I’ll admit it.
I felt so guilty when a friend at work asked me if I went to church, and I said, “No!” even though it was the truth.
Why did I feel guilty? Well, it’s because growing up in the church, I was told that saying you “didn’t go to church” was akin to denying your faith — kind of like Peter denying Jesus before the rooster crowed.
Being a Christian and going to church went hand in glove. You couldn’t have one without the other, or at least that was the common perception.
However, a new study from Lifeway Research has shown that times are changing… and they’re changing at a rapid pace. In fact, most Americans now believe that worshipping alone or with family is a valid replacement for attending church.
What’s even more shocking is that over half of evangelicals (54%) also believe that worshipping alone is a valid expression of worship — up from 39% just two years ago. No doubt, COVID-19 has influenced these results, given that for many, attending church in person wasn’t even an option for much of 2020. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a statement. “When in-person church attendance behaviors were interrupted, and habits were broken, it affected some Americans’ beliefs about the need to gather with other believers to worship.”
However, I have to say… as a person who grew up in a time when church attendance was not optional for Christian, I am shocked by the result. Check out the graph:
The study also found that over half of Americans don’t believe Christians are obligated to join a local church, compared to 36% who contend that every Christian must fulfill this obligation.
Is worshipping alone okay?
As a modern-day church refugee who grew up going to church every week, twice a week, for the first 38 years of my life, sometimes I feel like I should get out my Sunday best, dust off my hymnal, and head down to the local chapel for old time’s sake, or perhaps to appease some lingering sense of internal guilt that tells me I am destined for the bowels of Hell — a belief that, ironically enough, I picked up from my involvement in Church in the first place.
My problem is not with Jesus. So far as I am concerned, he is history’s preeminent teacher of love, grace, and compassion and worthy of being followed. Rather, my problem is with the institution of the church.
Which left me with a conundrum.
How do I follow Jesus now that I don’t go to church? And is it okay to “do church” alone at home?
I think the answer is yes, and no. Let me explain.
You don’t need to go to church
On the one hand, worship was never intended to be confined to the walls of a particular building on a particular day of the week. Nor does worship merely consist of hymn singing, praying, and Bible reading. In a sense, the church has done a pretty good job of creating and perpetuating a narrow view of worship, but I love the idea that worship is something that occurs organically and spontaneously as we move about our day-to-day lives.
These days I define worship more as the art of noticing. If we pay attention, our days are punctuated by reasons to notice God’s presence and goodness all around us. I feel the presence of God in the gentle breeze as it brushes past my face, and I am thankful. I notice him in the laughter of my children, and I smiled inwardly and outwardly as an act of praise. I experience the first mouthful of a delicious meal, and I feast with delight on the goodness of God. I hear his story in the stories of other people, and I see him at work in both the joy and the heartache.
I notice him right now as I sit in the dim light of my study in the cool of the evening, sipping on whiskey and writing this blog post. Silence and stillness are his native tongue, and I speak that language to him as much as he speaks it to me.
This noticing is only possible when we can quieten our minds enough to appreciate the “now.” The mind likes to race ahead to all the things that we might have on our plate tomorrow, or lag behind in what happened yesterday. However, when our minds are always in the future, it only leads to anxiety and worry, and when our minds are constantly in the past, bitterness, regret, and a longing for what once was become our companions. But God is in the now. The presence is only found in the present. There’s a good reason why God calls himself “I am,” not “I was,” or “I will be one day.”
So, can I worship alone?
You do need to do church
On the other hand, Christianity has always been and always will be a communal religion. Jesus Christ — and much of the Bible, in fact — seems to assume that Christians will be part of a faith community of some kind. And so, you can’t do Christianity alone — not completely. It is good to meet together with other believers for mutual encouragement.
As for the form that a meeting takes, I think the sky is the limit. Once again, the church has given us a narrow view of what it means to meet with other Christians. Occasionally I bump into an evangelical “friend” from my former life. Inevitably, they ask in sympathetic tones, “When are you coming back to church?”
“Ah,” I say, “My church comes to me, now!”
These days, I gather with other Christians — and non-Christians, for that matter — around a fire in my backyard. We sit in a circle and enjoy the warmth as we sip on cool beers and talk about life, God, and the universe. We love good music, poetry, and art. We love sharing real-life stories. We believe that God is worshiped in all things that are excellent, beautiful, and life-giving.
Then, there is my online church. Yes, I am part of an online church for church refugees just like me. It’s full of beautiful people who wear their doubts and fears on their sleeves and share in honesty and truth. It’s a safe space for people like me, who are recovering evangelicals. We also have ex-Catholics, agnostics, and some people who have no idea what they don’t believe. They all belong.
There are many more ways to do church than sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning. If that works for you, great. If that no longer works for you, find an alternative expression of “gathering with other Christians” or create your own. I suspect God adores the creative expression of gathering.
The last word…
Here’s the thing about God.
He pays scant regard to our attempts to organize religion into buildings, onto pulpits, and into Sunday-morning schedules. These things may or may not be helpful, but either way, they are merely signposts that point to the greater truth that lies beyond.
God doesn’t just dwell in buildings but in all things — even in the human heart. And worship occurs whenever someone notices that fact.
You can do that alone.
You can do that with others.
Porque no los dos?
This post was previously published on Backyard Church.
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