A few months ago, Natalie and I came home from a day at our respective workplaces and we’d each been asked the same question, “Where do you guys go to church?” I’ve asked it of others many times. Depending on their answer, you make assumptions. There should be no shame or harm in asking it of Christians. But our awkward answer is, ‘Nowhere, at the moment.” And as we reflected on the coincidental questioning, we both couldn’t help go through the reasons and options before us… again.
We live in a part of the world where lockdowns have eased and attending a service on Sunday is open and easy. We don’t have logistical reasons for going nowhere. There are about ten church services we could attend within ten minutes drive from our home. We know people in most of those congregations. We don’t work Sundays. We have deep love and respect for many of the pastors of these congregations – some are friends. Yet, most Sundays we find ourselves anywhere but at a church service. Like many who find themselves unable to answer the opening question with ease, our reasons are complex.
As I list some of the reasons behind why we don’t attend a local church, I have to acknowledge that part of me is still living with a combination of guilt and shame because we don’t take our family somewhere on the weekend. My kids don’t attend a youth group. We don’t attend a small group of sorts. We don’t give or tithe to a church. Yes, I still advocate for the support of pastoral workers (and their families) whose wellbeing lays heavy on my heart. But as a guy who served on stage two services-per-Sunday for decades plus spent nearly 7 years travelling to help churches, it has taken me a couple of years to shake off the habit and feeling that I ‘need to’ or ‘should be’ attending somewhere on the weekend. But I just can’t…
If you know my background, you’ll know the life Natalie and I poured into The Church, both voluntarily and in career/jobs. It has shaped me. From the little AOG Church on Bribie Island QLD where I came to learn about Jesus in my teens, a missions stint in Tokyo in my twenties, through to deep involvement in inner healing and pastor-support in my thirties, my life has been anything but dull or uncommitted. As much as I gave, I have also been a receiver of much… and still am. But now, in my early 40s, my relationship with the church looks different. At this point of life, I face unique challenges. By no means have I written-off the value of attending and being involved in a local church. Nat and I often talk about getting back to it later in life. But I’d like to share with you some of the reasons we don’t attend a church anymore.
Before I list my reasons, I am aware that there are some who have come to a place in their life where they are done with church altogether. They may or may not still hold a level of faith in Christ. They may have been hurt by a church and absolutely hate it. I get that. I really do. But that is not us. Yes, I am still recovering from a degree of C-PTSD as a result of the work I was involved in and exposed too. But I don’t hate The Church, nor am I done with it. I list these reasons knowing that very few people will relate to all of them, but you or someone you know may resonate with a few of them and I want you to know that you’re not alone. Let’s face it, recent events and restrictions have disrupted the reasons and habits of gathering on Sundays. Lots of people are wrestling in their relationship with The Church.
KIDS AND DIVERSITY
We have three children. 17,13,11. Two of them live with diagnosed sensory disorders and neurodiversity. All of them spent years of their childhood in church. They also spent years of their childhood with their dad travelling to distant churches half of the year. They simply don’t want to go anymore. And they are not alone according to this research. We don’t want to go without them. And we don’t want to force them. We pray with them. We talk about being Christ followers but getting them in a car on Sunday morning and taking them to a church service now is just too stressful for us all. (I clearly remember the last time we attempted it involved lots of bribing and swearing.) We don’t want their memory of church to be negative or traumatic. So we have learnt to let it go for a season. If you or someone you know are sensory or neuro diverse, whether HSP, ADHD, HSP or otherwise, you’ll know that many modern church services are overwhelming. The lights, sounds, music, crowd, preaching, cheering etc are a LOT to take in. As a highly sensitive person (HSP – it’s a nervous system trait), having not attended regular services for a few years now, I have come to realise how much overwhelm and stress I held in my body on Sundays. I was never able to sit through a sermon without going to the toilet to pee. I could never relax. I would always come home and need a nap because my nervous system was shot. As I’ve aged, my ability to push through, coax the kids and ‘just turn up’ has wained. Nat is the same. Sundays have become true Sabbaths for us; Restful, restorative, reflective. Maybe you can relate.
