by David Y.
How frequently have we all heard this question (“where do you go to church”) asked? Unfortunately, for many (in church world) the question tends to be a sort of “qualifier” that will determine whether or not we (who are not longer part of that environment) are allowed to enjoy continued fellowship with them. Those of you who have found yourself outside the traditional four walls of church world know what I’m talking about.
I remember an occasion a few years back where I walked into the local Bible bookstore and ran into an old friend. We started talking about life and about what the Lord had been doing in our lives. It was actually a great conversation… Until another friend from my church days walked up, surprised to see me, and said, “Hi Dave! Good to see you! Where are you going to church these days?” I didn’t have a clever answer, just an honest one. “I don’t go to church anymore,” I said… For a moment, no one said a word. The once joyful environment of fellow saints sharing conversation about the goodness of Jesus in their lives changed to an awkward silence. The person who asked me the question just said, “Oh.” After a few more seconds of awkward silence and nervous smiles, the conversation changed from talk about Jesus to everyone wrapping things up because they had to get going. I was left standing there in total amazement how one simple question could utterly destroy fellowship!
For a long time, after leaving behind my former allegiance to churchianity, I struggled with not being sure how to answer this question about church. At first, because I wanted to avoid the awkward reaction people sometimes have, I would say things like, “Oh, I’m not going anywhere right now…” I knew that most church folks would immediate hone in on the “right now” part of that statement, which generally led to them inviting me to their awesome church and telling me about why their pastor is so incredible. Sigh… At least I didn’t have to explain myself. But after awhile, that answer bothered me. Even though I wasn’t saying anything untrue, it felt dishonest because I knew that most Christians would assume I was just “in-between” churches, when the reality was, I was done with the whole thing! But how could explain that in a brief exchange of conversation? I didn’t want to get into a debate and I didn’t want someone to get the wrong idea about things either; to think I was falling away from the Lord or something like that… because there does seem to be this notion among a lot of church folks that if you don’t go to church, the devil will get ya. I know that plenty of folks thought that about me when I left… It was a process to shake off worrying about what people think and just trusting my relationship with the Lord.
Sometimes I would say things like, “We’re both part of the same Church.” I, of course, meant the body of Christ… I knew that either the person would catch my meaning and agree, or they would mistakenly think I went to their (institutional) church… or, they might chuckle and then continue to want to know what institutional fellowship I belonged to. Often times, my attempt to be clever backfired and I wound up in a discussion anyway.
On one occasion I answered the brother who asked this question of me something like this… I said, “Hey come on bro, do we really want to put that issue in the middle of our fellowship in Christ?” I explained that the subject of where someone goes to church can so quickly change how we look at each other, rather than keeping Christ at the center of the conversation. To my surprise, on this one occasion, the brother agreed and we spoke no more about what church either of us attended and, guess what? IT WAS AWESOME! But that manner of response was not always sufficient to deter the issue or conclude it with a positive result.
I tried talking about my own personal devotions with the Lord in the absence of church attendance. That only raised more questions and criticism. I finally got so sick of trying to manipulate the conversation and avoid scrutiny that I just laid my heart before the Lord and said, “God, I’m just going to be honest and say it… If someone wants to ask more, then I’ll take it as an opportunity to share what You’ve been doing in my life. If they get mad, so be it. I’m just going to tell it simply and trust Your Holy Spirit to guide my words.” So, the next time I was asked……… I said, “I don’t go to church.” Once again, the responses were varied. I quickly discovered that no matter how I answered the question, the response would be different, but in trusting the Lord with the aftermath of that statement, I found that He guided my words and I had some very fruitful conversations.
When my wife was pregnant before her miscarriage in 2010, we went to a Christian organization for some assistance. When they asked us what church we attended, I told them we weren’t affiliated. I also told them I was a believer and had a relationship with the Lord, but did not attend church… So, almost as if they heard nothing I said, they continued to presume I was not a Christian and handed me and my wife some Gospel tracts and started to tell us about Jesus. For a while we continued to visit and attend pregnancy classes, which earned us points to use toward buying baby items. On every visit, they continued to try and evangelize us. I didn’t persist or have an attitude about it. I actually rather curiously enjoyed watching these folks try so hard to bring me to Jesus. The sad part is that it was more evident that they weren’t really listening to the person they were trying to reach and they just held to their routine… and I fear they may be doing the same thing with other folks who come to them for help. I guess as long as the person who comes to them goes to church though, they probably won’t experience the same thing.
