So I had a unique conversation with one of my once-student-now-friends a few days ago. They asked me, [Must you go to church, to find God?] Splintered by the pain of this scar-tissued conversation, l could empathize with the plight of this question. I have sought for years to find the answer to this question, and here I am being asked to explain it… tables turned. Still, in a role of mentor/teacher to this person, I wanted to tackle this multi-faceted question, whilst still explaining my gathered thoughts with grace and truth. And days later, the conversation continues to inspire a deeper dive.
Here goes… The ABC’s of Church
well, more like: The AC/BC of Church
I explained it to them like this… there’s THE church, A church and BE church. In all, certain nonnegotiables exist and can differentiate them, but its important you know the roots of THE church before making any sort of definitive leanings on your answers. The question is not whether you must go to church to find God. I think the question(s) we face at some point in our spiritual journey is, does one have to attend church to prove connection with God? Is church attendance a requirement for acceptance with God? Or is there a greater purpose to this thing we call “gathering together?” Let’s separate these points…
“He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”Mark 16:15-16
Let’s unpack this… Simon Peter (a.k.a the friend that often puts his foot in his mouth! Oh ya, kinda like me!) made 3 power statements in this revelation.
1. That Jesus (man walking among them) was the Christ. Christ comes from the Greek, christos, meaning “anointed.” The Hebrew equivalent is mashiach or Messiah, meaning “the anointed one of God.” Anointed: consecrate, set apart, blessed, destined to be… Simon Peter first acknowledged that Jesus was The Christ… the one they had all been waiting for.
2. Son, the heir to the throne of God, Jesus was God’s Son… this says more about His authority to the words He spoke here on this earth. Remember Jesus Christ was man first in Chronos time… but the predestined Savior in Kairos time. From our human perspective, we were awakened to the revelation of Jesus as the Christ. But from the perspective of Heaven, Christ was first deity, becoming man… to save us from among us.
3. Simon Peter’s third point in his revelation was that Jesus was Son of the LIVING God… not a figure made of wood or stone, not dead, but ALIVE. I mean… that is kinda #nuffsaid right?! In that statement alone, we learn who and who’s He is.
Comprised together, Jesus says this…
“… Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Matt 16:17-18
Peter (Petros); means rock… Jesus got bars when He said, I will now name you rock… and on this rock I will build my church! I love how my pastor, Adam Smallcombe, puts this. It’s not the “person Peter” that will house the church… but upon this revelation (of who Jesus is… that the church of God is birthed. The Greek word used in this passage is ekklesia (G1577). It’s important to note that this compound word is derived from ek (G1537), meaning “out of or from” and kaleo (G2564) meaning “called or set apart.” The Church was never about the mere walls, but the foundation of faith that lived and breathed through the people positioned in belief. It is upon THAT revelation that nothing, nada, rien, 没有, niente, NOTHING… not even the gates of hell could stand against it… That is a powerful posse of people. This is THE Church. Period.
