Hopefully everyone reading has had a good church experience at least once in their lives- one where they were growing in their faith, experiencing God's blessings, building constructive relationships with other Christians, seeing God's interests advanced in various ways, and generally being filled with joy through the experience. A good church experience is a great blessing.
But what happens when that changes? One day, you realize that you just can't "do church" anymore. There's probably a hundred ways this can happen, but here's a few that come to mind:
There are various options here:
Most of us have been taught (in churches, of course!) that the first option is the only option. The second is frowned upon, and the other options are likened to "quitting" or "falling away." But is that really true from a practical and Scriptural point of view?
The Bible uses the word "church" in two senses-- what we might call the "local church" (a specific group of people in a specific place that can meet and interact regularly), and the "universal church" (all Christians everywhere). Even if a Christian isn't a part of a church in the first sense, he will be one in the second sense.
The idea of "church membership" as we use it today is not found in Scripture. Stop thinking about being on a local church membership roll and start thinking about being on God's membership roll (Hebrews 12:23). That's the only list that matters.
The early church experience (the one talked about in the Bible) was pretty different than the church experience today. And it's more than just the idea of "church membership."
For example- when you read through the New Testament, you see the emphasis was on the individual believer's faith, values, and lifestyle. The church or spiritual community was a means of instructing and encouraging believers in their faith, and it was also a place of fellowship. The church appears to be much simpler and more organic in that era; there is no evidence of the plethora of programs, structures, etc. that we might see today (more on that later).
While we need not condemn necessary or beneficial things that may make the church today less simple, we should recognize that those things are not the core of the Christian experience.
What are some of the things seen today but not in the early church?
Again- these things are somewhat necessary and need not be considered bad. But we have to be honest about their whole impact upon the church experience- both the good and bad.
Sadly, for many all of these modern church elements may mean yoking your spiritual health and growth to your involvement and/or position in the institution. Subtly, one goes from being a servant of God to a servant of an institution without ever realizing that those are not the same thing.
Once on that path, one is encouraged to "grow" by striving for more involvement and sometimes positions of responsibility without realizing this may have nothing to do with your actual spiritual growth or faithfulness to God.
A "good church member" may find himself spending an enormous amount of time and energy managing all of these "church things" at the expense of his own faith and conscience.
Having been a church member and leader in various roles and numerous local churches for more than three decades, I have experienced how church involvement can hijack or divert one's faith in more ways than I can remember. And it's not just a negative side effect-- it is built into the way many churches do things.
This is not about complaining about churches. But in light all of this- ask yourself-- were these things matters of concern in the early church? And if not-- why? Is the diminished spiritual life many face a result of this change?
Individual members may not be able to change the way churches are, but we can change how that experience impacts our faith.
Many of us are familiar with the tough choices Jesus presented to those who wanted to follow him in his earthly ministry (Matthew 10, etc.). While it is important to understand those in context, and also somewhat problematic to impose those sorts of calls into the lives of all Christians today (see Disciples, Followers and Believers), is it not possible that one's church membership entanglements might be among the things that would hinder following Christ today?
As Jesus instructed his followers to make tough choices about competing spiritual priorities, later in the church age Christians were instructed to "throw off everything that hinders" (Hebrews 12:1). So maybe another of the "tough choices" Christians may have to make has to do with rejecting church and spiritual community involvements that have proven to be a hinderance?
So up to this point, we've looked at church life possibly being a problem in the life of a Christian. But what about the churchless alternative? Are there examples of "churchless Christianity" in the New Testament?
The early church experienced a scattering in Acts 8:1ff due to persecution. While many presumably had a good experience with the early church community to help ground them in their faith, the scattering put an end to that. Those who had been scattered preached wherever they went (Acts 8:4)-- they were still faithful to God in spite of being removed from their local church experience. And in fact, it appears that God had a plan to use that to spread the Gospel!
The story of the Ethiopian official in Acts 8 shows that Philip had no qualms about a young Christian being sent "rejoicing on his way" (Acts 8:39) as he returned home with no local church awaiting him.
Paul and his companions traveled from city to city looking to establish churches-- but during their travels and before those churches were established, their band constituted "their church," possibly in the spirit of "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them" (Matthew 18:20).
Many of the greatest spiritual heroes in the Bible- Moses, David, many of the prophets, and even Jesus-- spent quite a bit of time on their own, away from their spiritual communities. In fact, many times they were at odds with their spiritual communities as those communities exemplified the problems those leaders were addressing. They were not considered unfaithful to God by any means.
Their isolation was a testimony of their righteousness and an instrument of God's work. This lesson should not be lost on those of us that feel something similar in our faith experiences today. In the midst of isolated times, God did some of his most amazing things-- from the burning bush of Midian (Exodus 3) to the Revelation on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1).
Church history also shows us some interesting things as well. Many of the great spiritual movements in Christian history have occurred because faithful men and women rejected their current spiritual experiences, often due to reasons like those above. Whether they formed new movements or organizations to focus on important works, or simply withdrew to focus on renewing their spiritual lives, they too found a way to take a negative and turn it into something that was a plus for the Kingdom of God.
An objection to all of this may come to mind. Haven't we always been told that Christians "have to go to church?" Well, let's consider that a little more carefully.
Christians are supposed to love and encourage one another, and they are not supposed to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). What about communion and baptism? Don't Christians need to be a part of a church to do those things?
These things seem to make a case against churchless Christianity, but what they really do is show that the concept of community needs to be redefined. Instead of defining one's spiritual community as a local church, it should be viewed as the other Christians that one knows- friends and family. This might be more work, but it is probably more authentic!
Is there a possibility that a churchless Christian could be isolated from other Christians? Of course. But that could also happen with a member of an organized church as well.
And-- there is nothing preventing somebody from visiting organized churches from time to time as well.
If a Christian is not a member of a local congregation for a time (or maybe even a long time), it need not be an impediment to his faith. In fact, the time and energy that used to go to many frustrating or fruitless things can be redirected towards other things.
Moreover, the constraining of faith that takes place in a bad church experience can be cast aside (Hebrews 12:1) and the follower of Christ can truly be freed up to have an more authentic faith experience. Many of us have been trained to believe that we need to follow a church's program to be faithful to God. But we've seen that many of the greatest examples of spirituality in the Bible itself were on this "road less traveled" away from spiritual communities.
Let's not constrain our view of faithfulness to be mere conformity to a church experience, but rather the living, dynamic walk of faith. God can work in a local church environment, but he can also work apart from it.