How Important Is It to “Go to Church”?

How Important Is It to “Go to Church”?

Reflections on the idea of sustained Christian fellowship

This essay addresses primarily those Christians who don’t “go to church” because they can’t find a fellowship that seems less moribund than an ailing sloth, and/or they have a lifestyle that doesn’t permit regular attendance at worship services, and/or they believe in Jesus but just don’t have any desire to attend worship services.

(Let me state at the beginning that I do not like the phrase “go to church,” because of course the church is people and not a building or even a particular gathering, and I avoid using that phrase whenever possible.)

The Problem

I know a number of people who have relatively deep trust in Jesus Christ but who rarely bother to “go to church.” The reasons vary. Some, working in the entertainment or hospitality or health industry, have heavy work commitments until very late on Saturday nights or even on Sunday mornings. Some, having discovered to their joy that God is very much alive and that he is not interested in torturing his creatures in fiery pits for eternity, have given up trying to find a group of Christians who either (1) don’t deny the reality of the risen Christ (typically the more “liberal” mainline churches), or on the other hand who (2) don’t promulgate pernicious, unbiblical ideas that God is more interested in roasting people than in having deep, joyful fellowship with them. Others, after being consistently cold-shouldered at churches into which they might not closely mesh in socioeconomic terms, decide they can have more lifegiving fellowship sharing a beer with friends at a neighborhood bar than trying to break into an established, cliquish Christian fellowship.

Visiting a new Christian church or fellowship sometimes leaves you wondering why people are there in the first place, since they don’t really appear to believe God is alive and active in this world; or it can leave you shuddering with distaste at the “Christian smiles” people flash at you and their quick attempts to ascertain whether you’re “one of us” (meaning people who won’t be roasted eternally) or whether you’re in need of “being saved” (i.e., you’re a potential roastee); or you might notice that most of the people appear to rush away from the meeting as soon as it is dismissed, clearly displaying no desire to experience that fellowship for which the church originally was intended.

Or you might simply be ignored.

The Answer Doesn’t Come From Following Rules

For centuries, church leaders have loved to quote Hebrews 10:24-25 as a “proof text” that demonstrates our moral/legal obligation before God to attend church services:

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Although this is a pretty straightforward statement, I can’t bind it on anyone by saying, “This proves you have to go to church services in order to be pleasing to God.” That’s because (a) it is advice an unknown author wrote to unknown recipients (not to us) in a particular historical context a couple of millennia ago; (b) the biblical writings are not a rule book; (3) and anyway, we do not remain in God’s good graces by following certain practices that happen to accord with rules or laws against which he checks our behavior. We remain in God’s good graces, rather, merely by existing (cf. Romans 5:6-18)—he loves us, he gave his son to die for us, and he longs for fellowship with us. God doesn’t compare our behavior against a list of rules in order to decide whether we’re acceptable. Romans 4:6-8 makes that clear: The Greek verb in verse 8 is like a bookkeeping term, and the basic idea is that there isn’t any black book in which God records our sins!

To anyone who would legalistically apply Hebrews 10:24-25 to contemporary Christians, saying that we must obey this command in order to be pleasing to God, I would suggest that, to be consistent, they also should legalistically adhere to another statement in Hebrews (verse 13:5):  Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” That is wonderful advice, but I imagine many Christians would be highly offended if I insisted that they strictly adhere to that command—doing so would mean they could rarely if ever buy a bigger, nicer house; or a new (or even relatively new) car; or possibly even new clothes! It’s no fair selecting certain passages in scripture as Rules To Be Strictly Followed unless you’re going to apply that principle consistently. And should anyone reply (correctly, I believe) that one must interpret Hebrews 13:5 rather than taking it strictly literally, I would respond that we also must do that to Hebrews 10:24-25.

I again state a general principle: The Bible is not a rule book. And even in those parts that explicitly promulgate rules (e.g., the ten commandments), said rules are not arbitrary items that God foisted on human beings in order to test their willingness to toe the proper religious line. God’s commands, rather, define the kind of behavior that gives life. He didn’t tell Israelites not to commit adultery because he arbitrarily decided that such actions would piss him off; rather, he told them to avoid adultery because he knows it leads to pain and sorrow and death.

