I work from home, alone (well, except for my ever-busy furry feline and canine companions, and at the moment, a steady stream of contractors who are redoing our kitchen). But I have a thriving, vocal virtual community of other progressive Christian writers and bloggers. As in any more traditional workplace, conversation around my virtual watercooler occasionally focuses on some minor uproar or controversy. Lately, the controversy du jour has involved a writer who has written a best-selling book that was turned into a feature film, has a thriving blog and many speaking engagements, and is one of the more widely known figures in left-leaning evangelicalism (yes, there is such a thing!). He wrote a blog post explaining that he no longer belongs to or regularly attends a church, although he does get together with other Christians with whom he has supportive relationships. My corner of the blogosphere has since been lit up with posts asking this central question:
Can you be a Christian who doesn't go to church? Or is church participation a non-negotiable part of being a Christian?
I believe that church membership (really, more than membership, but active participation) is a necessary part of claiming the name of "Christian." There is abundant evidence that Jesus intended his followers to worship and follow God in a corporate, communal way—that is, together with other believers. For example, both his words (e.g., the parables) and his deeds (e.g., eating with tax collectors and sinners) frequently featured banquets and common meals. As Bob pointed out in his sermon last Sunday, even when Jesus went off to rest and pray, he brought some of his disciples with him. He spoke to crowds, and much of what he said, from the Great Commandment to the lessons of the parables, concerned how we treat one another and how we are to live together. Jesus also never intended to start a new religion, assuming that his followers would continue the communal practices of Judaism, including regular worship and the giving of alms.
The earliest Christians had a common life that makes our church commitment of weekly worship plus a potluck supper and outreach activity now and then pale in comparison. The first Christians shared possessions and ate together regularly. In our Episcopal tradition, our baptismal covenant asks us to periodically recommit to "continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers." While one can certainly pray without church, participating in teaching, fellowship, and the breaking of bread is much harder to do without a church community providing regular, structured opportunities to do those things, together.
Beyond the biblical and historical reasons that Christianity requires some kind of corporate commitment, I see common sense reasons that we need church to fully live out our Christian lives. Church provides accountability and structure within which we practice important disciplines, such as giving/tithing, prayer, and fasting (such as by giving up something at Lent that is "sucking the life out of you," as writer Benjamin Corey so helpfully puts it). Weekly worship not only gives us a built-in weekly reminder to pay attention to our spiritual lives, confess our sins, and know that we are forgiven and beloved, but also keeps us in tune with the rhythms of fasting and feasting, confession and healing, mourning and celebration that make up the seasons of the church year. And of course, there are the practical benefits of being part of a specific Christian community—the friendships with people who also seek God and some kind of meaning beyond the consumerism and achievement that our culture focuses on, the support we need when we are struggling and can give when we are not, opportunities to care for our larger community beyond just making a charitable donation now and then.
This is not to say that one cannot communicate with and learn about God outside of church. Of course we can. As another fellow writer, Zach Hoag, wrote in a blog post last week, there are also excellent reasons that we might temporarily choose not to belong to a church (for a few weeks, months, or even years), such as going through a major life transition, rethinking old assumptions and realizing we need a different kind of church, or having an abusive or very painful experience within a church community that requires time away to heal. But Hoag also writes, in that post and others, that being part of a local church is a formative and essential part of being a Christian over the long haul, even if we have occasional times when church membership doesn't make sense.
Churches—even a church as vibrant and welcoming as St. James's—are imperfect places populated by imperfect people. Sometimes, all of us can feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the hassle of getting kids to church every Sunday, the annoyances of putting up with quirky personalities or worship practices we don't enjoy, or the deeper struggles of making important decisions alongside people who don't see things our way. But I believe that belonging, really belonging, in a daily, weekly, regular way, to a community of fellow believers is at the heart of the Christian life. To me, being a Christian who doesn't go to church is like being a vegetarian who subsists mostly on Coke and Little Debbie snack cakes. Technically, it's possible, but it's far from ideal and misses the point. In both cases, we adhere superficially to a principal (not eating meat, being a Christian) but fail to embrace the deeper and larger purposes of claiming a particular label (eating healthfully, following Christ by living, gathering, and doing as Jesus did and as his followers have done for centuries). Or, to put it more simply, I believe that we need one another if we are going to do the hard work of following Christ. That work is too radical, too deep, too countercultural for us to do by ourselves. As theologian N.T. Wright put it, "it is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself.”
What do you think? Is it possible to be a Christian who doesn't go to church?
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.