“I don’t have to go to church to be a christian”
Sometimes, people ask, “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?” The short answer is clearly, “No.” I am a Christian, I have a relationship with a living God and if I were stranded on a desert island or in a country that did not allow churches, then I would still have that relationship with God. I would still be a Christian. However, the answer is not complete if left there.
I think we first need to think about why you might ask that question. Imagine a teenaged boy describing his friendship with a girl. What if he said, “She invites me round and I go because she cooks nice food. But I tell her before I go, ‘I will come but we’re not going to talk’, so I don’t have to speak to her when I’m there. She doesn’t seem to mind.”? Frankly, that is appalling! We should not treat other people like that! Now compare that to how you might be treating God. Understand this, God likes you. He wants to have a friendship with you. That involves some effort on both sides.
Maybe we first need to think about what is a Christian. What makes someone a Christian? “Ah,” you might say, “Well, I believe in God.” Let’s look at that for a minute. I have been reading the book of James in the Bible. I love that book – he is so rude to people! I’m sure you know that Mary gave birth to Jesus (what we celebrate every christmas) but you may not realise that after she had Jesus, she and Joseph then had other children. One of these was James. He grew up with Jesus and yet it is thought that for a while he didn’t believe that Jesus was special. There is even a story about Jesus preaching to people and his family coming to try and stop him because they thought he was crazy! That gives me hope, when I get things wrong I know that so did the people who wrote the Bible but they had a second chance at getting it right. Later, James did come to believe what Jesus was saying and at some point he wrote his book. In that book, he discusses what it means to be a Christian and he talks about people who say they believe in God. First he says, “Well done!”
Few people would dispute that just as there are good things in the world, so too there are evil influences. In the Bible these are called demons or Satan. Now, when people tell James that they believe in God, he says, “Well done.” He then adds (a little sarcastically perhaps) “So do the demons!” You see, the Bible is very clear that these evil forces believe in God and are terrified of him because they recognise his power. Clearly demons are not Christians, so there must be more to being a Christian than just believing that God is real.
Think about when your computer freezes. Something has gone wrong, nothing works properly and pressing ‘escape’ or ‘control and delete’ makes no difference. Sometimes, the only option is to shut it down and restart. Well, that is what becoming a Christian is. It is realising that we’ve made a mess of things, something is not working properly and we need to restart. You have a ‘restart’ button, you just need to ask God to press it for you! It really is that easy.
There is nothing that you can do to make things right with God, you are not big enough, clever enough or good enough. So God did it all. He became a human (in the form of Jesus) and he died and was separated from the God bit of himself, which means that we don’t have to. Jesus rose up from the dead (what we celebrate at Easter time) to show that he is stronger than death, that everything is sorted out for us. We just have to ask God to press that ‘restart’ button to set us right.
Actually, this can be quite hard to do. We like to be in control, we like to think that what we do makes a difference, that somehow we can become good enough for God. Well, I have to tell you, the Bible is very clear, there is nothing that you can do to be acceptable to God. You are not good enough. So God did it for you. You do have to be prepared to accept that gift though, you do have to want that ‘restart’ button to be pressed. If life is going well for you, that can be a bit scary. We are worried that it means loss of control, that we wont be ourselves anymore. Let me remind you of what I said at the beginning: God likes you. Really, he does! He doesn’t want you to become a different person, just a better version of yourself.
You don’t have to be a ‘bad’ person to need God. Everyone needs him. I have travelled to lots of different countries, met rich people and poor and I can honestly tell you, people are people wherever you go. I have stayed at the Savoy Hotel and been driven to St James’ Palace in a fleet of silver mercedes to have dinner with Prince Charles (this is due to who I married, nothing to do with me, in case you are mistaken into thinking I am great in any way.) I have also stayed in a mud hut in Zambia with a couple who were HIV positive. I have visited China, Singapore, Dubai, India, Italy, America and most of Europe and there is one thing that I can tell you. People are the same. They might be culturally very different, but deep down, we all want the same things, we all love, we all have fears, we all make a mess of things. We all need God. It is that simple.
So, what comes next? After we have admitted that actually we might not be perfect and we want to include God in our lives, what do we have to do now? Well, you do not have to do anything (including go to church.) However, if you really have ‘restarted’ (and not just said the words to yourself as a sort of magic chant or insurance policy), if you really do want to include God in how you live, then that will make a difference to how you live.
A baby is alive after he’s born, but he doesn’t grow into a healthy child and adult unless he eats and exercises. So, just as we need to spend time with people and chat with them to develop a friendship, so too we need to spend time with God. No, this still does not have to involve going to a church! We chat with God by praying (saying things to him, either out loud or thinking them in our heads.) We listen to God by paying attention to our consciences, reading the Bible (where he has given us lots of hints about what he is like) and by listening to other christians. Ah, now we get to the church bit. How can you listen to other Christians, hear their story and share yours, if you never meet any?
