I’m clearly on a WHO? WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? WHY? kick this week (see tomorrow’s podcast episode on creating a prayer routine) but to be honest, this is a beast of a post and I was trying to figure out how best to organize it, and this kind of fell into place.
What I’m going to share will likely be controversial judging from the answers to my question box on Instagram about returning to church after all that’s happened during the pandemic. It also hits on some political views that I’m guessing most people have strong feelings about, but I pray you’ll have an open mind and not take what I’m saying as the end-all-be-all, but spend time praying and asking God what to do with what I’ve shared.
Recently, I had someone in my personal life kind of upset that I wouldn’t take a stance on something political and I had to tell her that I don’t feel like God’s called me to the mission of politics but instead pointing others to prayer and God where I know, if people are engaging with God, He can make issues clear. So please know, I don’t consider myself the authority on this topic.
If anything, I’m just here to give some structure (y’all know we love structure at Val Marie Paper) around this topic so we can make intentional choices. I want to encourage us to avoid decisions we’ve made about church that haven’t been intentional or prayerfully thought out. I hope you’ll find the space here to consider some things you maybe haven’t considered and take some things away that you can bring before the Lord in prayer. I even underlined questions at the end of each segment to think and pray through. And of course, we’re not coming after ya for a decision. So, there’s my 200+ word disclaimer. 🙂
This blog post all started after a few conversations with old friends on faith or lack thereof. They had decided to leave the church while holding onto their personal faith a decade ago but now they had left God completely.
I started to wonder, is it possible to grow in our intimacy with the Lord while walking away from the church?
The last 18 months have presented new obstacles for the modern church. Other generations have faced similar trials but ours has not. We’ve never really seen the doors of our churches close. So in the wake of 18 months of Covid, a lot has happened and many people have not returned to church.
WHY WE HAVEN’T RETURNED?
We asked our audience on Instagram and got soooo many responses. Overall, it boiled down to these as the main reasons people haven’t returned to church yet:
1. Being immunocompromised. This is a valid concern for many and it breaks my heart to imagine those who, if they found themselves around someone with Covid, it could be a death sentence. I am not in a position to say what to do here, but I hope to offer some encouragement a bit later in this post.
2. Those that feel at risk. These are people who don’t have an underlying condition or aren’t of a certain age group but they still feel like going to church would be too much of a risk.
3. Some don’t like the way Covid was handled. Ironically, it was a total mixed bag. Some hate that they had to wear a mask or that their church followed the “government over God” and others felt their churches didn’t take Covid seriously enough or show compassion.
4. Some are simply out of the habit. Basically, it got easier to not do the hustle and bustle of Sunday mornings. (Sidenote: I really appreciated the honesty here! This is a hard one to admit!!)
5. Church got too political in general. This was said a lot. And again, it fell on both sides of the fence.
Have I prayed about returning or based my decision on my own desires? If not, can I do that now and commit to obeying however the Lord leads?
WHY WE SHOULD RETURN?
Those who have been back said:
- They have appreciated in person worship together
- The need for community was magnified by time away
- They’ve realized the importance of gathering
1. We cannot function apart from other believers.
Click over to 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 real quick. Suffice to say, we function best TOGETHER. God created us for community. It’s not just an added bonus if we can make time for it. You don’t need to be in a stadium seating church building but it does mean that quiet times and watching a sermon online is not the same as being in a body of believers. (The importance of community is why we created our group guide for Pray Confidently and Consistently, apty titled Pray Confidently and Consistently Together.)
I shared a post on spiritual gifts here that falls in line with this. Read here.
2. People in other countries would DIE for the opportunity to meet with other believers.
Someone mentioned that based on Paul being in prison, technically we can thrive outside the church. While it’s true and a good example of someone thriving without meeting with other believers regularly, this shouldn’t be our example to follow. He was in prison for trying to expand the kingdom of God and I believe God sustained Paul like only God can. I also believe what Paul said repeatedly that we SHOULD be meeting and spurring each other on. Hebrews 10:24-25 says “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
If anything, his time in prison caused him to feel it was important to communicate just how important being with other believers was. He also spent untold amounts of time writing letters to encourage other believers. Even in prison, Paul did everything He could to edify the church! What a testimony, not against the need for community, but for it!