The writer of Hebrews, then, wasn’t creating a new rule to which all followers of Jesus must forever adhere—i.e., “Thou shalt attend worship services every Sunday morning (and Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings if you’re in one of those kinds of churches).” Rather, he or she was giving useful advice to people who, two thousand years ago, were facing persecution for their beliefs. And I believe that, although the writer wasn’t addressing us, we will do well to consider the wisdom of such counsel.

Useful Advice

In seeking Christian fellowship—no matter how insipid or tradition-bound—you are likely to find four avenues that bring Life to you. The first is simply that occasional draught of the Spirit that comes through others as you commit yourself to becoming part of their lives. The second is God’s special presence in worship. The third is the possibility that, even among these broken vessels that appear to hold so little aqua vitae, you will find one or two who will surprise you with their roles in ministering Life to you. The fourth is the opportunity to focus outside yourself in order to serve the needs of others, as you were created to do.

Just being there can bring Life—at least in small measure

I sympathize with people who intentionally are not active within a Christian fellowship. Often there isn’t a lot of life within those who claim to be God’s people. Many churches and fellowships proffer religion rather than the reality of Jesus’ presence. (By any reasonable definition that takes both God and scripture seriously, all religion is destructive, including the Christian religion. Biblical spirituality is all about direct relationship with God, accepting what he has done; religion, on the other hand, focuses on what we do—it defines inevitably vain attempts on the part of human beings to be acceptable to God.) On more than one occasion I have met total strangers and have known that they were evangelical Christian pastors before they even opened their mouths. I don’t mean that in a good way. Many people—and professional ministers are often the worst offenders—wear a distinct persona of religiosity that has nothing to do with the genuine presence of the Holy Spirit. And if you encounter an entire church that exudes such a persona, it can be stifling. On the other side of the socioreligious spectrum, many churches appear devoid of even an attempt to manifest the presence of Jesus—largely because they don’t really believe he rose from the dead, and therefore they have a hard time coming up with genuine reasons to follow him (other than that he was a great moral teacher, etc., etc.).

So what are you to do?

It’s tempting to forget the whole thing: to maintain a private faith, to pray when you can, to read scripture, and basically to go about your life without any formal association with other Christians.

Ahhh, but let me tell you a secret: It doesn’t work!

It’s all a ruse.

You can’t do that and live (really live, abundantly), at least not for the long term.

Why? Because it’s not the way you were made. It’s not that God will punish you or withhold his blessings or presence because you’re not “following the rules.” It’s similar to what would happen if you decided to live on nothing but pepperoni pizza for the rest of your life. The decline in your physical health would be gradual but inexorable, leading eventually to death. It would not be a punishment from God, but would result rather from your disregarding principles of good physical health.

Trying to maintain authentic spiritual life without fitting into a spiritual family is generally no more successful to the spirit than living a totally solo, asocial life is successful in fostering emotional/mental health. We’re not put together in a way that permits solo living to foster abundant life, whether on the emotional or on the spiritual level. Even if you think you’re doing all right, it’s a near certainty that you aren’t in fact experiencing the kind of spiritual or even emotional abundance you would experience were you intimately connected with a Holy Spirit-perfused family that cares about you.

But there’s the problem, you might say: “I haven’t been able to find a group of Christians who seem to be anything other than confused, or socially distant, or horribly bound by disgusting, idolatrous beliefs about God.”

Well, yes, but does that mean God’s Spirit isn’t present in these people?

If you look at the broad sweep of Israel’s and Judah’s history in the Old Testament, you read largely about the unfaithfulness and idolatry and greediness of God’s people. Throughout Old Testament history, however, except for the time when Yahweh finally had had enough and indicated he was withdrawing his presence for awhile (see chapters 10-11 of Ezekiel; but then see Isaiah 40 ff., spoken two to three generations after the Ezekiel passage), God never failed to be present for and with his people. They may not have sought him, they may have ignored him, they may have profaned his name and his laws, they may have worshiped idols alongside their supposed devotion to Yahweh—but he was still present. In spite of their faithlessness, God wasn’t ashamed to claim them as his people. God isn’t nearly as eager as we are to distance himself from faithless people!

