89: Do I Have to Go to Church?

In this episode John and Gregg discuss listener Stephanie’s question: “Is it possible to have an authentic Christian experience without going to church?”

Gregg is enthusiastic that Stephanie developed this conversation in the Untangling Christianity private FaceBook group. He comments on the role of “obedience” in terms of going to church, noting that Hebrews 10:24-5 tends to be cited as “command” to Christians to attend church. Gregg summarizes the greater context of the end of the book of Hebrews by indicating that the focus is on who Jesus is, what Jesus has accomplished (bringing in the new covenant), and what this means for Jews relative to the first covenant.

However, Gregg is wary of finding a harmful circularity in this situation. He explains this by noting that if many Christians equate church attendance with being “obedient to God,” then this means obedience in what sense / to what? In other words, what is the greater cause to which Christians are beholden? And where the reply is often something like: “to be Christ-like,” Gregg would ask the same question: to what end / for what reason?

Here is where things often get a bit strange, because the answer is typically: because we are told to. So we are to be obedient in order to be Christ-like, and Christ-like in order to be obedient? Really?

In Gregg’s view, anyone detecting that type of circularity and still deciding to adhere to the Christian faith is someone willing to believe that Christianity is anaemic to reason and rational thought and living a purposeful life. And if Christianity amounts to both intellectual suicide and is divorced from real life, why would we want anything to do with it?

John notes that he has been immersed in a Christian culture for so long that he still hears this notion of Church attendance almost as a command. Yet he also believes that one can be a Christian while not going to church, and that going to church must be more that “checking off the box” that one was in attendance this week. John notes that Stephanie’s comment about “defiantly seeking the truth” may be exactly what is needed here, because for Christians not to attend church is being counter-cultural, or defying that culture.

John also highlights the love / duty distinction in terms of our motivation to attend church. Gregg asks, “Can churches impede our ability to know and relate to God well?” John thinks so, particularly as church-going so often amount to box-ticking and churches may be oriented poorer ways of understanding God (such as those found in not a fan).

Gregg then wonders, how would John explain his non-churchgoing to someone attending church? John first notes that church is not something that “adds value,” which means helping him to grow, think differently and enriching his life. He notes that church-going resulting in feeling angry, frustrated, and even empty.

John notes that he is looking for the experience of knowing God. Gregg challenges this: he is not always sure that when people are going to church and church is “working” for them, that they should actually be attending. So Gregg counsels care in how we use our emotional responses as yardsticks to measure whether church-going is beneficial / “working.” So he wonders how important John’s lack of emotional resonance with church-going is, relative to his choice not to attend church?

So Gregg returns to Stephanie’s comment about “defiantly seeking the truth,” and sees this as an orientation to seek a reasonable and rationally coherent faith that offers purposeful living. Further, Gregg argues that in terms of obedience Christians are called to be truth-seekers, which means being obedient not to the Bible but rather to truth, and the clearest and primary “truth” in the biblical text is to love God entirely, love oneself rightly, and love others likewise.

So Gregg translates this into examining our expectations surrounding church-going (both in terms of attending and not attending). Further, Gregg notes that experience of God is personal but not necessarily individual, and so John has indirect experiences of God, through Gregg’s testimony of how Gregg believes that God has acted in Gregg’s life.

In the end, Gregg argues that each person needs to “own” their faith and so to be able to explain their faith, not to others but primarily to oneself. We do this in order to understand what makes this faith real for us and that, by embracing this faith, we become real, more human, more fully alive.

So each of us should be able to explain what Christianity is “in our own words,” as well as who God is, what / who human beings are, and how we are to relate.

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