People in other countries would LOVE for the opportunity to have one church on the corner where they could attend freely. It is a privilege that masks and sanitizer are the issues we are facing when others might die for even owning a Bible.
Do I truly believe church is a privilege? Why or why not?
3. The Church is the bride of Christ.
A lot of people feel abandoned by the church and feel justified in leaving. It seems rational. But the church isn’t a club. It’s the bride of Christ. How hard is it to be friends with someone when you don’t get along with their spouse? It might work for a while but it’s not easy. And maybe it eventually just fades completely. That might be a silly example, so maybe think about it this way.
Matthew 24:40 says “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
We assume we’re just walking away from unforgivable sinners but what we do to them, we are essentially doing to Christ. This isn’t to place a big guilt trip on anyone! There have been real and deep hurts in the church. But if we write off the church as a whole, we cannot underestimate how that will impact our relationship with God. We cannot harbor resentment for God’s kids and not think it will affect the Father.
How have I viewed the church? Is it how God views the church? If not, how can I align my views with God’s?
4. Disunity in the body is on display to the world.
Jonathan Leeman calls the church, “not the kingdom but the embassy for the kingdom”. Here on earth, the church is an ambassador for the Lord. And what the world thinks to be true of believers right now is that we can’t even agree on what color to do the carpet (ok that was the 80s!) or whether to vaccinate or not vaccinate. What if, regardless of what side you passionately fought on, we showed love and unity? In my most recent time reading the New Testament, I was STUNNED by how many verses talk about loving a fellow believer. Sure, there are many passages about loving unbelievers too, but as I read it seemed overwhelmingly for the believer to another believer. And I think it’s because the outside world is watching how believers treat one another. Are we complaining to everyone we know about how poorly our church is handling the latest Covid news? Or are we hosting prayer nights to pray for direction from the Lord and unity as a church? Thankfully, the way the world sees the church doesn’t rest solely on our shoulders. God can redeem anything. But I think if we are God’s ambassadors, we want to represent the Father, the best we can.
Jay Y. Kim said “All of us brought together into complete unity, because then the world will know (John 17:23). When we gather in real time and in real space, despite our differences, we proclaim to the world that there is a God who loves us and sent his Son to change everything.”
As God’s ambassador, what might people assume about God and the church based on my words or actions?
5. Scripture is intended to be read together.
I am not saying it’s ONLY intended to be read together and never alone, but I think it’s easy to forget that up until the Gutenberg press, individual reading wasn’t really possible for many. Jay Y. Kim said. “The New Testament writers wrote most of their letters and stories with these sorts of audiences and environments in mind; these were texts designed to be read and heard out loud by a gathered people.”
There are examples of publicly speaking God’s Word throughout the Old and New Testament. Paul even said in 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
In his book, Analog Church, Kim shared ideas of church members gathering just to hear the Bible read, meaning no preaching, just reading a book of the Bible in one sitting. And boy doesn’t that feel intimidating? But it also sounds really exciting to share in that with a group of believers!
6. You can be a part of the good.
So many people have been hurt by the church. And I get that leaving feels like the easiest solution. It’s “The Church” after all. It feels big and immovable. And there are obviously things we aren’t going to change and shouldn’t try to change. But I truly think there are so many ways we can make a positive impact on our local churches if we don’t give up on them! Does your church not take care of the needs of the disabled well? Bring it up in a gracious way and be a part of a change that can impact others who deal with the same struggles.