So if this revelation is the root of God’s posse, how did we end up with SO MANY BRANCHES?! I ask that almost comically… as I have often dreamed of what our eternal family reunion will one day look like! My mentor and I would chuckle… // gonna be some disappointed people in heaven when they realize all those “questionable folks” are right there with them! // Think about it… to be one of the biggest families around, we have more dysfunctional cousins than we can count! Now please suspend your tomato throwing long enough for me to get this all out! I am nowhere near perfect in the schism-mongering. We have different examples of movements bringing us “back to Jesus,” generation after generation. Those movements often gave way to new organizations and denominations (a recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church). All these branches aren’t bad! Frankly, most of them were birthed with good intentions, and without these branches, the church would be a lot less diverse. Like the letters of Beloved John and Paul the Apostle, these separate movements stemmed from a person’s revelation of God in a particular time and place. That revelation was then implemented as a culture on a group of people. Over time, revelation can easily become monotonous ritual, until the root of that one revelation is gravely forgotten. Look at the phrase Christian in America… take a second… what do you see when you hear that phrase… “Christian in America…” from different vantage points you may have differing sentiments… you may feel strong and proud in your reflection, while others may be fearful or physically disgusted… The phrase Christian in America has connotations like conservative, exclusive, saved, pro-life, anti-____, republican, right… the list goes on and on… For now, let’s stick to that first word: Christian. What does Christian actually mean? To be like Christ… If THAT is not the center of your Christian experience, I’m sorry, but you’ve missed the point. To be a Christian is not a political party, it’s not a charity organization, it’s not a country club, it’s a moment by moment walk, in the shadow and footsteps of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Don’t miss this. When people have an encounter with Christians that don’t look like Christ, it causes them to reject the community of faith. Trigger warning: that’s why folks don’t want to come with you to church on Sunday. When you have found God but you haven’t found people of God who love you in the way God is Love, it’s easy to take the road of solitude to protect your heart. So at first glance, taking this walk with Jesus seems a lot easier without dealing with the bureaucracy that comes with “a church community…” Be careful, for walking alone can become quick sand without the right tools for the journey.
Solitude: the state or situation of being alone.
Isolation: the process or fact of isolating or being isolated.
Flip a coin… we’ve all chosen one path or the other. It might actually be more on a spectrum. Solitude is merely an existence of being single, whereas isolation has a sense of push or pull to it. Ask yourself these questions: did I leave this event because I needed to wind down, or because I felt out of place? Am I seeking to refresh my mind or ignoring the unresolved parts of my relationship? Am I walking with God or running from the enemy? Chances are you can figure out where you are on this separation spectrum. Alone is not bad. It’s important to carve out time to be alone, in stillness and meditation with God. Solitude was something we see Jesus practice regularly to renew His soul. In this way, He models for us a daily walk with God. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) His purpose for solitude was to BE with God. That is when being alone bears fruit. What does renewing your soul look like for you? It may be on a long drive, a walk on the beach, (this one still perplexes me! but) washing dishes, silent meditation, or (my favorite) journaling… Jesus praying alone did not mean He wasn’t connected in community, but rather creating a pattern of communication solely with God.
Here are three men who encountered seasons of being alone. Their reasons for separation were all very different, but the outcomes give us tips on how to measure our steps in those seasons.
We most often find ourselves alone because we are hiding. We hide out of fear… fear of being known, seen, accused, hurt, accepted, anything. Fear causes us to abandon our post and seek cover. “There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (Like a mother playing hide-and-seek with her young, you know God knew exactly where Elijah was! But in that moment, it was imperative that Elijah profess his position.) He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 1 Kings 19:9-10
Elijah feared for his life, after ministering with confidence season after season. I repeat: FEAR drove him OUT of where God had him ministering. Also, check out his heart anguish… “they hate us God!” … as if to say that would change God’s plan… Elijah left his post, out of fear of man. Sound familiar? What’s God’s response?
“And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:11-13
God’s response remained the same… Elijah, you have followed my footsteps up until this point, what are you doing here? Ultimately God directs Elijah to RETURN. Think back on any time you’ve chosen to jump ship, whether in relationships, or in resilience. Repent, return, make right what has gone array. This is not condemnation, but course correction… Like Siri on the missed step, “make a U turn in 500 ft.” Community is important in our lives to remind us where we are called to walk, whether to keep going, or to make that U turn. Yes there was a season where Elijah was physically alone. Even then, the angels watched over him, feeding him in preparation for his journey. Still, when we are alone, the challenging lesson to be learned… is no matter how far we run, God will never leave us nor forsake us. And as close as a still small voice, He will be there to whisper in our hearts to continue the journey.
Sometimes you are alone, because revelation is coming. John’s time in the wilderness was like Steph Curry in the locker room. Preparation seasons are quiet. But the moment it’s game time, there is no stopping… for silence creates an inner strength and determination to persist at all costs. John came out of his solitude with a powerful message, he received a WORD in that wilderness and came back proclaiming for all to hear. “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.” John 1:23 He sounded the horn of preparation for the people of God. That silent meditation in the wilderness, fortified his understanding of the prophecy that was personified in Jesus. He returned a new man, and his words roared until the Son of God was revealed.
