I made the decision to stop going to church in July 2011. It was a decision that was a long time coming. I have long known about the priesthood of all believers and long known this is God's plan for the body of Christ.
If I was to be a part of the solution instead of the problem I needed to be a part of something new. This meant I would have to go through a period of "detoxification" from many of the things in the church that had polluted my faith. At times this past year has been very good, and at times very hard. On the positive side, I noticed that I made friends with a lot more people who were not Christians. At the same time I did not judge them, I did not plot how I would invite them to church. I spoke to them of Jesus out of an overflow of my faith. I know this has had many positive effects on people, leading them towards Jesus. But on the downside, there would be times of feeling guilty for not going to church.
This guilt passed with time. It is quite ridiculous that I had subconsciously picked up the belief in my life that to be a good Christian you have to go to church. This is fraught with so many problems and is at the root of human religion. As I realised that there must be something else to being a Christian I began to go back to the gospels, and began to see Jesus in a very different light. I began to notice that Jesus is very forgiving. In fact, he forgives without provocation.
The biggest story that wedged a splinter in my mind is the story of the woman caught in adultery. This woman had just been caught, she hadn't even the time to repent. Yet as Jesus exposed the hypocrisy and sin of the pharisees as none could throw the first stone, he tells the woman "no one condemns you, nor do I, now go away and sin no more." Jesus does not ask the woman if she repents before he is willing to forgive her sin. (He hasn't even died on the cross yet.) He forgives her first! He then asks her to repent as an act of response to her forgiveness. This is not in keeping with evangelical doctrine, and so I have realised neither am I.
Forgiveness is a massive part of Jesus' purpose. When he heals the paralytic he is more concerned that he be forgiven than physically healed, "so that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you take up your mat and walk." Jesus teaches in some hard hitting parables that if we do not forgive, we are fried. I'm not much of a fan of hell, but I can not avoid that Jesus teaches about it. But it is not in reference to punishment for sins that he so much speaks of hell, but rather that people who do not forgive will lose the Father's forgiveness. This seems so backwards, but I believe it is a massive part of the gospel that we have misunderstood. There is NO option to not forgive. We endanger our very salvation by not forgiving. Yet at the same time Jesus is handing out salvation as quickly and as generously as he can to who ever will receive it. This challenges me in ways that have often been glossed over in my past church going life, where there is much unforgiveness.
Let's go straight for the most obvious of all stories Jesus taught when it comes to heaven and hell. Many church going evangelicals will love to put this one in the too hard basket. It's the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus does not let us off the hook. If we ignore those in need around us, we are ignoring Jesus, we are unloving (perhaps unforgiving of someone for offending our prejudices), and yes we set ourselves up for hell fire. Surely my idea of Jesus forgiving everyone is a universalist sounding idea? No, I am not a universalist. I do believe Jesus hands out forgiveness much more easily than any Christian or any church on the planet. But we humans have an awful knack of throwing it back in Jesus's face and saying "no thanks, I think I will hold on to my comforts, my prejudices, my unforgiveness and I will go it my own way." People reject salvation, far more than missing out on seeing it.
I have been praying for the last couple years that Jesus would help me to love the weak and the poor. I am such a novice at this. I have began to really take a notice of the poor people in our city, of the street people and the beggars. Jesus tells us to give to everyone who asks of us without expecting anything in return, and as a rule I really try to do this. Only recently my wife and I found ourselves holding the hand of an old lady we know from the street as she died of gangrene behind some rubbish bins on the wet concrete. The Lord's graciousness in this situation speaks such volumes. He provided a person to tell us that she was dying, he provided an old arm chair that someone had thrown out so we could lift her on to it, he provided a caring doctor in the ambulance who did not reject a street bum. It is staggering for us to realise that our friend Marina was most likely destined to die alone in the cold, rain and garbage, but that the Lord loved her enough to make sure that this would not happen. I read to her from Psalm 23 and Revelation 21. As I was walking on the way to those garbage bins with another street lady, the Lord spoke to me and reminded me "what ever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." I knew that I would offer her forgiveness of sins. Melody and I were at her side, Marina was quite unresponsive as she died from toxins in her system. But the Lord blessed us as we saw Marina nod a couple of times in response to Melody. I prayed for Marina, "Marina, Jesus forgives you of your sins, Jesus is waiting for you." No matter your belief on sin and forgiveness it is hard to argue that Jesus did anything else in the gospels. Of course I do not know Marina's heart. But I also know it would have been her choice to reject this forgiveness that was freely given to her. We saw this woman open up to us slowly over the last couple years, shedding tears as my wife and I hugged her many months ago and declared our love for her.
It is only in taking these baby steps that I am beginning to learn what actually being a Christian means. This feels like the beginning of the journey of my faith, that my entire life up to this point has been embryonic. I am still very weak and hopeless in being able to truly love the way Jesus does.
So back to this dreaded church thing. Why do I feel so guilty about not going to church? Recently we went to Canada for two months, to see family and supporters of our work. We went to church every Sunday for two months. I didn't have the heart to tell people I wanted to skip services. I didn't want to offend them. I figured, how could going to church for a couple months hurt? But I fell into my stupid little subconscious lie that I was pleasing God by going to church services, that I was performing some kind of holy religious ritual. And surely all the people in these church services are good people who love God, so it can't be that bad? But after doing this for two months, and getting my religious reward in God's eyes for attending his holy temple, I suddenly feel like a heathen again for not going to church. It feels like a year of progress in my detox has gone down the drain.