“If the Holy Spirit Is Within Us, Why is Church Necessary?”

Can you believe that yesterday I overheard another conversation about Christianity? Amazing! This one was between “Ann” and “Betty.” And it’s made me wonder: Are other Christians these days feeling as Ann does? Do any of you guys?

Ann: I feel weird telling you this, but I haven’t been to church in seven months.

Betty [gasps]: You’re kidding. But you’ve been going to your church since forever. You practically run that church.

Ann: I know. At first I was just taking a week or two off. And that week became a month. Then two. And now it’s been seven.

Betty: Well, that happens. Maybe you just need a new church.

Ann: I don’t know. More and more—and I can’t even believe I’m saying this—I find myself wondering if I really care about belonging to a church at all.

Betty [gasps]: Ann!

Ann: I’m serious. If you take away the part about communing with God—which is so intimate and personal it can’t really be communicated anyway—what is church? It’s mostly a social club. It’s definitely what amounts to a franchise branch of a larger, nationwide business. And say what you want about church, but it is a business. Churches make a ton of money—which right off the bad is a little suspect, you know?

Betty: But that’s such a negative way of looking at it, Ann. Churches do a lot of good.

Ann: They do. And so do lots of great organizations. You don’t need church to do good. You can volunteer for the Red Cross. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the “good works” that churches do. Because they so often make it clear that what they’re really doing is trying to convert people. It’s like you’re helping people—but at the same time you have going on this agenda for them. It always feels so kind of creepy. Kind of impure, really.

Betty: Dang, Ann.

Ann: I don’t mean to sound all negative about it. I do appreciate the wonderful benefits of church. I’m just not sure it’s right for me anymore. My walk with God feels stronger than it ever has. I still pray; I still study the Bible; I still try to pay attention to God all the time. It’s nice not to have someone telling me what the Bible says and God thinks. Without all the sermons and classes I’ve been hearing and going to all my life, I feel like my communications with God are clearer and more direct. And I can always get together with my Christian friends to discuss the Bible, or whatever. I just don’t see why church is so important. If it’s true that Jesus is wholly present within me as the Holy Spirit, why is church necessary?

Betty: Wow, Ann.

Ann: Seriously. What can man add to the presence and working of the Holy Spirit?

Betty [whispering]: I think that really handsome guy over there is listening to us—and taking notes.

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  • But now that you mention it, I think this underscores the problem with the whole voyeuristic church paradigm. Chances are that Betty was very busy 'feeding' because of all the immobile butts in the pews who were content just being 'fed'. She suffers from Church Burnout Syndrome. Been there, done that. Which means, in my opinion, she probably could use a break from church for a little while. Because, when she does move to another church, she will probably find herself being caught up in the who 20% work/ 80% sit machine again. Especially once the worker bees at the new church hear how she once pretty much ran her old one. Been there, done that, too.

  • JG

    Having worked for large churches for over thirty years, I've seen it all, from the "social club" cliques, the questionable use of tithes and offerings, to people's idealistic expectations shattered by the all too human behavior of church leadership. I've felt those dry periods, when the Word just seems to bounce off my mind and heart and I just don't want to hear it anymore. I've dealt with the politics, and hero worship of pastors, and people who use their church "turf' to experience some kind of power over others.

    I could go on… but I won't because bashing the Body of Christ is not my intention. Because, I've also experienced, received, and seen first hand the dedication of God's servants. I've seen people sacrifice unbelievable amounts of time and energy behind the scenes to serve others. I've seen how much pastors and supporting staff care through late nights at hospitals, counseling, financial help during economic hardship, shoulders to cry on, someone to pray with, and hours spent in prayer and studying to bring the Word of God responsibly as spiritual nourishment. I know of a young woman who came home pregnant and unmarried — someone raised in the church — who was greeted with love and a shower thrown by the church staff and years of emotional and spiritual support as she raises her child. I've see love in action over and over.

    I also have those days when I need to commune with God alone and hear His voice for myself, not filtered through someone else. I've seen people who are thoroughly involved — perhaps too much so, at the expense of family and health — who end up quite disillusioned with the ministry business.

    But in the end, we all need each other and even though I agree that we should be out there serving through other worthy organizations, workplaces and neighborhoods, no one can quite "get' what it means to believe in Jesus and have a relationship with Him besides other Christians.

    We are after, His Body, by biblical definition. And we may not always like each other or how we do things, but we can love the Spirit that dwells within and love each other like brothers and sisters in a large, imperfect family. We just need to ask God to help us be a healthy family and a safe place for people to find refuge!

  • Tim

    I really found this one interesting.