Singleness often tests what is fortifying us from within. If we didn’t have these recorded alone moments, we would never feel safe alone ourselves. One thing to always remember… it takes a strong foundation to withstand the turmoil that comes against you. Ecclesiastes says “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Ecc 4:12. It’s not a numbers game, but of edification and accountability, vital to our spiritual journey.
Here are 3 moments I’m reminded of when Jesus was alone, yet still anchored in His faith.
1. As a young boy, Jesus steps into the synagogue and fulfills prophesy before the religious leaders. Immediately after, Mary, mother of Jesus, Home Alone status, realizes she left her firstborn back at the church and panicked to return to him… I love this moment! Upon Mary’s return, Jesus says to her “Woman, l was doing the work of my Father.” I feel like the divinity of heaven translated through the hubris of a young pubescent boy converged on this soon-to-be King! We know what that zeal looked like, and gently cringe on the inside when reading it. Every black mom, quickly responding… “Oh no you didn’t!” Knowing the end of the story, we see the picture in full. But imagine the conflict of that revelation within the both of them. Jesus was still a boy, but Mary will never forget that conception story. She knew He was on loan to her… that one day she would have to let Him go… In that moment, we see a foreshadowing of His future separation from flesh. (Luke 2:41-52)
2. Jesus was baptized. The moment He arose, the heavens opened to an audible voice of God, and profession of sonship. Immediately after this, we could imagine there’d be a party, with lines of wait-listed hopefuls trying to be a part of His posse. Instead, Jesus was cast out into the wilderness (sensing a theme yet?) for 40 days and nights. He didn’t go to church for over a month! Jk. Tempted in every way, He endured being alone, by not what He could put into Himself, but what came out of Him… the word. Jesus combated every single fallacy of the enemy, with the living word of God. 3 times He was tempted, and each time, fought not with his hands, but with His thoughts and words. “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Deuteronomy 8:3 “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Deuteronomy 6:16 “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Deuteronomy 6:13. (Matt 3:13-16; 4:1-11; Deut 8:3; 6:18; 6:13)
3. After Jesus died on the cross, and as prophesied long before, Jesus endured the most challenging separation of all… being separated from the Father. Now there are many thoughts of belief on this one… I’m going to focus on the fact that Jesus our Savior personified, took off His heavenly robe, and wore our earthly sin, guilt and shame. Being that Jesus was perfect and knew no sin, the weight of this for all humanity was so heavy and dark, that it blinded Him from the un-forsaking God of Heaven. If this was God’s plan of redemption from the beginning of time, then God remained with Jesus, but like a coma, Jesus couldn’t feel the hand of God in the midst of struggle… as we often feel God has left us when we can’t see our way. The point is this… whether you believe God left Jesus on the cross, or was merely hidden for a season, we cannot swallow those last words without feeling the weight of that pain… “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” That pain is real. And we have all felt it… That’s when we know that the suffering of our faith was modeled by the choice to endure on that cross. He could have chosen to let this cup of suffering past. But for the JOY set before Him (for us…) He endured. WE are called to live that life… in the shadow of His footsteps. (Mark 15:34; Heb 12:2; 1 Pet 2:24)
Were any of these three men ever really alone?
You tell me.
