Another question from the backlog, this time around the role of the church and the importance of corporate worship:
I have a 15-year-old daughter that has been baptized as a Christian (she was perhaps 12 at the time) and is deeply spiritual. I think she is genuine in her faith, but we’ve recently encountered an impasse: she does not want to attend church.
I understand her reasoning to an extent. For example:
- She claims it’s possible to be a Christian but not go to church (I would say true, but not ideal)
- It has been difficult for her to find a place at our church and feels she does not fit in
- We attend a typical, “seeker-sensitive” American church that is all then rage these days… high on feels but low on substance, so she believes the church has little to offer
Would you be willing to help me out and provide some guidance I can share with my daughter?
I’d be more than willing, since this is a matter of inestimable significance to God, as I’ll shortly show. To answer your question, I’ll work through the three main reasons you give from your daughter for not attending church:
1. It’s possible to be a Christian but not go to church
In a trivial sense of course this is true. You could be stranded alone on a desert island for the rest of your life, have a Bible wash up on the shore, and be converted by reading it out of boredom. You’d never have any fellowship with other Christians, let alone attend church, but you’d certainly be a Christian and one of God’s people.
But we don’t judge questions by edge cases. Scripture is concerned with what is normal, and the New Testament just has no conception of a “lone Christian” in a normal religious situation. A Christian is a member of a family—what makes us Christians is adoption by God (e.g. Romans 8:9, 14–17)—and families love one another. This is the “new commandment:” that just as Jesus loved us, so we must love one another. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: that you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35)
Can your daughter reasonably claim to love other Christians if she refuses to meet together with them to worship the God who gave that command? Love is the “perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:14). [See my defense of love as “onetogetherness” in D. Bnonn Tennant, What is love? Part 2: the nature of triune love (August 2014).] Yet she refuses to have unity in that one thing that defines Christianity corporately? I don’t think that would fly before the judgment seat.
Consider also Hebrews 10:19–27, where the author, as he concludes his discussion of how there is no longer an offering for sin because of the better offering of Jesus, says:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Hebrews 10:19–28
Typically it is verses 24–25 that receive focus in these discussions, on how we are to stir up one another and not neglect meeting together. Certainly those are sufficient to prove that Christians ought to approach God corporately on a regular basis; contextually this refers to agape-meals, which today we’d call the Lord’s supper at church.
But the whole thought sequence is instructive. It begins by noting that since we are able to come before the presence of God through Jesus—there is no longer a curtain separating us—we thus should draw near in the full assurance of faith. But notice how we do this: there are two aspects.
- The first corresponds to the full assurance of faith: we draw near by holding fast to our confession (v 23).
- The second corresponds to drawing near itself: we come before God’s presence by meeting together and building up one another in love and good works.
The two are intimately related: it is impossible, in the author’s mind, to both unwaveringly hold fast to our confession and come before God rightly, without meeting together with other Christians. We cannot be stirred up to love and good works without input from our brothers and sisters. Love is not a solitary activity, and we cannot claim to love God if we do not love his family (cf. 1 John 4:20–21).
Yet the passage does not stop even there. In verse 26 it makes a truly dire claim. If we go on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth—the knowledge, in this particular passage, that we are not to neglect drawing close to God by meeting with his family to stir each other up to love and good works—there remains no forgiveness for sins, but rather the fearful expectation of judgment! This is no idle matter; it is a question of salvation itself. Meeting together is not a suggestion; it is a command, and if we refuse to fellowship with other believers, we are about to be trampled in the winepress of God’s fury.