After all this time, I still can’t tell you how to get church folks to stop acting stupid when you try and answer the “where do you go to church” question. As much as it annoys me at times, it doesn’t really make me all that mad anymore. Probably because I know that I used to act the same way and I used to hit people all the time with the “where do you go to church” question… and I used to give them the same “concerned” look when they told me they didn’t attend anywhere… It’s a learned mindset and I think the only way to really see it dissipate is for people to genuinely become closer to the Lord and get a revelation of what His Church really is.
These days I rather like the answer, “Sorry, church is against my religion,” followed by a reference to James 1:27, which says, “What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.”
Most organized churches fail the test right here. While many organizations take in a lot of money, rarely does any of it go to take physical care of the suffering in the organization itself. Widows especially are often overlooked. Sadly, most pastors wouldn’t even know which families in the church are suffering. He might know which ones aren’t tithing, sure enough, and he might know which ones he’ll be happy to give a lecture to on the importance of sacrificial giving and serving the institution’s needs, but he won’t offer a dime of the organization’s money or staff effort to lift a finger himself to help these individuals… especially if they do not faithfully plug in to the program. You’ll notice that James did not say these widows and orphans needed to be faithful church attenders!
Finally, this Scripture gives the charge to keep oneself unspotted from the world. The very fact that virtually every church organization on the planet directly avoids or dismisses the teaching of Jesus on so many basic levels (such as giving, gathering, fellowship, community, leadership, service, etc.) and exchanges His doctrine for tradition and legalism, proves they have not kept themselves unspotted from the world. In other words they FAIL the James 1:27 test for what Scripture regards as “pure and genuine religion.” For this reason, church is absolutely against my religion!
Now, all of that having been said, I hope no one is too offended by my delivery here. I know that, most likely, a few folks that read this will happen to be church attenders and get the wrong idea and think that I’m calling them stupid. Please know, that is not my intention. If it makes you feel any better, my wife and I sometimes darken the door of a religious organization too (and it is nothing more than that to us). We are not “members” and we don’t call it “the House of God” and we rarely even visit. We recognize that there are Christian folks there who express a longing to know God and this much is positive. The social aspect of gatherings like this are, obviously, what attracts many people. Some organizations make way for this better than others and don’t get over-inflated about their invented status as being the so-called “House of God”. There are a rare few out there who simply enjoy the opportunity to gather (and, I think, even to be entertained… though most would probably not be willing to admit they attend “church” to be entertained). God knows what is really in the heart and the heart is what we have to be concerned about. Organization or no organization, God calls us to be a light in this world and to show forth His light to others. He often works through relationships… sometimes in the most unexpected places.
Once I got free of organized religion, I never thought I would find myself even visiting a church again! To this day, it is not even among my least of favorite places to visit. I could really do without the whole thing altogether. But then God opened a door of relationship with the man who occupies the title of pastor at this organization I mentioned earlier and I have enjoyed a number of conversations about the subject of life in Christ verses mere churchianity. This brother has visited this website and has expressed a desire to hear another side of the story and allow the Lord to speak into His life. I have appreciated his openness, his humility and his genuineness… and he has become a friend as well. I know he truly loves Jesus. I disagree with him on a number of issues and we freely discuss them at times. He has been taught to think according to traditional church mindsets, but his heart is to know the truth and allow God’s Spirit to change him. This is my heart as well. He loves the Gospel of Jesus and, as far as preaching goes, I love to hear this brother just talk about Jesus. I wish he’d stay on that simple foundation more often sometimes, but he has a true heart for the Lord and I am encouraged by it. God has encouraged me through the insights he has shared and the testimony of Christ in his life. I’ve also watched as he and his wife have spent a lot of time actually reaching out to people in the community; including the impoverished and spend time with them, help to feed them, and all kinds of cool things. Money is not wasted on a church building, but simply to rent a theater once a week and much of it goes to literally help folks in the community. So long as these folks are willing to relate to me on the simple level as a brother in Christ, without religious qualification or expectation, I am happy to spend time with them on occasion and just let the Lord lead.
