I’ve been thinking about church–my own church experiences as well as the Biblical meaning of church. What exactly is ‘The Church”? Does the church of today look anything like the church of first century Christians? Does it look anything like what Jesus envisioned when he sent his 12 disciples out to ‘make disciples over the whole earth’? Why are most church buildings lavish and expensive? What makes the building and the people attending become a church? Are churches sacred?
We are now seeing store front churches, churches that are in metal utility buildings, with folding chairs and a portable pulpit. These churches no longer have a grand piano and expensive organ, but rather a band with guitars, drum sets, and keyboards. The music is usually loud and repetitive, the atmosphere dark, like you might find in a bar. The people are in jeans and t-shirts, not sporting their ‘Sunday Best’.
The other extreme is a beautiful architectural building with stained glass windows and expensive padded pews and a masterfully created pulpit from which a minister delivers his sermon in either a robe or expensive suit. The music is ‘high church’ music like Bach and Beethoven, and the hymns are often written by old 18th and 19th century musicians. There is usually a choir that delivers an anthem. The people are in their finest and most formal clothing, to ‘honor God with their best’ And, there are usually rituals such as repeating creeds and prayers and participating in responsive readings.
We’ve all heard that church is the people, not the building. Yet, much emphasis is put on the physical building, a building that sits empty most of the week. It is a building that is expensive to maintain. Also, it seems that our churches today are more like social clubs, often not seeming to be interested in reaching out to include strangers into their circle of friends. Regular attendees have special pews they sit on every Sunday they are in attendance, and are upset if someone sits in ‘their pew’. They look around each Sunday for people they know, often ones of whom it is to their advantage to know–beneficial in a social/business sort of way. Their eyes scan over people they don’t know and have no interest in knowing. People attend church for various reasons and some have agendas beyond a place to worship God.
There is a lot of politics in church, in all denominations. Pastors look forward to rising up to the ‘big’ churches, maybe graduating from junior pastor to senior pastor. Churches today are not much more than a business with bills and salaries to pay, usually by the business manager of the church who oversees the financial aspect. How much of the money donated to the church goes to maintaining the building and employees and how much to a ministry of helping others, reaching out into the community, if you will?
Is church attendance necessary if you are a believer in Jesus? Is it possible to be a Christian and not affiliate with a church group? I am reminded of the story told as an example of why it is important to be in church. It goes like this: a pastor was visiting a person who claimed to be a believer but said they didn’t see any point in going to church. As they talked, sitting in front of the fireplace, the pastor took the fire poker and drug out a coal from the fire. As they talked the ember began to die and lose it’s heat and glow. The pastor pointed out that as a Christian, we need to be in fellowship with other believers in order to grow, that if not we, like the ember, would lose our faith and influence. I’ve always loved that analogy and believed it was spot on. However, after reflecting on my church experiences over the span of my 71 years, I now am not sure if that is true.
My earliest church experience was as a very young child attending a Methodist church in our community. My mother had been raised in the Methodist church and it was just natural that she would seek a church of that denomination. We didn’t go very long. I later learned that my mom didn’t feel welcome there. It was a very cliquish church, in her eyes. Not long after that, our neighbor invited Mama to go with her to a Christian Science Church in downtown Macon. Even though it was a very formal church, I suppose Mom felt comfortable there because we attended that denomination until I graduated from high school. I was a devout Christian Scientist. The church service was just for adults 20 and over and was held at the same time the young people were in Sunday School. In the adult service there were no preachers, but rather readers. There were two of them and they read alternately from the Bible and from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (a book written by the founder of this religion, Mary Baker Eddy). There were many wealthy people in that church. My Sunday School teacher was Mrs. J. W. McCook, of McCook Lumber Company. Her parents were the Hays from the famous Hay House in Macon. (It is now a museum.) We occasionally had youth meetings in the basement of that huge antebellum home. This is the denomination that doesn’t believe in going to doctors. There were ‘Practitioners’ that we called upon to pray if there was an illness. I am grateful to Jesus that none of us had any serious health problems all those years.