Similarly, even when followers of Jesus are selfish, foolish, uninformed, idolatrous, or even generally wicked, it’s rarely true that our Lord simply abandons us. You need not associate too long with a body of Christian believers before you begin to note that, in at least a few of them, there is a spark of Life that comes not from the individuals themselves but from the presence of the Holy Spirit. The people may be foolish, selfish, and idolatrous; they may be horribly ignorant about scripture or about the reality of resurrection life in Jesus. But they nevertheless permit a smidgen of Life to leak out of their spirits in a way that can permit that Life to touch you.

And those few droplets of Life, if you will, can make all the difference. Don’t fail to avail yourself of the presence of that Life.

In my more than half century as a follower of Jesus, during which time I have lived in seven states and experienced myriad kinds of Christian fellowship—house churches, small prayer groups, independent evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, and even formal membership in Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches (not to mention study at a Presbyterian seminary)—I have rarely thought to myself, “What a blessing it is to be in this fellowship! These are just the people I need to be around!” I prefer not to repeat the kinds of thoughts I have sometimes expressed, because they have not always been charitable. I have rarely been overjoyed at the fellowship God has provided.

*With few exceptions, I have not felt that I received obvious benefits from the overt ministries of others.

*In one church, my primary ministry was to pray during the sermon that the congregation would NOT understand the preacher’s message, because it was life-denying rather than life-giving.

*With one exception, I have never been permitted to use the gifts/callings the Holy Spirit has given me in any significant way.

*Many Christian people with whom I have become close friends remain woefully ignorant of scripture and appear to have little concept of even the rudimentary possibilities offered by life in the Holy Spirit.

*Many of our dearest, most precious friends continue to demonstrate the (absurd) belief that God’s will is largely equated with a particular extreme political viewpoint.

*Over the years, my spouse and I have become very close to several Christian believers who weren’t at all sure there is such thing as resurrection; to a person who expressed anxiety over virtually everything; to people who rejected the notion of my having any gifts to offer the fellowship we were in; to several individuals who, were we not vigilant in listening to the Spirit’s guidance, would quickly have sucked us dry either emotionally or financially; to a married couple who were so mismatched that he publicly embarrassed her every chance he could get, and she was sexually unfaithful to him; to a man who privately admitted using prostitutes that his employer (a church member!) provided as rewards for good work; to several people who, having grown up in legalistic Protestant sects, converted to Roman Catholicism and currently believe that, although my spouse and I are Christians, we are “separated” from the True Church; to people who don’t accept Catholics as being Christians; to a believer who refuses even to speak with her mother because of a slight she perceived many years ago; to parents of a sixteen-year-old teen who gave their child prior permission to have sexual intercourse in the safe confines of their home. That’s just a sampling.

It’s a zoo here in the midst of the people of God. But isn’t that what you would expect? Jesus came to call sinners!

Rather than complain about the lack of healing, wisdom, maturity, spirituality, etc., that I see around me (and I include myself in that assessment), I prefer to contemplate what these people, including myself, would be like without the presence of God’s Holy Spirit! If people (including me) are this screwed up with God, how catastrophic would everyone be without his presence?

How gracious God is! And he calls us also to be gracious.

I readily admit that some groups of Christians are so toxic that you should avoid them unless you are very strong and are called by the Spirit to be there. Without such a call, you would find yourself sucked dry rather quickly. But consider the possibility of your being able to sip at least a few drops of Life from what people offer in some other Christian fellowships.

Within most groups of Christians, whether churches, home fellowships, or extra-church organizations, you probably can find a bit of Life without trying too hard—as long as you approach with a gracious heart rather than with a critical spirit, willing to forgive as Jesus forgives and willing to accept whatever he chooses to give you from that particular group. It may not be what you’d like to receive. You probably would like to find a fellowship where dozens of strong, wise, with-it people will adore you and gush over your gifts and so pour out their love for you that you will be spun heavenward on a whirlwind of healing and joy. I sincerely hope you can find such a fellowship. It’s not likely. Instead, you’ll probably need to settle for one where, instead of weekly feasts, you’ll be able to obtain a nibble of nourishment from time to time. But even a nibble is better than nothing, as long as it’s not offset by aspects of the fellowship that are deadly. If that’s the case, by all means don’t stay. But absent a major life-sucking experience, you may do well to attach yourself in a committed way to a group of people who are trying to follow Jesus, even if they flounder horribly in their attempts.