It is a bit like supporting a football team. I can say I support Crystal Palace. I can buy a scarf that’s the right colour, I can check the results in the newspaper, I can even watch a match on television. But it would be hard for that knowledge to touch my emotions. However, if I attend one of their games, if I stand with other supporters and cheer when they score, then just the volume and shared excitement will begin to affect me. I am helped along by other fans’ enthusiasm and I actually feel part of what I say I am involved with. It is hard (and a bit boring) to be a football fan in isolation. It is the same with being a Christian.
“What constitutes a church?” you might ask. Does it need to be in an Anglican Church building or does the church that meets in my local school count? Well, if we look back at the Bible, a ‘church’ was actually just a group of people who believed the same thing. The first Christians were actually thrown out of their synagogues (the equivalent of our church buildings) and tended to meet secretly in houses. A church is not the building, it is the people. Sometimes buildings can be helpful. I cannot stand in a huge cathedral like St Paul’s without thinking about God, all the architecture has been designed to make me feel like that. However, the building is not essential. Three people meeting in a field to talk about God, to pray and study the Bible together; that is a church.
Some people might say they don’t need God, they are wrong. I think this is why Jesus talked about it being hard for a rich person to know God. When we are healthy and comfortable it can be hard to acknowledge that we need God, we think we are ‘okay actually’. Some people think they are too bad to know God, they are wrong too. God is able to press the ‘restart’ button for murderers, thieves, adulterers and even that nasty gossip from down the road! The Bible calls all that ‘sin’, but it’s not a word that tends to crop up at the dinner table so I have tried to avoid using it. None of us is good enough, certainly I’m not. That’s another reason for going to a church – it will help you to realise that you are not the only bad person who God likes!
Have you ever read ‘Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis? If not, buy a copy. It’s a brilliant book, very funny but with some really poignant truths included. He talks about all the strange and ordinary people who attend church.
“Ah,” you might say, “But churches are religious. I am a Christian but I don’t believe in religion. Religion just causes trouble, look at all the wars that have been started by religion.” You are half right. Religion does cause trouble. That is why Jesus did not start a new religion, he just pointed people to God. He refused to set down lists of rules, he just gave people principles to live by. When churches start making lots of rules, when they are more concerned with religion than with God, then they are missing the point. Christianity is meant to be about relationship, not rules.
I am often told that “church is boring.” Yes, sometimes it is. If it always is, then maybe you are going to the wrong church. I would also ask you, when you go to church, what are you expecting to get out of it? If your answer is “nothing” then you are probably right, you probably will get nothing from attending. However, if you dare to go hoping that you might hear God speaking to you, then that is much more likely to happen. Sometimes it is something the speaker says, sometimes it’s something in the reading that week, or a hymn that’s sung, or even what the person giving out the hymn books says, but usually, if we expect God to speak, we hear him. I would also say that just like a growing baby, we grow in faith very slowly. Sometimes it is much later that we remember something that was said in church and it helps us. But if you weren’t there, you wont hear it.
If church is a collection of people, then try to find a church which has people like you in it. If you are a teenager, try to find where other teenaged Christians meet. If you are a retired person, then try to find somewhere that older Christians meet. If a church caters for all ages that is wonderful but in my experience it is rare.
Do we have to go to church on Sundays? I guess not. If you attend a school Christian Union or something similar, then that is really just another form of ‘church’. We are advised though that we need one day a week that we keep as a holy day, a day to rest and where thinking about God is part of our routine (I think God knew how bad we would be at including him, so suggested that it should become part of our schedule!) That is hard to do if we attend ‘church’ on a week day.
What about other religions? To be honest, I don’t know. As I said, christianity is all about that ‘restart’ button, about including God in your life and having a relationship with him. I don’t know if people can find God in other religions. I do have a sneaky suspicion that when I get to Heaven there will be a lot of people there who I wasn’t expecting! Whether or not people have a relationship with God is between them and God.
What about Hell? Again, this is something that I don’t know much about about. If being with God makes us complete and fulfilled then I guess Hell must be the opposite of that. Sometimes people ask about who goes to Hell and what about people who try but never knew God. I cannot say, that is between them and God. But the Bible is pretty clear that if people decide that they don’t want to include God when they are physically alive, then God will respect that after they have died. That’s what free will and choice is all about, even if it means terrible consequences.
So, have a think and decide what you believe. If you haven’t ever asked God to press the ‘restart’ button in your life, maybe now is a good time to do so. There aren’t any magic words, God is God, not a genie in a bottle! You might say something like:
“God, I believe that you are real. I know that I make mistakes and I’m sorry. Please will you forgive all the things that I’ve done wrong. Please be part of my life. I want you to be my God.”
Then, you should tell someone. We are physical beings and telling someone will help you to believe what you have done and not forget about it. Then go and find some other christians! In England you could look for somewhere that runs an Alpha course (they tend to be churches that welcome new Christians.)
Do you have to go to church if you are a Christian? Not unless you want to grow……