    I belong to, and have employment with a church in Rancho Bernardo. I ask myself, "Why church?", all the time. For me, church is family. I have my biological family close by and I am thankful to have them…believers or not. We don't always see eye-to-eye and we have our heated disagreements, but blood is thicker than water. My church family in Christ is no different. All of the hyper-spiritual, self-righteous, assholiness that permeates the church is really indistinguishable from the smug superiority that all-too-often accompanies the rejection of God or the church.

    Jesus modeled a church consisting of 12 people with one leader. Size can matter for both the good and the bad, but the paradigm, as Christian says, slides toward being a knuckle-headed "watcher" instead of a compassionate "doer". Thank God He is faithful to complete the work He starts in us. I keep the faith that eventually, we will get it right.

  • Sammy L.

    You must come from a part of the country where everyone has quotes around their name.

    Churches (particularly those with a hierarchical authority structure) almost inevitably devolve into the putting the power structures ahead of the people they they would hope to serve. This could not be clearer that in the Catholic church with the collusion and depravity and cover-up of sexual abuse. (look up the recent findings on decades of mind-bending abuse in the Irish Catholic 'school' system).

    The Catholic church (a heretical cult to some here) is more centralized and authoritarian than most Christian sects and, hence, has gone farther toward the dark side than others. It is the nature of humans to promote their value and their role in an organization. You won't find pastors thinking 'hmmm…"Ann" is right….people don't really need church. I think that will be my next Sunday sermon.' The organization becomes more important that the message…almost invariably.

    In general; we are all literate now and can read the bible ourselves should we care to. Back in the dark ages, it was the literate few who could read the bible and tell the illiterate masses what it meant (and who to hate)

  • I want to start hanging out at your coffee house…

  • I have also been dealing with this "why" question. Often, people talk about community, but I get plenty of community from my neighborhood and the theater group I work with (in fact, I often feel that church distracts me from my community). If it is about spiritual teaching, I get plenty of that from books, blogs, scripture, and friends.

    If church is where someone finds community and spiritual encouragement, great. But if someone is getting all those things and more elsewhere, WHY is it so taboo to not go to church?

  • Yep. And historically, the church as we know it in Protestantism didn’t really get established until Constantine put his stamp of approval on it. Before that a lot of Christians lived just like Ann.

    I’m not saying that because that’s the way things started that we re-establish it, but at least Ann’s viewpoint has a precedent, and a pretty solid one. Jesus may not have been trying to build Synagogue V.2.0.

    If it wouldn’t cause so much family pain, I would experiment with Ann’s approach just to see how it fit me and what I could learn. And if it didn’t fit, at least I’d have a new appreciation for what church provides.

    p.s. — where you hanging out at? The only conversations I overhear are those about Obama/Hitler and “OMG she totally like said like I was like all… I know!”

  • Allen

    Really, John — another column about your handsomeness? We get it, let’s have some actual depth next time .

    I think Betty’s right, Ann needs to look into other churches — unless she really never has doubts, never needs a community she can turn to. (Perhaps she’s one of those people who “Walks” and “Talks” with Jesus?) Next time her Christian friends are over for impromtu Bible discussion she could ask around about the social club thing at their churches. She might take a glance at that “one body, many parts” passage, it’s in the new testament somewhere…

  • Handsome, huh? Maybe for a guy in his fifties but…

    Anyway, I agree with Ann. Many (most) churches have lost their vitality and their relevancy. And I think that’s because they tend to think that religion is important. And religion tends to get in the way of God (at least that’s what Jesus seemed to be upset about all the time – nothing else seemed to irk him like religion and religious people).

    On the other hand, I disagree with Ann. She sounds to me like so many folk I’ve met who left a church (usually for another, though) because they are not being ‘fed’. Symptomatic of the voyeuristic church, where the people sit in the stands (pews) and watch the players (clergy) play the game. Sometimes being in a church is about service, evangelizing to the person in the pew next to you, helping some of the younger folk reach spiritual maturity without picking up all the religious baggage that most of us seem to have been saddled with. Sometimes we go to church to feed others, not to be fed.

    And just because you belong to a church and do your ‘tithing’ thing is no reason not to participate in the hundreds of secular organizations that are doing God’s work. In fact, make sure that your are NOT spending so much time or so much money on your own church that you aren’t supporting the Red Cross or the Good Will or the Sierra Club or even some other church’s work.

  • Christian: Excellent comment! But I do think it’s worth noting that watzername DID say that Ann “practically ran” her church. So I took that to mean that Ann wasn’t guilty of the kind of passivity you here speak of.

  • Ah, sorry. I was listening to Ann. I know it’s not right but I tend to tune Betty out.

  • Dan Harrell

    What Christians miss by adopting Ann’s approach is loosing the mentoring opportunities we’re all called to participate in, both with the youth of our church and new Christians. And don’t forget the fellowship. Sometimes being there affects others in ways it’s hard to measure.