Your very being is constructed such that you need that occasional quaff of Life that God’s Spirit can provide only through other believers. I refer not to something social or psychological, but rather to a supernatural phenomenon: the supernatural presence of the risen Lord, Jesus the Messiah, who dwells among those who seek him in a unique way that is missing everywhere else on this planet. In the late 1960s when we were first in graduate school, you couldn’t buy Dr. Pepper except in Texas and surrounding areas. It just wasn’t available anywhere else, including where we lived in Boston. Similarly, the life-building presence of the Holy Spirit is present in a special way only among those who seek Jesus. You won’t find that Presence anywhere else. You’ll find good people elsewhere (often better people, by many standards, than you’ll find in the church—cf. Matthew 9:13!), and fun people, even people who can help you grow emotionally and mentally; but you won’t find that special Life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit except among those who are indwelt by the Spirit because of their acceptance of Jesus as Lord. Seek a raging torrent of this Spirit if you can find it; but better a tiny trickle than nothing at all.

In large part, it’s something you should consider taking on faith. Just do it, trusting that God will bless you through Christian fellowship even when that fellowship is only vaguely Life-giving.


It is common, in discussing the power of worship for Christian assemblies, to quote Psalm 22:3:

You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

As usual, I want to disabuse you of any legalistic interpretation of this statement. It’s not a Rule or a Spiritual Law such that, if you want God’s presence, all you have to do is praise him, since praise automatically brings the presence of God in a unique way, etc., etc. No matter what some Christian teachers insist to the contrary, there isn’t such a Law. We’re not dealing with magic here—i.e., when you do A, B happens because the appropriate formula has been followed. Our God is not a God of magic. He’s a person, and he’s dynamic; we also are dynamic individuals, created in his image. All transactions between people and God are personal, not mechanical.

So, contrary to the claims of some who delight in describing Spiritual Rules for God’s behavior, it’s not the case that praise automatically makes God appear as if he’s a genie responding to the rubbing of a brass lamp.

Nevertheless there is poignant truth to the psalmist’s statement. God made human beings in large part so he could enjoy fellowship with creatures who are incredibly like himself. To use a vernacular term, God is a party animal. Just witness Jesus’ behavior during his biological life in Palestine—the very first miracle John described (John 2:1-11) was that, after the wedding guests were already tipsy, he provided the next round of wine! (Have you ever been to a Jewish wedding? They’re glorious and not necessarily sober affairs!)

The writer of Genesis was being quite deliberate when he wrote that, after the Rebellion, God came looking for the humans (Genesis 3:8-9). The people not only weren’t looking for him, they were hiding from him. It’s always God who seeks us, not the other way around. That’s what the Incarnation was all about. He loves us. He wants to be with us. Intimately.

And our taking the time and effort to say, “Hey, God, thank you! I love you! You’re wonderful!,” facilitates such interaction. It’s something you can do quite deliberately. A problem we all have in thinking of our interactions with God is that we “spiritualize” them, making them intellectually diaphanous, intangible, even sort of spooky. But that’s not what the Incarnation demonstrated. The Word became flesh, and he wanted to show us how tangible our relationship with him can be. By analogy, consider your relationship with a good friend. If that friend does something particularly nice for you, you can make a deliberate choice (a) to do nothing in response; (b) to offer a perfunctory “Thanks,” or (c) to respond with, “Wow! That is SO cool! Thank you! I love it! Thank you SO much! You were incredibly kind to do that!”

Imagine for a minute that your friend offers her gift at a time when you’re feeling especially bad—maybe just getting over a stomach virus, or perhaps having just been dumped by someone for whom you had deep feelings—so that that you don’t feel like saying anything more than “Umph!” no matter how kind and generous and gracious your friend’s gift is. But you probably will rise above your personal misery, grit your teeth, and force yourself to say something like, “Wow! That is SO cool! Thank you! I love it! Thank you SO much! You were incredibly kind to do that!”

You see, it’s a choice!