As I’ve talked to people in ministry since Covid, the sentiment is the same. Church leaders are burnt out. They have twice as many crises happening (funerals, members dealing with anxiety and depression, political unrest, shrinking budgets, staff cuts) and half the volunteer help. Everyone has decided to wait till a better time to come back during a time when churches have felt most overwhelmed. Maybe there are some very valid ways the church has overlooked some things but what if it’s not because they don’t care but simply because it’s still physically managed by limited humans and not supermen. It’s run by dads who have kids who are also struggling and moms who are burnt out at all ends. Staff members are cut as everyone’s paychecks have been affected even when help is needed most.
Our churches may not be able to provide what we hope because so many of us have left and the people who haven’t left are exhausted. Now may be the perfect time to take the frustrations of what the church lacks and think of how to help make it happen.
How can I serve the church and provide what I wish was offered?
WHO WILL WE RETURN?
Beyond Covid reasons, I’ve heard that as the world becomes more secular, people are leaving the church in droves. It’s discouraging to hear, but I’ve also heard that those that are leaving were casual church-goers who found it easy to go and it’s simply no longer “socially easy” to go. It seems strange to imagine now but a few short decades ago, it was “easier” to identify as a Christian. It meant you were good and moral and respected even. Today, the world mainly assumes it means that you’re intolerant and unloving.
I don’t know if the church will strengthen in number in our current season, but I trust it will strengthen in devotion, which will eventually lead to the church growing in number.
The church has thrived under pressure. Brett McCracken has said, “There is a reverse correlation between the comfortability of Christianity and its vibrancy. When the Christian church is comfortable and cultural, she tends to be weak. When she is uncomfortable and countercultural, she tends to be strong.”
I think our country is currently at a crossroads.
We have to intentionally decide, am I ready to be a Christian if it’s no longer comfortable to be one? And if the answer is yes, I think that’s all the more reason we have to be in community instead of try to be a lone ranger at this faith thing.
Do I want to be a part of the thriving church to come?
WHEN WILL WE RETURN?
If we won’t return now, when will we? I know there are many factors I already mentioned for not returning, and my challenge here isn’t to play God and set a deadline to return but instead to just ask the tough questions.
Where’s the magic line?
Can the church do something that would really make you comfortable going back?
Is that likely at all or is it waiting for something that will never happen?
We’d love for you to leave valid answers in the comment section. We aren’t patrolling you I promise! 😉 Just offering these points to get us thinking. It’s easy to say why we haven’t returned but the question then becomes, will we ever naturally want to go back or do we need to do something to move forward?
If you’ve prayed about going back to church and have felt a clear no from God to return (say for a health reason if you are immunocompromised) I’m not trying to sway anyone from disobeying God. Keep on in whatever God has called you too.
But if you haven’t returned for convenience sake:
- Has it been really nice to sleep in one day of the week?
- Has Sunday become the new day to do the yard?
- Has the thought of dressing up for church started to sound like work?
- Has the thought of adding one more thing into your week feel unnecessary?
- Or maybe you’re embarrassed to return after so long?
We do need to be cautious, but we don’t want to be fooled into thinking “we’ll go back when…”. Covid numbers go down? People start following the rules? They remove the mask mandate? They stop talking about politics?
Are these what we are validly feeling or is it just an easy excuse?
If we’re comfortable going to stadiums for sporting events or concerts but still leery to go to church, we’ve got to ask why?
If we’re ok waking up early for tournaments and games but church feels like too much of a commitment, we’ve got to ask why?
I cannot stress how uncomfortable it is diving into these questions, but what if we’re missing out on the fullness of living this life with (and for!) Christ. I pray nothing that is in our control will stop us from that goodness!
In prayer, ask the Lord when to return and what it will look like.
This leads to my next point. Maybe part of figuring out when we will return means considering WHERE we will return?
WHERE WILL YOU RETURN?
1. Become a part of a house church or help start one.
If large groups is the biggest issue, let’s praise God for the church of Acts we get to see! We don’t need to attend a mega church for it to be called a church. I think some structure is important. I wouldn’t call meeting for coffee every once in a while with another believer “church” but it is possible to experience the body of believers in a small group in someone’s home worshipping, praying and reading Scripture regularly with people you feel will take the necessary precautions to help keep you safe.
