This is turning out to be longer post than I intended. Stay with me (or not) as you choose.
My mother, divorced from my father, did not attend church. In fact, she only attended at Christmas and Easter — and later in her life not even then.
When we were very young — so young my memories are fragmented — we attended church as a family. But sometime before my parent’s divorce — certainly after it — we stopped attending. Well, perhaps my father thought the adultery for which my mother divorced him was inconsistent with Christian principles. (He was right.)
And then, it happened
At the tender age of 12, I was invited to church by a friend’s mother, and I attended an evening service with my brother, my friend, my friend’s brother, and their mother. The sermon, discussing the obedience of Naaman to God through the prophet Elisha, concluded with an altar call.
An altar call is an invitation given in some churches to people who are not Christians. Although I considered myself a Christian — we weren’t Buddhists or atheists after all — I felt a strong impetus — a invitation if you will — to go up to the altar. I now believe it was the leading of the Holy Spirit that drew me.
It was a long walk for a, thin, undersized 12-year-old boy in a strange church, but I went. We had been sitting close to the back of the church, and that altar seemed a very long way away. I was the only person who made the walk. It was more than a little intimidating. A man (who I will forever thank but I cannot not now name and perhaps will never see again this side of heaven or recognize even if I do) took me aside into a room and introduced me to God through His Son, Jesus Christ, by explaining to me what I needed to do to become right with God and be “born again.” I confessed my sins (such as they were at twelve years of age) and asked Jesus into my heart.
It was like having fireworks no one else could see. It was like putting glasses on for the first time (something I had just done recently) and being able to see clearly at last. A song I had learned all those years ago, taught to us wee children by rote in a church I barely remembered, roared back into my memory. I would write it here in its entirety, but WordPress doesn’t do a good job with poetry. One of the lines in the hymn is “Heaven came down and Glory filled my soul.” It was like that.
Well, I eagerly rushed home to tell my mother. I was young and naive enough to assume that all adults had experienced God like this. As I fervently discussed my meeting with God and how I felt, my mother had an odd expression on her face. I didn’t recognize it at the time. I was too excited to do anything except notice it. But as an adult, I now recognize the emotion she was attempting not to show.
It was fear.
The end result?
My mother found a nice, safe church to attend where I would never hear the gospel again except in the most gentle and humanist of ways. There would be no zeal in this church. There would be no altar calls. It was more a social club. Of course, I went to youth group. I joined the youth choir and as my voice changed from soprano to baritone, added the adult choir to my church duties. We made felt banners. We read scripture lessons (that were very light on scripture) from that denomination.
But the truth is, although I didn’t know it until much later, this church had decided that the Bible was — almost certainly — a little outdated. Perhaps it was even a lot outdated. As a result, the church was essentially a secular group with a thin, religious patina covering it.
Even as a child, I knew something was wrong. I could tell most of these people — even the adults — hadn’t experienced the Living God like I had. But I was a child, and then a teenager. Knowing that I had a unique experience made me feel special and “better” than everyone else.
It wasn’t a good thing for a teenager to feel.
The next phase
When I was a senior in high school, shortly before graduation, a fellow student gave me a book. Through its agency, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. Some churches do not believe this is a valid experience in our day and age. Mine certainly didn’t. But for me, it was my second, electric experience with God, even more life changing than the first.
Soon after that, my church gave graduating seniors a Bible, and I unexpectedly had my own Bible. If only they had known the future, they might not have given it to me. Being a fast reader, I decided I should read the Bible. I doubt I can adequately convey the impact of reading the Bible for the first time on my life. My initial reaction was: I had been attending church since I was twelve, why had no one told me about this? The words in the Bible sometimes burned off the page into my soul. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I began devouring entire books of the Bible each day.
How could I have been ignorant of all this? Well, I learned that the pastor of my church simply didn’t believe large portions of the Bible. He told me so himself. He and another man laughed at me when I tried to discuss what I was reading. As the pastor told me, he needed to have a “broader” understanding than the apostle Paul.