I’ve always had an interest in theology. I know many Christians don’t nerd out on it like I do, but my curiosity finds itself at home in the research, books and podcasts that dig deeper into scriptures and history than Sunday sermons or pop-preaching allow. I’ve always tended to shy away from anything mainstream – preferring to read and ask questions at the fringes and origins of things. The core tenants of my faith don’t differ from most but, at the moment, I do hold differing and suspended views on topics of eternity, atonement, salvation, sexuality, gender roles, spirituality and end-times that many protestants do (incl. evangelical / pentecostals ). Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to hold space for a variety of sermons and views but if I’m honest, I don’t know if I could actively commit and invest in a local church family where sermons, prayers and actions are based on the same theological views I once held and lived by. Is that pride or rigidity in me? Perhaps. I hope not. I can see the importance and appeal of many of the theological views I once held too. But I’m not the kind to attend church, only to be untangling the sermon from myself and my family on the way home. Let’s face it, Sunday messages are not meaningful conversations. They are a monologues. I’m also at a stage of life where I can’t just turn up and participate with a large part of me silenced and shut down? I’m a pretty diplomatic guy but I made a decision a few years ago as I was travelling and preaching that if a church wasn’t prepared to hold a space for all of me, they wouldn’t have any of me. My invites decreased, but the sense of being true to myself skyrocketed. Still today, there are a small number of congregations I feel very much at home and honoured in (but none of them are local, unfortunately). In short, image-management and peace-keeping through silence requires more energy than I have right now. Maybe this is you too.
Natalie works as a social worker in a low socio-economic community. Everyday, she’s at the coal-face of service to the underprivileged and under-resourced. Like many social workers, she’s practically a community pastor (with fair pay and better training). By the weekend, she doesn’t want to be around needy people who find her after the service for advice. She doesn’t want to be serving another charity. She needs a break. We need to shop, clean the house, prep the kids for school etc. She’s had her faith and community fix at work, chats with friends and in our home.
Until this week I have worked at a Christian charity two days per week. I mainly work with Christians. I work as a chaplain and trainer of sorts. I attend/facilitate the workplace devotions most days. On other days I catch up with friends for coffee and chat. Most of them are Christians. I connect with pastors often. I run my Poetry Chapel group. I have plenty of fellowship. I know many people who don’t have work weeks like I do and Sunday is where they connect with other Christians and are encouraged in their faith. I’ve been there. It’s super important and I get the desire to be part of services and communities on the weekends. But that’s not us.
STAGE OF FAITH
I have been a follower of Christ for 25 years. I have no intention in stopping. I love God too much. I’m loved with an everlasting love. I’ve been in church leadership positions for decades. I founded a ministry. Managed others. Written books. Seen miracles. Travelled nations. I’m parenting young adults. I’ve been through bankruptcy and countless personal and familial challenges. God knows my heart and the long hellish roads we’ve journeyed through. As far as my faith goes, I’m not a kid anymore. Nor am I a teen. I hope, if there is anything I’ve achieved in my faith journey, it’s not accolades or attendance stickers – it’s maturity. And maturity comes to us over time, by God’s grace, on the narrow road of obedience, suffering and healing. Maturity even comes via deconstruction and reconstruction – AKA sanctification. If you knew our full story, you’d know we’ve helped countless others through their fair share of challenges too. One of the books that describes the stages of faith very well is called the Critical Journey. I’ve taught on their model quite/a bit. It’s given me the language and permission to be OK with where life finds us now. Maybe you’re OK too.
AGE & MATURITY
If I may, I’d like to add some final and developing thoughts regarding maturity and age. This may come back to bite me, but… withstanding reasonable excuses, if you have been in The Church for 20+ years, sat through thousands of sermons and taken your faith seriously, I personally think you should be able to successfully lead your own faith journey and have something significant to offer those in earlier stages on their faith and life journey (AKA discipleship). Is that often preached? Are people who’ve attended church for decades told to grow up and go out? Sadly, no. I tend to think many modern Western models of church prefer to retain attendees and want a return from their members in volunteer service and funding instead of doing the brave, hard, healing work of releasing them.
Let me put it another way:
* Healthy families invest in their children to release them into the world. Right?
* Profitable companies invest in their customers for a return. Right?
* Perhaps churches desiring to be apostolic should invest in their people to release them, not retain them (Eph 4). And maybe this should look more like a family than a company or empire. Yeah?
Church models interested in keeping people in immaturity and dependency trouble me. Don’t get me wrong, there are always dysfunctional sheep who like to push away personal responsibility and prefer to hand agency and authority over to willing and possibly narcissistic or codependent shepherds – but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Here’s the thing: I meet so many smart, capable mature Christian men and women 35yrs+ who are waiting on some kind of permission, invitation, qualification or carved out ministry plan to start something of their own. Man, if my daughter, at 25 is still calling me to see if she is allowed to change jobs or date someone, I have failed as a parent! Does this resonate with anyone?
In summary, the reasons we don’t attend a local church are complicated. Some may think we are forsaking ‘the gathering together with others’ (Heb 10:25) – but that would imply we believe it’s unimportant. No way! If our daughter finds a church somewhere she wants to drive to and attend, we’ll support and encourage it. Our son often attends a local youth group with a mate, and we’ll gladly take him! But for us right now, it’s not as simple as clocking in at a Sunday service anymore. We’re capable, responsible, skilled adults who are in a season and stage of life where things look different than the ingrained or expected norm for many. Did it take me a few years to stop feeling guilty? Yep. Did I see a therapist about it. Yep. The inner tug that I should be attending a single church we feed and learn from was very real – particularly because the Pentecostal denomination I spent years in and was ordained by (ACC) holds service attendance in high regard. But right now we’re happy, healthy and at peace with where we are at. Perhaps, you are too.
