“Do I have to go to church to be a Christian? ‘Cause if I do, then that’s a problem.”
The caller that had apparently picked a random church at a random time and got me on the other end of the line was looking for an answer to a question I have heard numerous times. What do I have to “do” to be a Christian? Do I have to get up early every Sunday and show up at a building in order to be a Christian? Which building should I go to?
Then, on top of all of that, I hear the second part of the issue: “I’ve had bad experiences in churches. People have hurt me. I’ve felt judged and attacked. I don’t want to go through that again. That’s the problem-if I have to go to a church to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to be one.”
There’s no quick, easy answer to these issues; too often we oversimplify, and in doing so we lose sight of the truth. So lets break this down a little. “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?” No and yes. No, because being a Christian simply means being a follower of Christ. The Bible says that’s as simple as believing in Jesus Christ as your savior, meaning his death and resurrection are enough for your sins to be forgiven. That’s not complicated. There is nothing we can “do” to become Christians – no amount of good deeds or actions can fix our relationship with God; only Jesus can do that. To think we can “do” something is to believe we are strong enough or good enough to equal the work of Jesus. We don’t “do” anything; we believe.
But, there is a yes to the answer as well. If we do want to follow Jesus, if we do want to be Christians, then we want to be obedient. Throughout the whole of the Bible, gathering together with likeminded believers is so obviously needed that it is assumed. Jesus repeatedly referred to gathering together, continuing to do what their Jewish predecessors had done for centuries. The entire book of Acts is about the establishment and growth of the early church. The books 1 and 2 Timothy and letters written by Paul as he mentors a young church pastor. Most clearly, Hebrews 10:25 says, “let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another…” (NLT). Maybe you can be a Christian without attending a church, but you would be doing so while disregarding something so fundamental to the faith that it begs the question as to whether the faith is truly yours.
It’s true that churches can be difficult places to be. There are judgmental people, angry people, and demanding people. We can feel attacked, betrayed, and alienated when we are a part of a church. That’s because churches are filled with sinful, flawed people like you and me. On top of that, when we open ourselves up to others we risk getting hurt. However, we also open up the possibility of having others fill us with the encouragement and support we need to get through the tough times. There is a risk in taking the step of being a part of a church community, but there is also the potential of great reward, both in having others love and support you and finding a place where you can love and support others as well.
If you have been hurt, I’m sorry. That happens too often and it breaks my heart. But don’t give up. Find a church, a group of people who share your faith and are willing to open their doors and their hearts to you. Get involved, take a risk, and see what a loving, supportive community can do for you. Life is too hard to do on your own; find others to share the burden with you. Our community has a number of great churches that would welcome you. If you don’t have a church family, try out a couple of these churches and find one to settle in to. God has some great blessings waiting for you there.