When Doyle and I became serious in our relationship, I told him we needed to be in church together. So, he went with me to the adult service at the Christian Science Church and because the atmosphere was so different, so formal, he faked a coughing spell and we had to leave before it even began. (Now he claims he wasn’t faking, but I don’t believe it for a minute.) The church was quiet when you entered and stayed that way the whole time. There was no socializing, talking or visiting at all. So, I said, ok, we’ll go to YOUR church–which happened to be a Baptist church. It was there in that country church, with a preacher preaching hellfire and damnation, that I first heard that Jesus (God) could actually live in my heart and was with me every minute of my life. I didn’t have to do anything, but believe and follow Him. I was awestruck and immediately received and believed. Doyle and I became very involved in that little church, the one through which we both believed and were baptized.
Our next church experience came, when after giving our hearts to Jesus, Doyle (and I) felt a calling to minister to young people. To do that, Doyle needed further education so we moved to Tifton, GA with our little 9 month old baby boy for him to begin his college career at ABAC. As we looked around that small town at the churches, Doyle said as we drove past First Baptist, that’s one church we won’t attend–it’s too big and formal. Well, that first Sunday, guess where we first visited–yep, First Baptist. As we sat in the back of that massive church, the people around flocked to us after the service, introducing themselves and taking us immediately to the pastor to meet him. It was a warm, welcoming group of people. As Doyle neared the end of his 2 years at ABAC and we made plans to move to Statesboro for him to finish his degree, the pastor called us in and asked Doyle if he would be willing to stay in Tifton and take the job of youth director. After some scrambling to change from Georgia Southern to Valdosta State, we stayed in Tifton the next two years and Doyle commuted to school and worked late into the night at the church. It was a wonderful experience and everyone, including us, cried when we left Tifton. We loved that church, the people literally took us under their wings. The next six months we lived in Sylvester and Doyle served First Baptist there as youth director. From there we moved to Athens for him to enroll in the Vocational Rehabilitation program and get a Master’s degree. In Athens, we attended Beech Haven Baptist Church, but never got very involved for several reasons. One we lived about 15 miles outside of Athens and two, Doyle was delivering the Atlanta Journal and Constitution 7 days a week and going to school, not to mention we had two young children. And, we were only there a year.
Next we moved to Reidsville, in south Georgia. Without going into detail, our church experience at the Reidsville Baptist Church, for about 5 years, was not a good one. The people were warm and welcoming, but there were other problems. So, since there were no other Baptist churches in town, we began to attend Reidsville United Methodist across the street. We were very involved in that church the remaining 15 years we lived in Reidsville and still have dear friends there.
In 1992, we moved to Augusta and since church had always been an important part of our lives, we began to visit various churches. Honestly, we visited a great many churches of different denominations. A couple of them were terrible experiences–NO ONE spoke to us, even with big “Visitor” badges on our chests. It was then that I realized that church folks know one another, but are reluctant to reach out or even be aware of people outside their circle. I reflected on the churches we had been a part of over the years and wondered if we were guilty of the same thing and just never realized it. It is so easy to get comfortable with a group of people and never make a point to seek others out. So, we joined a congregation for a brief period, mainly because the pastor was so friendly and called our names each Sunday as we exited the church–he actually took time to learn our names and we felt so included. However as we searched for a Sunday School class, we never felt included. In fact, Doyle like to tease me about one class we attended for several months. My gynecologist was a member of that class and he never acknowledged that he knew me. Now, granted, I only saw him once a year!! So we began to look again. The next church we joined was a large Methodist church and the first Sunday we visited, a woman ran up to Doyle, grabbed him and smacked him on the lips and told him he was the best looking thing she had ever seen. “Wow”, Doyle said, “That’s my kind of church!!” Much later we learned that the precious woman that greeted him that day was a beloved mentally challenged lady that loved on everybody. She has since moved away with her sister, but she still calls us on a regular basis. Oh, that we would all take lessons from her and show our love to everyone.