How can we safely meet with other believers in a somewhat structured setting?
2. Find another church.
So, I hesitate to throw this out there because of what we talked about already. I don’t think we start here. We don’t leave anytime something gets hard. BUT if you’ve been praying about it and they’ve been clearly unrepentant over issues, then it might time to find another church home. But I beg you, don’t give up on the church as a whole! I was so encouraged to read in my DM’s several who felt strongly enough to leave found a good church and are thriving!
In the old days, you didn’t have much choice in where you went to church. If you were Baptist, you went to the Baptist church around the corner. If you were Pentacostal, you went to the Pentacostal church within walking distance. The luxury that we have to choose where we go to church is a blessing but it can also be a burden. When we have options, we get extra picky. My kids do this. If I pull up to a restaurant and say this is what we’re having they are just excited for the opportunity to go out to eat. If I give them lots of options, all of a sudden, one isn’t happy with Chuys, something they gladly would have enjoyed had they only had that as a choice.
So remember as you look, you aren’t looking for the perfect church. You are looking for a church with solid doctrine and people you can commune with. The people you’ll meet with need Jesus just as much as the rest of us! 😉
Do I need a new church? If so, where? (Again, this is not a decision to make lightly so pray pray pray about the outcome!)
HOW SHOULD WE RETURN?
1. Not looking for a free lunch.
Our pastor mentioned it this past Sunday. It’s easy to approach church with a “What am I gonna get out of it?” approach. And the thing is, if we approach church this way, we will never be satisfied. We will always be pointing out what’s lacking. We will always be questioning the music, the way there’s not enough hymns or too many hymns or you only feel God’s presence when it’s an old one. The message will be too long, too many bullet points, not structured enough. That there are many distracting programs but somehow still none you want to participate in. If we look for a problem, we will find it. And if we look to the church for what we can extract from it, we’re missing out on the whole purpose of the church.
Prayer Point: What am I hoping to get out of going to church? And how does this affect my view of it?
2. Not majoring on the minors.
Differences can be good. Agree on the big important things but know that it’s ok to disagree. Our church hasn’t gotten political and because of that, there is a good mix of liberals and conservatives. Somehow, we can meet together without ripping each other apart and I believe it’s because we all are united on the most important issues. That doesn’t mean the other stuff doesn’t matter. It just means we don’t confuse issues that are areas of freedom and choice and other issues that are biblically non-negotiable. One picture I’ve shared several times about how our church views things is this: There are issues we will die for, issues we will fight for, issues we will talk about. We don’t die for issues that we should be fighting for and we don’t merely talking about issues we should die for.
Are there any issues that feel bigger than they actually are?
3. Temper expectations.
Another guy who was no stranger to prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a little book called Life Together.
I could honestly share a ton of his thoughts but I want to camp out on one specific theme: the idea that we can spend a lot of time analyzing how the church is doing. I’ll warn you, as I read it, I felt my toes crushed!! He doesn’t hold back!
“One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.”
Are we looking for something in Christian community that looks more like a good social experience instead of the body of Christ working together?
“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Yikes! Are our hopes for what Christian community should look like actually sabotaging us?
“How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”
Is it possible to express gratitude right now for the church, even if there are no “discoverable riches” seen in it?
“Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
Are we so focused on checking the pulse of the church that we’re missing out?
There you have the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of returning to church.
This is prickly stuff to talk about. You might feel offended and I pray you aren’t because I’m not here to judge anyone’s decisions but more challenging us to all make intentional decisions. Sometimes the world picks for us and in the hustle and bustle of life, we don’t even realize the control we’ve lost in our life.
What thoughts do you have to add to this? Leave them in the comments below?
This was a great post Val. Well thought out and ever so gracious. Thank you.
