and only allows men to be church leaders. Women are expected to submit unilaterally to men, fathers, husbands, pastors. While many churches who hold to this view do encourage men to sacrificially lead their wives, there is still a power differentiation where men are given the final say.
It is not uncommon in church circles for women to be discouraged from pursuing a career but rather committing themselves to the roles of wife and mother. You might call that sexist or misogynistic. However, some in the church would call it “normal.”
The barrier of blind faith
The barrier of blind faith says, “You can only come to God if you don’t question any of the fundamentals of the faith.”
Belief, in any system, is a social exercise. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Church. If you want to fit in, there are a bunch of so-called, not-negotiable “truths” that you must ascribe to — many of which require you to shelve your intellect and wander into the world of blind faith.
You will quickly find yourself frozen out if you begin to question certain things like Scripture’s inerrancy, for example. Don’t talk too loudly about how you support gay marriage. And mention that you do not believe in a literal seven-day creation narrative at your own peril. Anyone on the liberal end of the spectrum is treated as an object of suspicion.
When it comes to free-thinking, there is very little room to move in the evangelical church. People who hold to views that deviate from what is considered orthodox are most certainly shamed — both behind their backs on the gossip circuit and from the pulpit when the alarmed Pastor seeks to correct your wicked heresy before it takes root and leads others astray.
You can sense the concern in your well-meaning Christian friends when you express your doubts and difficult questions. Most of us care so much about belonging that we suppress and bury these uneasy feelings for the sake of fitting in. After all, we have seen what happens to people who refuse to conform: They always end up on the outside of the curtain.
The barrier of culture
The barrier of culture says, “You can only come to God if you adopt the values of white, western democracy.”
At some point in human history, certain people in positions of power mistakenly and disastrously came to believe that the goal of Christianity was the same as the goal of colonialism. As a result, a marriage occurred between Western democracy and Christianity, and there followed a determination to share (by force if necessary) the “blessings” of the apparently Christ-inspired civilization of the West with those more primitive cultures still under the oppression of Satan.
Sure, we may have moved on from hardcore colonialism, but its stench still lingers in the air around Western Christianity.
The barrier of politics
The barrier of politics says, “You can only come to God if you adopt and maintain a certain political position.”
This one has really come to the fore under the trainwreck that was the Trump presidency. It was a well-established fact that white, evangelical protestant Christians overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump and his presidency to the point where “Evangelical Christian” became a kind of synonym for “Trump Supporter.”
In my home country, Australia, I believe that the more progressive political parties often have ideas more aligned with the compassion and grace that Christianity is supposed to espouse, particularly in matters pertaining to welfare, foreign aid, equality, asylum seekers, and the environment. Yet, it is kind of an unwritten rule that Christians should vote for the conservatives.
Yes, I have had friends walk away from the church because they can’t reconcile why the church supports political parties that want to build economic wealth while turning away the refugee and oppressing the minority.
Time to separate Church and God
Some militantly argue for the separation of Church and state. Fair enough, too! I say we go one step further and separate Church and God.
God is not the church. The church is not God. In fact, the church has done such an incredible job of misrepresenting God in so many ways that I think the separation of Church and God could even lead to a renaissance in Christian belief and — ironically — help the Christian cause.
Because God tore the veil and made himself freely available to all. He proved once and for all time that he cannot be contained by walls or steepled roofs or held back by the liver-spotted hands of the so-called gate-keepers of the faith. He does not represent one political position, race, culture, or group more than any other.
You will no more find God in the church than you will in the gentle breeze as it caresses your face or the setting sun as it bathes the fields in gold, or the first mouthful of a delicious meal, or the laughter of delighted children, or the warm embrace of the one you love.
God left the church a long time ago and found his new temple inside the hearts of the humble and earnestly-seeking — regardless of their age, race, culture, gender, sexual preference, status, or class — and he goes with them wherever they are.
This post was previously published on Medium.
You Might Also Like These From The Good Men Project
|Compliments Men Want to Hear More Often||Relationships Aren’t Easy, But They’re Worth It||The One Thing Men Want More Than Sex||..A Man’s Kiss Tells You Everything|
Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.
Register New Account
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Shutterstock