 And upon exercising your free will to express effusive thanks in spite of your feeling bad and grumpy, you will probably end up feeling slightly better than if you just went with your immediate feelings and said, “Umph.” That’s because, by intentionally choosing to respond with deep thanksgiving, you are giving in to a primordial tendency that God programmed into your being. It’s how you were created. Your very makeup as a human being includes an inherent sensitivity to graciousness that leads you to respond in kind. When you exercise that built-in tendency toward thanksgiving, even if it’s out of great effort and not immediately out of heartfelt joy (because you’re feeling grumpy), you will begin to feel a bit more joyful and less grumpy just for having said it. And you will be able to more tangibly enjoy God’s presence. It’s the way you were made.

Such expressions of thanksgiving are particularly powerful when made within the context of the larger body of Christ (vs. alone in your bedroom); if nothing else, making the effort to place your body in close proximity to those of other believers is one way by which you demonstrate that you genuinely mean it when you say Thank you.

Moreover, you’re not the only participant here. First, remember how much God adores you. Then remember that we’re made in his image: We often can feel tiny reflections of what God experiences by observing our own hearts (cf. I Corinthians 2:9-12). Now think about your own reactions if the actors in this scene were reversed: You do something extremely gracious for a friend, and your friend responds with “Umph!”  Or your friend gives a perfunctory “Thanks.” Or your friend responds with, “Wow! That is SO cool! Thank you! I love it! Thank you SO much! You were incredibly kind to do that!” And perhaps your friend even gives you a bear hug.

Which response would give you joy? Which responses would make you feel a bit sad?

Worship is our way to say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You have been unspeakably gracious to us, and we are eternally grateful. We love you! We adore you!” Even if we’re feeling a bit miserable and grumpy, and even if we’re not feeling thankful, we can still deliberately choose to act in that way. In no way is it hypocritical to do so, any more than it is hypocritical for me to express effusive thanks for your kindness when I don’t feel physically or emotionally up to such effusiveness. Making such a choice actually boosts our own levels of joy; and, according to what God has revealed about himself, in some way it increases his joy also.

And it draws you closer to him. That’s just the way you were made.

 Even from broken vessels. . .

If you grit your teeth and attach yourself to a Christian fellowship that at the very least does not appear inimical to your spiritual health, you may yet be pleasantly surprised.

*I have been blessed by prayers of busybodies whom I avoided when given a chance.

*I have received healing counsel from individuals who I knew had virtually no use for me or for my ministry.

*I have been served in highly significant ways by people who said I verged on being a heretic.

*I was once healed instantly from a severe, months-long illness after several people prayed for me—one of whom (unknown to the rest of us) at the time was having an affair with a young associate and shortly thereafter left his wife and teenage daughters.

*I have been embraced by, and have left my tears on the shoulders of, people with whom, given my personal/selfish/broken predilections of social intercourse, I would prefer not to associate.

*I have thoroughly enjoyed personal relationships with people whom I would never consider asking to babysit my children, because I knew of their disdain for and avoidance of their own children.

*I once was deeply blessed while being hosted for dinner at the home of a follower of Jesus (an interim preacher) whose theology was more Hindu than Christian.

*A close Christian friend once called me to task before our church’s pastor because I had dared to claim in public the “heresy” that sometimes things God wants to happen may not happen if we fail to pray.

*One of my dearest Christian friends loudly proclaimed his belief that rights to own guns were not much less important than trust in Jesus.

*One close Christian friend, who was bipolar and who was living with us for several months, expressed deep tendencies toward suicide; I got him to promise that, if he did kill himself, he would go somewhere else to do it rather than doing it in our house, to avoid traumatizing our five young children. (He’s fine now, and living a victorious life thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit.)

I assure you that, given the option ahead of time, I would not have chosen to associate intimately with many of these people. But God thought otherwise. And God is really smart! In the end, I loved them dearly (even those who didn’t think much of me). Life with him is never what we expect, and rarely what we would choose given complete freedom to design our own lives. But it’s dependably interesting!

The body of Christ is like that. As an absolutely terrible preacher said once in a large evangelical rally, “Even the Ark had a couple of skunks.” And do you know what? Even skunks, once you get to know them (and can get past the lingering smell), can be pretty adorable.

If you give God a chance to integrate you into a group of people who, like you, are imperfectly seeking to follow Jesus, you’ll be surprised how he will bless you through these people. And maybe he’ll bless them through you!