This is not something I think I would have been able to even consider a couple years ago… and there are even friends of mine now, who are outside the church system, that believe I am compromising by having anything to do with church people at all. The sad part is, while I understand their concerns, I am sad that they have decided to so isolate themselves from allowing God to freely lead them in many ways. Some have made being “anti-church” their identification. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just as near-sighted, religious and idolatrous as the most religious church-attending pharisee out there! When people recognize God’s call to shed their religion and walk close with Him, they need to understand that being free from religion does not mean their new identity is to be an anti-church Christian. I have said this many times; Our true identity is CHRIST JESUS! We are to walk as sons of our Father in Heaven and to hear Him and follow Him. Just because we have been set free from religion or the false concept of church, doesn’t mean we are to be any less a child of God who loves others, prays for others, forgives others, and goes where our Father leads us! I am not endorsing churchianity in any way by saying this. I’m saying, don’t let the church issue become your identity. Yes we must be strong and bold and speak only the truth and live true to our convictions, but we must also walk with mercy, have soft hearts before God, and allow Him to guide us and allow Him to live through us and touch people. Love must rule us, not zeal!
If I was granted three wishes, I can almost bet you that one of those wishes would be that the notion of organized religion and the false understanding of church would vanish from the planet. My heart is so absolutely DONE with churchianity. That having been said (and coming back to reality here where I know that organized churches do still exist and many sincere believers in Jesus attend them for a number of various reasons), I know that Jesus called us to be in the world yet not of it.
Paul the apostle said he made himself all things to all men that he might win some. Is it so strange to presume that this could even apply to some of us that have wondered if God has called us to befriend church folks or even find ourselves in their environment on occasion? Did Jesus do any less? He was found often among both sinners and saints. He hung out with the thieves, prostitutes, and drunkards, but also with the most religious in society. He ate dinner at the home of Pharisees! He taught in the Temple! He called everyone to the Father. He didn’t call them to be the “out of temple” crowd or the “free from Judaism” believers. I think this is a most significant point to consider.
Some have felt a call to return to church world in some fashion… Not necessarily to try and reform it and certainly not to endorse it, but because they’ve felt the Lord doing a work in their heart that just happens to involve that environment. I will not be the one to judge their decision. My hope is to see folks set free from wrong thinking and to follow Jesus wherever He leads them. Where He leads them is His business not mine.
I believe that if a person is walking in close fellowship with the Lord, has a healthy understanding of what the body of Christ is and the fact that it is not in any way related to or defined by the institutions created by men, then a person could participate in varying degrees and socialize or work together to accomplish a unified and godly effort as God’s Spirit may lead. I also think that some measure of godly fellowship is even possible in some groups. The big problem is, so many “churches” blend the notion of holy and sacred along with the very place they gather and the concept itself of gathering at this place. Thus elements of guilt and ungodly pressure to conform, participate or submit are imposed on people. At that point, it ceases to be just an organization in the minds of those attending and leaders often use this to their advantage.
I still do not believe that “reformation” is the answer for today’s church system, though I know many others do believe this. I still believe there is no logic in the notion that presumes God would want to reform something He never created and never called people to submit to… especially when these institutions directly offend the Lord’s teaching and when they define themselves as “the church” (a term and concept that runs completely opposite to what Jesus ordained as being His Church). We need to follow His call – period! (ok… period, exclamation point).
Well, I’ve already gone on too long today and even jumped off subject a bit. To bring this back home, I guess I’ll just say to those of you who have experienced an exodus from churchianity and have been bothered with the question “where do you go to church?” I’ll just offer this. Be honest and trust Jesus to guide your answers. I don’t think there is any perfect way to phrase an answer so that everyone will magically understand. Just don’t let a wall go up that is created by your hands! Others may throw up walls of their own. See the question as an opportunity to share the love of God and the freedom He has given you. You may only plant a seed… Or you may water a seed that has already been planted. It may be difficult to tell on the surface whether anything you say is piercing their heart, but that’s not what’s important. Christ in and through you will accomplish what HE desires for that moment in time. Perhaps some of you will be able to share in the joy of seeing a seed come to harvest. Just trust God and let Him work on His time table. Don’t allow bitterness to overtake you when people disagree or misunderstand. Often times there is a lot more going on in the heart where you cannot see or feel what that person is processing through. Be an instrument of love and truth. Be the Church! Show what that means to those who may not yet catch the revelation!
You can wake up now… My sermon is over! Love you guys!!!
NOTE: This article (edited) is also featured in the Fall 2013 issue of Plain Truth magazine (download the PDF version by clicking here).