So the question… can you be a Christian and not go to church… the truthful answer… is YES. But YES, is a tricky response, and requires a lot more diligence to thrive in your faith. Often you will hear a bold NO to this question, simply because it is harder to explain the danger that ensues from isolation. For these reasons, those in recovery stay closely connected with their sponsor, you stay consistent with those whom you surround. This is why we should stay actively connected to an accountable group of believers: Hebrews 10:24-25 “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another…” Now does it mean that God encounters are exclusive to a church experience? Brace yourself. No. The Church is like Planet Earth; peaks and valleys, waters and lands, every color under the bright sun, sometimes humid, sometimes arid, but all enclosed in one connected piece of earth. A church (community) is like your zip code, a way to classify where you live. It doesn’t negate that you live within a greater city, state, country… It does not deny your identity as an earthling, but rather describes how you are conditioned to live. So when looking at the diversity of The Church, it’s imperative we align ourselves within the revelation: The foundation of The Church is on Christ. As a Christian, I am like Christ. Christ lives in me. That makes me His temple. This is how we BE… the Church.
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred,
and you together are that temple.“1 Corinthians 3:16-17
7.7 billion people living on earth (that we know of)
Of that, 365,029,743 people living in North America
327,812,216 in United States alone…39,776,830 in California
1,663,190 in Alameda County
233,136 in Fremont, Ca.
52,141 in my zip code
about 24 houses on my block
4 people (and 2 dogs) in my home.
and yet… only ONE me.
Let that sink in.
YOU are literally 1/7.7 billion…
and wonderfully made.
Let’s circle back to the “Christian in America” phrase… American Culture and Church Culture have been blurred into misery, often hard to separate one from the other. Without context, listening solely to how American Christians look at Church Culture, you would think Jesus was born in the hay bales of Texas and had a licensed firearm on his waistband. When you start hearing things like… “it’s Sunday, of course I go to church…” You are likely living in the South, or in an area heavily inundated with Church Culture. I remember going to New York to study, and there was a church on every corner… Being a Cali girl, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, I had grown up in “unconventional building” churches for most of my life. This is where my principle of “people over place makes church” started to take root. I was not acquainted with the ritual of tradition (or so I thought) that I often found in those beautiful, history rich, architectural pieces of art, we called churches (often on the east coast). I was finding my practice of faith, not measured by my perceived outcome. I suppose that’s how I felt in high school, attending a catholic all girls school. I learned the ritual, but never performed them without intention. Still, I was the observant kid who called the bluff of my authorities and peers, who lived schismed lives… adopting the split of church ritual, getting their weekly pep talk, before “living their lives” how they saw fit. Their spiritual intention was once a week, 93 minutes long, finished with a donut and a cup of coffee. That was not my understanding of following Christ. After college, I began traveling the world and having these following-Christ moments, and I surely found Him in the most obscure locations. This was when my Christ-like gauge flipped. I found God more often outside the 4 walls of a church, and was desperately malnourished from within the church. I even renounced the name Christian, loving God, but not wanting to be associated with His people. Seeing God move in everyday encounters made keeping the rules and by-laws of man distasteful for me. This is when that Matthew 16 revelation of truth began to haunt my walk with God. Why is the body of Christ more concerned with our myriad differences? When did we lose sight on who and what we were created to be? Why is the place founded on a Living God, full of people covering up their dying souls. If we are indeed free in Christ and new creations, why do we try so hard to look and act the same? This is NOT the Church of God, but a church of man.
This is when I began to see that Christ living IN me, refining me, correcting me, continually molding and shaping me into His masterpiece… that was the place of true communion with God. That is when Church IS and can be… anywhere and everywhere, when Christ lives IN ME. The responsibility of acknowledging that, meant that it was no longer anyone else’s fault but mine that life was not present in the room. With the Living Word within me, l am called and commissioned to be that light… anywhere and everywhere.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”Romans 8:19-23
Even if I let out His light for 2 hours a day, for someone, that might have been the first time they were able to see past the darkness. Imagine if every person in the Kingdom of God were to uncover the Light of God in all things… the darkness of the earth, the pain and disease, hate, violence, anguish, greed, fallen nature of this world would perish. Because again… it is on the revelation of Jesus, the Christ our Savior, the Son of the Living God that nothing, not even the gates of hell can prevail against.
UNLOCK your Light! BE the Church.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”2 Corinthians 4:7-9
“No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”Luke 8:16