We have gotten somewhat involved in Trinity on the Hill UMC. Early on, Doyle was asked to join the administrative board but said no one ever said a word to him at those meetings. They were busy greeting and chatting with one another. We attended the Wednesday night suppers for a while, but the tables were exclusive, not inclusive. It would be obvious that folks were saving their table for their friends. We didn’t attend very long. We got involved in a ‘supper club’ of sorts with several couples in the church at one time. Then there was a major staff problem that eventually split the church and many left the church. Half of our supper club friends were on one side and half on the other. So, as you can imagine, the group stopped meeting. We didn’t have a dog in that fight and had no feelings one way or another. I attended many Bible studies at church and again I felt like a knot on a log most of the time. Many of the attendees had grown up together and knew each other well. This is not to say they didn’t speak or weren’t nice to me, but I obviously didn’t fit into the ‘group’. At one point, I was asked to create a Bible study called ‘Bible Basics’. The idea was to have a Bible study for people who were reluctant to attend a Bible study because they didn’t know much about the Bible and felt intimidated. It was a general overview of the Bible, how it came to be written, who wrote it and how to be familiar with the 66 books that comprise the Bible. I did lots of research online and created what I thought would be informative for persons unfamiliar with the Bible. I taught this class 3 times and never had more than five or six people attend–even my sweet husband came so I would have more people. Ironically the ones who did attend were more knowledgable about the Bible than I ever thought to be. It left me feeling that because I was not a part of the ‘in’ group, no one was interested in attending. I knew there were other groups that had 15-20 people in attendance. Later, I facilitated a couple of Bible studies in my home. I personally invited my friends, many if not most, who were not members of my church. Even then, I think most came so as not to hurt my feelings–we never continued them after two studies.
So, I ask myself, is there something wrong with me? Am I too sensitive? Should I have intruded into the circles of people and forced a relationship? Am I placing too much emphasis on being included and liked rather than on perhaps what God might have been doing in someone’s life with my weak efforts? I know I have always been a ‘people pleasing’ type of person. I hate conflict and shy away from it if at all possible. If I don’t feel included, needed, loved or appreciated, then I back away. I suppose it’s my defense mechanism. I guess you might argue that church is what you make it to be and maybe I didn’t try hard enough.
I am often listening to Andy Stanley’s sermons, and lately in his 90 series, the subject was just that. “People often love their religion more than the people for whom the religion was designed”. It’s a problem that has been with us since the beginning. Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees because they loved their laws, rules and religion more than the people. They shunned certain groups of people because they didn’t fit the mold and felt arrogantly confident that their way was the only way. Jesus sought the hated and despised (Matthew the tax collector) and the common men (Peter, James and John). His parables were often about the poor and forgotten–the Samaritans, a despised group of people, or the rich who erroneously put their faith in their bank accounts and wealth. Jesus was inclusive everywhere He went, reaching out to crowds of hungry people, feeding them with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, calling little children to himself and telling us that unless we become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Somehow, I don’t think he would recognize the church of today. I have a feeling he would rebuke us as well as we divide ourselves into denominations and fight over doctrines we won’t absolutely know until we get to heaven and can ask Him personally. Jesus didn’t preach about doctrine–his sermons were about love about how to live with one another. He told us the only two commandments that we were to follow are to 1.) Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and 2.) Love your neighbor as yourself. Then he goes on to explain who our neighbor is. You can read for yourself who your neighbor is in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10: 29-37, read it in The Message version, you will love it ☺️)
We spent the first few years in our church involved, then we backed off (as I explained above) and were more spectators than participants. Then as Jesus wooed me back to Himself, I got somewhat involved again, but just couldn’t seem to find my niche. I turned to community non profits and got really involved there. I spend at least one hour and often more every morning doing an online Bible study and doing my homework from Bible Study Fellowship (a non church related intensive Bible study that runs throughout the school year.) We are studying Romans this year. As I am working in the yard, I use my wonderful Plantronics ear phones and listen to sermons from North Point Church or Tim Keller sermons from a church in NY city. I talk to Jesus all through the day about things and people on my heart. Most of my spiritual food doesn’t come from the church. But, I love my church, I love the ministries such as Super Saturday, a ministry to mentally challenged adults, and the fact that we are a Red Cross emergency shelter, and the support for Release Time, a ministry to elementary school aged children in Richmond County, the mission trips to underdeveloped countries several times a year and many others. And there are some wonderful people in my church.
Well, I will stop my rambling, but in the end, I have concluded that a person doesn’t have to attend church to grow as a Christian. In fact, sometimes it can even be a stumbling block, when the emotions you feel when you leave the congregation/class are not positive. However, I am certain it is important to maintain friendships with spiritual people, upon whom I can call on for prayer or with whom I can discuss spiritual things. Many of my spiritual friends attend other churches and it is they that I would call should I have a need.
I do pray that I haven’t offended anyone in this musing. It is simply my thoughts and my experiences. If your experience is different and positive, I am happy for you. It is as it should be.