“I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”
“I don’t buy into that religion stuff.”
“I pray and stuff, but I don’t bother with the whole church thing.”
It is very fashionable to be opposed to “religion” while still maintaining some semblance of spirituality. Our society has manifested an increasing distaste for “religion” – yet what people often mean when they talk about “religion” is not religious belief in general, but rather organized religious worship. God is good, but church is not. (Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”)
The problem with this idea is that Christian worship – indeed, almost all aspects of Christian living – requires gathering in groups of people, and thus some sort of organized religion. Disregarding those unfortunate Christians stranded on desert islands, Christians function within communities.
At the Last Supper, Jesus takes a cup of wine and says, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Similarly, he takes bread, breaks it, and says, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (cf. Luke 22:17).
Jesus calls for us to gather and to participate in Communion (also known as the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist) with one another in remembrance of Him. But Communion is not a sacrament to be shared alone; we cannot properly remember and honor Jesus unless we are partaking in Communion with our fellow Christians.
The unknown author of Hebrews exhorts us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
Obviously, Christians’ declining to come to church is a problem not unique to our time. Yet Paul commands us to continue meeting and encouraging one another.
Of course, one could be a spiritual person without being a Christian, in which case this argument for organized religion would be uncompelling. However, what I’ve found among most people who give up on organized Christian religion in favor of personal spirituality is that none of their religious beliefs have changed. They were confronted with no new evidence that made them stop believing that Jesus is the divine incarnation. They lost no arguments to atheists. Instead, they grew increasingly dissatisfied with their own churches, and thus no longer desired fellowship.
What’s fascinating is that their negative impression of their churches (or of the few churches they have tried) makes them eschew organized religion altogether. But one’s judgment of an entire system cannot be based on a few personal experiences. Furthermore, one cannot judge the truth of Christianity based on one’s subjective interaction with a particular church. Yet it seems that many ex-Christians or “personally spiritual” people do precisely that.
I’ve talked to multiple people who were dissatisfied with their churches: a science teacher who was tired of hearing creationism inculcated as part of the Christian faith, a student who was disgusted by the hypocrisy of her fellow Christians, a father who realized that church politics had taken the place of true religious service. All of them stopped going to church – yet none of them seriously attempted to find a body of believers that was serving Christ in a better way. Two of them rejected organized religion altogether; we’ll see what happens to the third. The saddest thing is that they began sacrificing their religious beliefs because of their poor experiences with a church and not because of any justifiable doubts about the resurrection of Christ.
I, myself, have been afraid to reach out and share my faith with others because of my church. I know that my church is devoted to fellowship and that many people are taken aback by the level of commitment expected. I fear bringing someone into my church and having them reject religion altogether because they cannot handle the frequency and intensity with which we gather to worship Christ. I am terrified at the prospect of turning someone away from Christianity entirely merely because of a bad experience with my church.
At the same time, I have even been dissatisfied with the people in my church. I briefly entertained the thought of leaving and trying to stay a Christian on my own. Yet when I looked at the issues the doctrine and the command to encourage one another, I realized that I had no real reason to leave besides my own impatience. Perhaps a particular congregation is not ideal for me, but I could not allow a few bad experiences taint my entire view of organized religion or of churches. I could not reject all of Christ’s teachings due to my personal dissatisfaction with some of my experiences in church.
It is easy for us to stop coming to church because the centuries of Christendom have made us think of “the church” in different way. Acts 17:24 tells us “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” It is important to remember that the temples – the church buildings – that we construct are unimportant in God’s eyes. Instead, it is the body of believers that composes Christ’s church, and all Christians are a part of it.
Paul plainly states this in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” If we isolate ourselves and only worship God alone, we are cutting off ourselves off from this body. Just as a finger could not miraculously survive were it severed from the rest of the body, we cannot survive spiritually when separated from the church. Yet if the church is simply a group of believers, then isn’t it flawed just as humans are flawed?
My uncle told me that he did not believe in “religion” because it is too influenced by humans. I do not believe “spirituality” is any less influenced by humans. The difference is that people who become spiritual rely on their own personal opinions or ability to judge, whereas people in churches seek the wisdom of their pastors and the counsel of their friends in their congregations. The church is a necessary body, a group of people upon whom we rely and dependent to point out our flaws and to help us grow.
The very first chapter of Proverbs advises:
“For attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young-
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance-
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”
If we pull ourselves away from the church, then we are no longer seeking guidance or wisdom from our fellow Christians. In the same way, we are denying others the valuable asset of our own wisdom. Other members of the church need our counsel and advice as well. Romans 12:5 tells us, “[In] Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” We are not truly belonging to other Christians if we are disconnected from them. Obviously, this system is imperfect. We will give bad advice, and others will advise us poorly. Yet it is better to have some advice and input than none at all.
Furthermore, we could be attending church without interacting in the way that Christ intended. If we merely show up, and do not start interacting with our fellow Christians as brothers and sisters, how are we better off than someone who decided to stay at home to simply be spiritual? Just because our brothers and sisters may bug us sometimes is no reason to reject the church altogether. In fact, if we do believe that there is a problem in the church, it is our obligation to point it out in a polite and respectful manner. If the church has become too political, or if our fellow Christians seem unloving and uncaring, our response should not be to reject them, but to help them correct themselves. Yet too quickly, our response is to want the easy way out: to stop coming and to find our own sense of spirituality which is untainted by our fellow humans.
Religions – spirituality included – are human beliefs and thus inherently influenced by humans. This is to be expected. We learn, we grow, we worship by interacting with one another. Everything in this world is influenced by humans, and that means that it will be made imperfect by humans. But we must remember that we do not gather to worship each other. We gather to worship the Lord, and he can never be tainted by human hands. For the time being, we best worship and see the Lord as but a dim reflection in a mirror, but someday, we shall see him face to face, in all his glory with no human imperfections. This dim reflection has its flaws; the church is human and imperfect. Yet Christ gave himself up for his church, and if we are called to be Christ-like, it seems that we ought to do the same.