2. She feels she does not fit in
This is something I can fully sympathize with. Speaking plainly, I fit in at my church like an onion in a bag of apples. That’s kind of how I fit in with everyone. I don’t think like other people think, I don’t understand the concept of accepting something just because someone said so, and I don’t get why you would avoid debate, so I am essentially relegated to the role of troublemaker in my church. I used to love serving our congregation by preaching, and believe I blessed many by doing so; but I had to step down due to disagreements with my eldership around my kingdom and covenant theology. [On kingdom, see D. Bnonn Tennant, What is the kingdom of God? Introduction: a tale of two kingdoms (October 2017).] [On covenant and its relation to justification, see for example D. Bnonn Tennant, Works-righteousness: a square contractual peg in a round covenantal hole (March 2018).] Then I alienated most of the women who still thought I was a good thing by working through the biblical view of gender roles and coming out strongly against acculturated feminism, arguing that women shouldn’t be heads of state, [E.g., D. Bnonn Tennant, 5 clear reasons Christians should oppose female heads of state (November 2018).] that we shouldn’t be glorifying them in combat by making female superhero movies, [E.g., D. Bnonn Tennant, Why a woman bearing the sword is an abomination to the Lord (May 2018).] that Paul really meant what he said about them covering their heads in church…that kind of thing.
I say this not to curry sympathy, to rather to demonstrate it: I know intimately what it’s like to flounder for a place in the congregation—but it has not stopped me going to church. My prime concern in going to church is not, “how can other Christians serve me?” I am not commanded in Scripture to find ways for my brothers and sisters to stir me up; I am commanded to stir them up to love and good works. So my prime concern is, “how can I serve my own family by leading them before God, and how can I serve my church family by stirring them up to love and good works?”
At the most basic level, the response to “I don’t fit in” is: so what? It misses the point because it’s not about you. Do not be conformed to the Western individualist self-serving mindset, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, presenting yourself as a living sacrifice which is holy and pleasing to God.
At a more pragmatic level, my response would also be: have you tried to actually serve the church? Maybe the reason you don’t fit in is because you expect others to do the work of fitting you in for you, instead of taking some initiative. Have you looked for real ways to proactively offer yourself in the service of others? There aren’t that many people who do this, so the chances are that if you offer, there will be genuine interest and appreciation. And who cares if it’s a menial task; can you do it? So do it. Many of the most important tasks for the smooth running of an assembly are mundane and unrecognized, but they still need to be done, and offering to do them will be a good, biblical way of finding a place there.
3. She believes the church has little to offer
In this she may be right. If your church is seeker-sensitive, it is time to move; the term is effectively synonymous with “non-gospel-preaching.” Your daughter should absolutely be attending church, but she has to be attending a genuine assembly of God; not a fake substitute where they play make-believe at being Christians. Although the emphasis in assessing a church shouldn’t be on how it can serve you so much as how you can serve it, nonetheless a social club with religious veneer will not stir you up to love and good works, nor plant or water the seeds of the word. The chances are that you’re not even getting fed spiritual milk, let alone meat.
The reason for this is simply that it’s impossible to preach the gospel, which is an offense to the natural man—it cannot even be understood (1 Cor. 2:14 etc)—if you’re trying to please the natural man and give him something that appeals to his natural mind. You’re inevitably going to give him something quite different.
I recently saw a quote on Facebook which made the observation that if you, as a Christian, went to a service at a mosque, or a synagogue, or a pagan blood ritual, you would feel distinctly uncomfortable. Why? Because you recognize that the god being worshipped there is not your own; that there is a fundamental conflict of loyalties. Your place in the world is not their place in the world. And that being so, why on earth should we expect unbelievers to feel comfortable in church? Certainly we should welcome them, encourage them, befriend them, beseech them, and even comfort them with the hope of the gospel—but expect them to be comfortable? That makes no sense. So the very concept of “seeker-sensitive” is incoherent from a biblical point of view.
Now, I am very opposed to church-hopping, because family loyalty is highly prized in the Bible, and churches are families. But one should not have loyalty to a fake church, an apostate church, or even to a very weak and sick church that is willing to avoid telling people to bow the knee to Jesus in order to get bums on seats. If that is the kind of church you are in, then you must move, for your sake and your daughter’s (and the rest of your family).
So that is what I would say to your and her questions; I hope it’s helpful.