And, boy, was that a problem!
Can you see the problem? For the most part, I was untaught. That was a good and a bad thing. It was good, because I was forming my own opinions straight from the Bible instead of taking someone’s direction about what I should believe. You couldn’t tell me the Bible said “A”, when I had read it and knew it said, “B.” It was bad because I was still forming and understanding of who God was, and I was ripe for deception. I was building a bedrock of faith, but I had no experienced mentor — no one I trusted — to help me if I went off track. I knew my pastor and youth leader thought their opinions were better than the apostle Paul (and everyone else in the Bible.)
I couldn’t trust them. And off track I went. I had more zeal than knowledge.
But God rescued me
He really did. It took a while, but he rescued me. Unfortunately, it still left me with one big problem. I no longer trusted the church of God. I decided churches were just religious institutions full of hypocrites, looking for money to stay alive, that didn’t believe the Bibles they handed out to graduating seniors.
And that left me with a chip on my shoulder. I decided I was better than everyone else. Oh, I would never have said it like that. That’s not a very biblical position, after all. But there it was, lurking underneath the surface of my soul, rather like an alligator submerged under the water except for its snout, looking for its next meal.
And God rescued me again
I was approaching 30 at that point. I didn’t attend a traditional church, though I had regular fellowship with a small group of like-minded friends in our houses.
Finally, I met a small gathering of believers from different churches who met together as a musical group, and I learned I wasn’t such a good Christian after all. I wasn’t alone. In fact, there were people far more mature and holy than I was.
It changed me
It still took a while, but I learned that I could only mature as a believer if I attended a local body of believers. The apostle Paul refers to the church not as a building, but a group of believers who are the body of Christ. He told the Christians of his day not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves” as some are wont to do, but to attend church regularly.
When I was alone and isolated, it was easy to think more highly of myself than I deserved. It was easy to sneer at church attenders and think I was better because I didn’t really know the people who attended church. I couldn’t see the depth of their commitment. I couldn’t see their humble spirits or watch them sacrificially serve others. I wasn’t there to witness those events. I could take my prejudices and judge people I didn’t know, and yet feel good about myself when I was done.
I used all the excuses
“I can worship God anywhere.” “The church is full of hypocrites.” “I’m too busy to attend Church.” “I can’t find a good church.”
Yep. I used them all. There is even some truth in some of them. Of course, you can worship God anywhere. Of course there are hypocrites. To judge from the news, the church doesn’t have the corner on hypocrites. And, when I started attending church, I realized there weren’t near as many hypocrites in church as I thought. We’re all busy. And there are some churches that, quite frankly, are a church in name only, dead and yet moving like a zombie, hoping to eat your brains.
But these are all excuses. The apostle Paul refers to the group of believers as “the body of Christ.” Every Christian is a part of it, but he can’t be a part of it — at least like he should be — if he never attends church with the rest of the body. I’ve learned that God will work through other members of the body of Christ to bring life to me. And he will work through me to help others. But He can only do that if I’m there!
And one other thing I’ve noticed is this: I can be depressed to the point of giving up, or I can be physically as sick as a dog, but if I go to church, I’m always better afterwards. There’s something about experiencing the presence of God in worship that heals the soul and cures the body.
I encourage you….
If you are a Christian who doesn’t attend church, I encourage you to reconsider that decision. There’s a lot more to recommend regular church attendance than would appear to those outside it. Find a good church and go. Take it warts and all, because I suspect you have a few warts yourself!
If you aren’t a Christian and read this far — I can’t believe you did. Most non-Christians dismiss experience like mine as being a sign of mental instability, the impact of a “religion gene,” needing a “crutch,” or all three. But the truth is, there is a Living God, and you can know Him in ways you do not now believe. The few experiences I mentioned here merely scratch the surface of my experiences with God. They aren’t even the most amazing ones!
And I suspect my experiences only scratch the surface of what God can do.