I imagine that our Lord Jesus, when he was beginning his earthly ministry and selecting disciples (with his Father’s advice), may have experienced twelve shocks, twelve sinking feelings of the sort, “No, Abba, what are you thinking?! Not another fisherman!” Or, “This guy is a guerilla in a futile insurrection against Rome! You can’t be serious?!” I have been closely associated with Christian fellowships whose members I never would have chosen, given my own social and intellectual standards; but after I had gotten to know these people (sometimes years later, I admit), I would look around the room and weep for love of them. I have little doubt that my trepidation regarding the associates God has given me pales in comparison with Jesus’ consternation as he contemplated the twelve apparent bozos that the Father had led him to choose as his closest disciples.

 The gift of giving

One reason to connect with a group of believers is that you are created with a need to give. If you’re not focusing outside of yourself by serving others, you’re not fulfilling one of the innate aspects of the human psyche. You were created in a way that you cannot be whole unless you are giving of yourself. It’s just the way you were made.

I make no legalistic claim that service to others must be in a conspicuously Christian context. God isn’t nearly as invested as we are in being certain that our good works give overt credit to him—he’s big enough that he doesn’t need the kudos. He’s more focused on the results. But being part of a Christian fellowship often makes it very easy to find a way to plug into a ministry that will allow you to give yourself to others. By doing so, you will become more whole and more joyful. And you’ll probably learn to be more gracious and forgiving as you rub shoulders with and learn to appreciate people who are probably not on your A-list of folks to invite out for a Friday-night beer.

A few individuals are so broken, so wounded, that they need simply to be loved. It would be inappropriate to expect them to give until they have done a lot of receiving. If you are one of those people, then you may be justified in ignoring much of what I have said in this section. Most people, however, even those who are quite wounded, will do well to stop focusing on themselves 100% of the time and to extend their focus to the needs of others. It’s the way we were made.


What, Then, Are You To Do?

It should be possible, except in the most severe circumstances, to find a group of believers into which you can become integrated. I know it can be extremely difficult to break into an existing social order, especially if, like me, you are shy. It won’t be easy. But if you will ask for God’s guidance and for his strength and wisdom, I have little doubt that he will show you an appropriate path. Although I have known many believers who do not “go to church,” I can’t think of anyone who—no matter how strongly they asserted that they just could not rearrange their schedule appropriately, or no matter how solid the claim that there simply weren’t any life-giving fellowships available—could not have found something acceptable by putting forth sufficient effort. The missing ingredient was not opportunity but motivation. I do not fault anyone, and I certainly do not condemn anyone, for lacking such motivation: This essay is an attempt to create that motivation within the hearts of spiritual loners.


A Last Resort

After expending a good deal of effort to describe the importance of becoming integrated into a Christian fellowship, however, I will now go against much of what I said earlier and give you an out. If you just cannot bring yourself at this time to commit yourself to a group of believers, here’s a compromise: At the very least, commit yourself to saying Thank You to your Lord in a meaningful way at least once a week by attending a worship service (vs. seeking to become integrated into a Christian fellowship). It’s certainly not the best approach, but it’s better to “go to church” and leave without talking to anyone than to deprive yourself of an opportunity to worship your Lord. After you’ve been in the habit for a few months, you will be glad you have done so (as long as you choose to avoid a critical spirit—that’s what typically torpedoes such efforts). It’s a legitimate and Life-giving way to say, “Thank you! Thank you! You have been unspeakably gracious to me, and I am eternally grateful.”



Postscript I—The advantages of liturgy

Here’s a practical suggestion arising out of my own predilections. It may not fit your needs, but I offer the following for your consideration: Services of any church within the Anglican/Episcopal worldwide communion generally provide about an hour and a half of very powerful worship. The prayers and the prescribed liturgy are highly spiritual—I would even say, for the most part, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The hymns are typically wonderful. You’ll hear more scripture readings than in any evangelical church. In my experience, the absolute worst outcome from attending an Anglican/Episcopal service is that you will experience about ninety minutes of sublime worship interrupted by perhaps twenty minutes of a horrible sermon. Not a bad ratio, especially given the likelihood of hearing a lifeless sermon at most other churches also. If the sermon is bad, you can always read the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer or even the hymnal instead of listening to the sermon. If the sermon is good, so much the better. But the worship will almost always be great. And you will be able to participate in the Eucharist (i.e., “take communion”), which can be an incredibly powerful source of Life.