Well I have read this right through to the end. Understand and agree with your sentiments. We are the church wherever God leads us. Be kind be loving be blessed. Michele O’Farrell
I have heard about you from the Open Table Conference Table folks and have 2 of uour poem books: The Wrestle and Do I Wrote You a Poem. They are so helpful!
I am in a very similar place now concerning church attendance and canmot. I wonder if i ever can…but my time away is helping me to hear more clearly the voice of Love/God/Jesus and to relax into the being I Am created me to be. Thank you so much for this post!
You’re welcome Elise. Glad you like my books too
Much of what you have said resounds with me, and I have stepped away from my 25years in one church and it’s a journey that’s freeing and sad, but you have helped me understand. Thankyou.
Melanie. I’m glad the article found you
Thanks David, appreciate you reflections. I learned some similar lessons, unfortunately too late not to have my family bear the brunt of the fall out. I am doing my best to trust in Gods love for them…and me.
The pull to belong to a single church is still there though, especially as almost our entire relationships were formed there – for better or worse. For me, but less so my wife who long long before me saw the fallacy of how we [especially me) were living, I have struggled to form friendships outside of church. Not that I hold any negative theological position on those ‘outside’ the church, rather my entire relationship framework from teenage years was tied intrinsically to the faith community I grew up in – both spiritually and physically.
As a 60+ year old I still am dealing with some unanswered questions (and maybe still some resentment) from those times but I am attempting to listen to and live in – grace and love.
Adrian. You have mentioned a part of leaving a congregation that is so common and so painful. Good Friendships take much to form. They are painful to lose when you’re meeting place changes. Bless you in your pilgrimage .
Thank you thank you Be blessed
Thanks David. I can so relate. Yes, we ARE the church and church happens wherever one makes disciples.
I was an institutional church pastor myself for 10 years and then due to medical reasons, I was put on medical leave for 2 years. (Turned out to be the best thing ever to dig deep in hearing God.) Afterwards, we sought the Lord about church and we felt He was leading us to circle the wagons and heal. My family is still healing from the church culture we were in. (Our 2 boys are sensitive too, plus my husband is too.) And it has turned out to be an incredible journey. I feel like we have seen more of God at work than ever! A book that I read that totally changed my perspective on ‘going to church’ vs ‘being the church’ is: “Jesus Has Left the Building” by Paul Veira. Then, I was introduced to DMM and the documentary “Sheep Among Wolves”. These days, I walk with burned out pastors and missionaries and it has been amazing! Last night I received this note from one career missionary I’ve been coaching: “Was just thinking tonight about how much God has taught me about His heart in learning the journey you have gone through, even outside of the coaching or activations. (Especially what you have taught me about the Church and community) The past 9 months have been the most fun adventure! 🔥🔥🔥🔥Thank you!” God is doing a NEW (old) thing with the church!
Thank you for your honesty and the beautifully articulate way you have shared your heart David.
I too am struggling to find my place and yet I struggle with the disconnect from church as well. Church is a familiar and comfortable place but it’s comfortableness challenges me at present. I am questioning the function of our ‘comfortable fortresses’ and our response to the loved ones outside. Not pointing fingers, I mean myself 100%.
Busyness, weariness, repetition and same-same every service seems to quench my energy for real evangelism. One online teacher I have grown to respect has seared my conscience with this “the Church is content paddling in perpetual shallows while the world is burning”.
Perhaps some of us are searching again for our true north.
With sincere respect for you and your family,
Thank you fir sharing tour perspective, however, I see Gods words says quite a few times”, do not forsake the assembly”. We ppl are the church we must meet together. I can definitely feel the effects when my sons and I do not attend church. My boys and I attend a church faithfully on Sunday a church where the youth leaders are committed to hearing listening g sipping with the HS. This has big a huge Influence on and to my 4 tween and teen boys. I don’t have to coax or bribe or (times..) curse etc to get them tj go to church sundays not Wednesday nights. In fact they are sure to ask me excitedly..” we are going to church.. right…? Which baffles me bc I never desire to ski church. Regardless of what others I. Church May do or say or fill in the blank. That’s between them and the Lord. I go bc the word is clear we are the body of Christ and should not forsake going to church/ the bldg. my boys are learning. What it looks like to receive words of knowledge from the Lord for others as well as words of prophecy as well as healing in Jesus name. It’s amazing! God Is so faithful to His word to perform what He says it will do. I do pray Abba will lead you to the church He has for u and ur family. Lastly, regarding vivid. The spirit of faith in the Lord I carry and their father carries is one of natural child like faith. I believe wholeheartedly this is why we do not struggle w most sicknesses. My boys do not fear COVID etc. This is why when y2k … also all other scares this world has feared computers crashing , no food…etc it never took hold of me nor my children.I did nit feel the Lord tell me to prepare in any way shape or form. We walk in literal child like faith. I know in my heart this is why we r unmoved. I do receive it all as God’s grace on my life and am soo grateful for it. I do pray you will hear what Abbas saying ti u and urs. Multiple blessings to u and urs.