    Setting a good example and working within the system may not seem interesting after decades of attending church, but perhaps it’s not all about what we get out of it, but what we give to others. That kind word offered, becoming aware of someone who desperately needs to talk, or teaching Sunday school. Those are things that go on regardless of who attends, but maybe God is trying to arrange for someone to intersect someone else at just the right time, so that he can work through them for his purpose. If we don’t attend, it may not happen.

    Maybe we attend for reasons that become less than appealing after a while? Do we burn out, or probably more to the point become disappointed in both the progress of the church and sincerity of the members, many whom fail us in ways we could never imagine before we were “in the know”?

    There is no more disappointing job than church treasurer. It is then you see another example of the selfishness that permeates the body of Christ. After a while you see all the needs not met, programs not finished, commitments not fulfilled and you wonder why God would want people to meet in churches anyway.

    And there is always some well intentioned soul who brings up the Acts 2 mantra about meeting in homes and selling possessions to share among those who had needs. But what isn’t talked about is that the model failed. It didn’t work.

    There is nothing in life, be it parenting, marriage, work or hobbies that is thrilling all the time. Even when our golf game is in shambles, we continue to play, and maybe get a lesson or two. We believe it will get better. We don’t sell our clubs. Faith means knowing sometimes you have to wait for God to bring the next opportunity to you to join him.

    Staying home from church may deprive you of just that opportunity. But in most people loosing the connection will start the spiral downwards away from the very people and process that makes life shine, albeit perhaps only a little while each week. But that brief time is better by far than the alternative.

  • Is that the beloved handsome guy? haha Sounds like Betty may need some help. Ann, however, has but one problem… like so many of us, she has confused ritualistic, rote 1-hour weekly gatherings for church. Church is more amorphous. For example, I bet some read this blog and comments and feel very much in church.

  • ERIC

    I like the comment's about social clubs. On the other hand if we don't have some type of relationship in our lives in helping build the community then how is it that our chilerns childerns childern will have a solid foundation of relationship with God. You reap what you sow. I have been in many churches across Canada and the ones I see building and growing solidly not in a superficial way. Are the ones who don't talk about talking about why not to go, but do something about impacting those "fundamentalists" in the body and those "legalitsts" in the body and the communtiy to get the truth out there, in other words taking action. You have to want it and well I can't see myself sitting around gossiping about the church sounds like a little bit of nonsense to me….You need to want to set an example, you don't really have to though you can get by doing nothing all you life but when it comes time to give an account of living a life seeking after our Father in heaven and he asks you so what is it you have done for me? And others what is it you will have to say……I could n't make it to church because they tried to talk to me?

  • Taryn

    I understand what Ann is saying. A few months ago I left the church I had gone to since I was in middle school for another church. I left the church because I felt like it was one big social club. They had activities and programs going almost every night, and the same families or type of families continued to come. No one ever did any outreach as a whole, and the church's mentality was basically that you come to them, not them go to you. Also, and I know this is nothing compared to some places, the head pastor makes $70,000+, but the church gives less than $2000 to any sort of missions program. I felt like it was so exclusive, and I tried to work and get involved, but because I wasn't like the rest of the congregation, I felt left out.

    The church that I now go to is completely different. It is much smaller, and like a family. I can call on anyone at anytime and they will help, no questions asked. They constantly have outreach activities for the community, state and country. To me, it's more like what church should be. All this to say, I know how Ann feels. Maybe if everyone would listen to the Ann's more, church burnout and dropout wouldn't be so frequent.

  • soapieus

    The original question is "Why church, if we have the Holy Spirit as God's children". Act chapter two tells us the true church was empowered (not begun) by that very Spirit. The true church(es) is the authority of spiritual things now here until Jesus returns. This leads to a whole other set of questions including what is a true church!?

  • Chewa_11

    Because being a Christian is hard. It is hard to put God, to put others before yourself. And going it alone on that journey makes it even harder. When you fail to live our your calling to be a Christian, as we all invariably will, there won’t be anyone to encourage you to get up, get off that path that led you to make unwise choices and to turn to something better. And then it gets harder and harder to live out your Christian values, so you give up. But by then, no one except God will notice.

  • Wanda Bohl

    I agree with Ann about the social club. However, the scriptures do not state that “the church” which is you (each individual is a temple for the Holy Spirit to dwell in), needs to meet in a “Building”. It does state, Hebrews 10:25, that we shouldn’t forsake the “assembling” together. Its does not say that it needs to be in a “Building” where someone is paid to give us the Gospel. When we have Christ “in” us, we are going to want to meet with others and talk about what He has done for us. Every day is meant to commune with God, not on just one day of the week.

  • Diana A.

    I like this.