If you decide to try this, but are not familiar with the liturgy, I strongly advise you not to try to follow the liturgy in the prayer book. You’ll end up confused and distracted. Don’t try to join the congregation in reciting prayers, liturgies, etc. Just listen attentively to the prayers and readings, stand when everyone else stands, kneel when they kneel, and quietly worship your Lord. (If you prefer to sit the whole time rather than standing/kneeling, that’s all right too. No one will condemn you for it.)


Postscript II—If You Are Single

In my observation, a disproportionate percentage of people who shun participation in Christian fellowship are single adults. I have heard an agonizingly large number of stories from individuals who have “tried out” churches, only to discover that single people are second-class citizens. Much of what happens in such groups is oriented toward couples or families, or toward young college-age adults. Single adults—say, from mid-twenties on up—are kept on the periphery. It’s not intentional, but it happens nevertheless. And it can be devastating.

If you’re single, that leaves you in a bind. If you’re fortunate, there may be an active fellowship that has a dynamic singles group. But even that situation turns off some people, since such groups can end up being dating clubs rather than fellowships of people who primarily seek the presence of Jesus. Sometimes your best opportunity is a church that doesn’t have an official singles group, but that still includes a decent number of single people. Or you may be most satisfied with an extra-church Christian organization that includes people who are devoted to Jesus.

At the risk of incurring wrathful rebuttals from readers who think I’m being too “worldly” here, I will say this: I see no legitimate reason why you should not choose a Christian fellowship based on its having available, attractive singles. I certainly would do that if I were in your position. It’s a balance. You want to seek Jesus above all else. He alone is worthy of your total devotion. But, in seeking him, it is not unreasonable to do so in the context of a fellowship where you are more likely to meet a person with whom you would be forever happy than if you were to seek Jesus in another context.

God is not a cruel taskmaster. He doesn’t expect you to surrender your rationality or your emotional needs in your spiritual journey. He delights in you and he wants your greatest happiness. He’s the one who invented romantic love!

If you’re not already part of a Christian fellowship, by all means admit to yourself and to God that, in addition to a renewed determination to seek his presence through fellowship (as described in this essay), you also would love to meet cool single people who love Jesus. That’s a legitimate motive. Don’t pretend that it’s not present, and don’t feel guilty that you have mixed motives in seeking greater Christian fellowship. In this case, mixed motives are fine. God knows your heart. He adores you. He’s on your side. Go for it!


Postscript III—You’re Still Not Convinced

If you’re not currently part of a Christian fellowship but the present discussion leaves you cold, that’s OK. If all you can do is mentally archive these ideas for future consideration, I commend you at least for doing that. The most important concept you should internalize at this point is that God doesn’t condemn you for failing to be in Christian fellowship. He doesn’t condemn you for anything. He loves you. I believe he would want you to be part of a group who can communicate his love to you, because he cares for you and wants your highest good. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything about your spiritual aloofness right now, my suggestion is that you explicitly confess your thoughts to God. Tell him what you’re feeling and thinking. Tell him that, at this point, you can’t stomach the idea of being part of a Christian fellowship. And give him permission to change your heart if he wants to do so.

About the only thing God absolutely requires of us is that we turn our faces toward him. As long as we’re looking at him face-to-face, all will (eventually) be well. You can tell him anything you want—that you don’t like the way your life has turned out, that you think the way he has treated you sucks, even that you hate him. He’s a big guy. He can take anything you throw at him. As long as you express your thoughts to his face, he’s got you in the end. The danger lies when we turn our backs on him, when we turn our faces away from him. If we’re not willing to deal with him directly, there’s not a great deal he can do for us. But no matter how dark our thoughts, no matter what kind of evil and destruction we have created for ourselves (or others have created for us), as long as we’re willing to look our Lord in the face and pour our hearts out to him—even if all we’re aware of is resentment of how we think he has treated us—then he is quite capable of taking that tiny trickle of a face-to-face relationship and magnifying it until, in time, it becomes a torrent of living water that brings unspeakable healing and joy. And that’s what he wants for you!