I was one who responded on IG but didn’t have enough room to expound on your questions. I am thankful we have a church that is girded in and guided by prayer. Our pastor and elders have very thoughtfully examined situations in our area as well as the needs of the congregation and prayed faithfully about how to proceed. They shut down when it was mandatory and went online with services but as you say, watching a service and actually being there to worship in community are two totally different things. Our leaders prayed and decided we needed to be in community as a church. Then the cases went up in our area and they decided to hold off temporarily. When we came back, we wore masks, used hand sanitizer, no offering plates passed, communion was individual cups we picked up on our way into service. No hugging or hand shaking. People were seated every other row in a staggered pattern. No singing out loud. As Covid numbers dropped, the masks were optional and we were allowed to sing out loud on Easter Sunday. You should have heard the joyful sounds. Currently our state is at the bottom of cases, tied with Hawaii I believe. We have sections of the church on the sides that are roped off for those who want or need to use masks and distance so staggered seating there. The center aisle is open. Some wear masks, most don’t. Some send their kids to Sunday School with masks, some don’t. To my knowledge no one judges anyone elses reasons. Like your church, it was never a political issue in our church nor were any of the riots. It was regarded as a concern, people treated with love and care and we prayed for our nation. Our pastor does not preach on issues, he preaches the whole counsel of God, a book or several chapters of a book. Politics does not enter in. He has been doing a Wednesday night study on the One Another passages which is strengthening community.
Our small group has vaxed and unvaxed people and no one is trying to condemn or convince anyone else. We had our first dinner together last week and everyone was so starved for community that we all stayed for 6 hours, with 2 couples staying another 2 hours. Deep theological discussions. It was amazing. We have been starving for fellowship and it is like a never ending thirst.
Here is the point. As believers, we ARE the body of Christ. A body has parts. If a hand or foot are not there it limits the functionality and accurate portrayal the world needs to see. We can’t function without those who are not coming back. We don’t pick and choose church. You mentioned carpet but I have heard so many say the church didn’t meet their needs rather than did you fully worship God and listen to His word spoken and preached when you were there? Church is not about our likes and dislikes or convenience. It is a diverse group of sinful people who unite around a Savior who in all His perfection, entered our messy world to take our punishment and give us a redeemed relationship so we can have eternal life with Him. Can you imagine in our divided world today what the world would see if we would act like the church? I’m pretty sure the early church in their disagreements about circumcision or uncircumcision, what you could and couldn’t eat, letting an unclean person into the temple etc. They had their issues too and what does Jesus say? Obey my commandments and love one another as I have loved you. THIS is how the world will know you are my disciples. How will the world see in this great time of divisiveness, our unity, if we are staying home or put off and critical by as you say, overwhelmed church staff. We are no different than the world complaining about the other sides politicians. Sad. I am in no means talking to anyone who needs to stay home for health reasons. We have very dear elderly friends who haven’t returned for 20 months because of health concerns. I will add that our church thankfully has not had a single case of Covid since returning almost 18 months ago to meeting together. Thank you Lord! I hope I have not offended anyone. If I have that was not my intention. Just to explain how our church handled the situation I believe with wisdom and grace toward all.
You said this so well and I wanted to expound on the body but at 4000 words I had to make some cuts so I’m so glad to see you shared it!! Thank you thank you! Also, I got chills hearing about how your church is working. That is such a beautiful thing!
Loved this post!!
Crazy how this is such a hard thing for everyone.
We had belonged to our church for 34 years, I was employed by our church for 22 years.
In the early days of Covid I was the only one in the office. And then one day without notice I was called into the pastors office with two others and asked to turn in my keys! Two weeks later I was offered my job back with no seniority or benefits. Nothing personal, just business.
When we have gone to church for special events I feel loved and accepted by the community I belonged to for 34 years. My husband cannot forgive the pain I was put through. I have suggested moving on to another church, My husband will not leave “Our home Parish” but he will not attend either.
I am truly stuck in the middle. It does not make things any easier that it is so easy not to go now, for everyone 🙁
Thank you for listening 🙂
Thanks for this, Val! You’ve graciously shared a topic we all need to ponder. ❤️
Thank you so much Connie!