Billy Sunday going to church quoteI wish I had more time to read the amazing, engrossing, and heart-felt blog posts from Christians struggling with what it means to “be the church” by expressing their frustration with “going to church.” I want to meet these people face-to-face and hear their stories and tell them that it’s OK to not “do church.” Take some time off. Be honest with yourself. Tell your pastor you’re taking some time off. Tell the people you’re close to “in church” (hopefully you have such people) you’re taking some time off from “doing church.” But give some time limits to your sabbatical and some expectations for self-discovery because if you don’t, you run the risk of losing one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave you: being the church, being the body of Christ on earth, which you cannot do alone. And please, PLEASE, for the love of God and God’s church, when you’re done taking time off, tell a new story! Bloggers, please don’t leave your readers hanging at the end of your blog post feeling even more desperate about “church.” Keep us updated on your sabbatical.

There are two recurrent themes in the experience of those who struggle: 1) desire for individual / personal experience of God and how 2) the trappings of “doing church” prevent or seriously disrupt #1.

And so, with this preamble, I would like to introduce to you a heartfelt blog post by Kathy Khang. Here are a couple of sentences from the end of her post:

Meeting God in the presence of a larger community at Church continues to elude me these days. I’m a raging extrovert yet I find myself cringing at the invitation to ‘turn to your neighbors and pass the peace’ because my neighbors in the pews are strangers to me.

Ouch. I think a lot of people feel the same feelings as Kathy about “doing” or “going” to “church.” I felt compelled to comment:

Kathy, thank you for your honest sharing.

The dislocation from “church” you express is real and painful for you and for many other people who feel the same way. You ask, “What are they connecting with? What have I forgotten that they have remembered? What am I missing? And can that only be found in church?”

Good questions.

What do individuals connect with “in church?” Only each individual can answer that question.

What have you forgotten? You probably have not forgotten anything … and that may be part of the reason for your dislocation from “church.” Maybe a more searching question would be the inverse: “What am I holding on to about ‘church’ from my past that doesn’t exist anymore?”

What are you missing? [see below]

And can that only be found in church?

Forgive me for conflating your post with the sharing of so many others, but I have read and heard face-to-face painful expressions like yours so many times that it’s becoming increasingly frustrating as a pastor to listen (and, hopefully, provide care) when there is a very elemental confusion at the heart of your dilemma.

You began by writing, “I skipped church.” I know this may sound like mere parsing of words, but as you know, you are the church, so it’s impossible for you to “skip church.” Your use of the word “church” when you really mean “institutions,” “worship services,” “programs,” “corporate prayer,” etc. contributes to your mutual alienation from the “church,” in the way you use the word, i.e. as a local body of believers in and followers of Christ gathering together for worship, service, mutual edification, etc.

So, I suggest to you and to all others who feel this way, find the two or three or four people in a local “church” with whom you can be authentic and can share openly, and if you can’t find those few people to be your companions on the journey, then move on. Once a small group grows beyond 8-12 people the social dynamics change and become less conducive to authenticity, honesty, and sharing. But please, PLEASE, do not grow too comfortable with solitary “finding God” in doing the laundry.

What am I holding on to about ‘church’ from my past that doesn’t exist anymore?

And now let us return to the Billy Sunday quote: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” To our ears, in our time, if we strip the quote from the context of Billy Sunday as a great evangelical, revivalist preacher, we may understand this quote to mean, “Going to church [the building, the worship service, the programs, i.e. the institution] is not an essential part of being a Christian.” That would be to wrongly impose the contemporary “spiritual but not religious” maxim: I don’t need to “go to church” to love God and to be a Christian.

Billy Sunday meant something very different, however. The word “Christian,” back in his day, was synonymous with living a “moral” and “ethical” life, as in the phrase, “Christian values,” which we still hear today. In other words, Billy Sunday was saying, “Going to church doesn’t make you a morally upright person.” That’s one part of what he meant. The other part, of course, had to do with salvation. “Going to church” doesn’t save your soul. Jesus Christ saves your soul.

So, yes, “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian,” but “being the church” is synonymous with “being a Christian.” That has always been the case and will always be the case. Being part of a local body of believers, as messy as it can be, is integral to the Christian life. If you’re feeling dislocated, then talk to someone about it, including pastors. Pastors will not judge you for feeling this way. Any pastor worth their salt feels this way, too, from time to time! Let’s struggle together and build a better, more caring, and more authentic church community!


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