Merri, sounds like you have found your sweet spot in this season. Taking the journey and experience you have walked to help others. Bless you
Sue, thank you for sharing and your encouragement. May you continue to lean in to where you feel you’re being led
Angel. Thanks for writing. I’m happy for you and your boys. That you’ve found a community that makes life better for you. This is wonderful. Thank God.
Regarding the scripture you mentioned (which I mentioned in the article too) doesn’t actually appear ‘quite a few times’ as you commented, it appears once in Hebrews 10 where the author was concerned about Jewish Christians abandoning their faith because their Christian brothers and sisters who were being persecuted.
All that said, if you read it elsewhere and see its context differently, and this strengthens your sense of faithfulness, who am I to argue? I’m sure you are a blessing to many in that local church group.
I pray I continue to hear from Abba too. This is my desire.
You articulate your position well. I also have a similar current dilemma but the reasons for this do differ in some ways.
I use poetry to express what is happening to me and like you I am in love with Almighty God, my Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
“Jesus said to them, ‘Come away with me. Let us go alone to a quiet place and rest for a while’.”
I ‘swim’ around the fringes
Clinging to the edge
Afraid of the centre’s lostness
Where so many others go
To argue and rage
Never listening to one another
Never hearing The Words of Grace
Too ready to judge
Too ready to know
And ‘burn’ a friend
No room for compassion
Or being wrong
No True Relationship which corrects
And holds firm to His Love
I’m afraid to ‘swim’ in the mainstream
Where God’s Love doesn’t grow
I’m scared of their understanding and the things they think they know
I’m lonely on the outside
But full on the inside
Here I throw my arms around The One who loves me so.
I wait on Him to show me where I must go
In patience I’m left standing
Waiting to know
Often over eager, wanting to go
Only trusting in His Love
To find The Place I know.
September 20th 2021.
May God always bless you and those you love. ✝️🕊️
Thanks for these thoughts which resonate with me.
I’ve been a Christian since early childhood more than 60 years ago, and a few years ago God pushed us out of our relative comfort in Europe to become missionaries in Japan, where my wife shares our faith through small-group English lessons based on the Bible.
Some months ago, for the first time in our married life together, we stopped going to church for many of the reasons you mentioned and more.
I personally miss corporate sung worship, but I don’t miss the same old sermons. We make up for those by watching challenging speakers like Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel online.
When we visit family in the UK in the summer, we attend a community church (part of the New Frontiers group) with one of our daughters and her family, where we are actually making friends despite only being there for a few weeks each year.
But here in Japan (Nagoya) we have not found a supportive community that really practises what it preaches.
I can’t even begin to share with you how much your post reasonates with me. I shed off guilt recently in the knowledge that my relationship with my God and maker was stronger than ever since we’ve not been attending a church.
We too, realised that the time, peace and inner growth that we’ve gained by not rigidly holding Sunday as church attendance day, more than allowed us time to worship, listen to online sermons, congregate with unbelievers in community and love in a way we’ve never been able to reach people in the four walls of the church.
I feel like a missionary, but in our own backyard, and my neurotic erase children have never experienced as much love, understanding and compassion from us before.
I still haven’t come to the place where we will never attend church again, but for now, we’re living in the “in-between”, until God reopens a door for us where there is the opportunity for us to serve Him in church again.
I don’t know if there is a right or wrong, but this feels right for us right now. Perhaps it’s the great spiritual shake up God has been looking for?
Thank you for sharing this. It made me tear up as I felt you validated some of my secret feelings. After 30+ yrs in church and upfront ministry life (being on staff for the last 11yrs) I hit a burnout and have been on “sabbatical” for almost three months. I love it and am connecting with God just as much as ever as well as with my husband and five kids a lot more. I would love to meet with a small group in my home to pray and to fellowship just like they did back in the day (early church times). Church as we know it today is really based on the model Constantine came up with, theatre style, listening to one person give a lecture isn’t it? In the church I’m still connected to I love the fellowship at the end the most because people share food and their journey and pray for one another. I might possibly turn up just for just that last hour lol. And you know what? I think everyone would be totally ok with that because they’re pretty great. I was given a prophetic word a couple of years ago that there was life beyond the four walls of church, that I will meet Jesus on the road the emmaus and I’m eager to discover Him there. ❤️