Perhaps this sounds like a strange admission, but there have been times in my life when I had no church home. While I believe those were legitimate absences, upon reflection, I may have learned more about the need to be part of a church when I didn’t have one than the many years I did.
When I first moved to Washington, D.C., finding a good church was a challenge. It took many visits to find and settle in a church I thought was committed to the truth. Then, after roughly a year there, God opened my eyes to some serious false teachings entrenched there. I was devastated. After trying and failing to make any headway against the teachings, I left.
It was painful and discouraging time in my life. I missed the fellowship, the community, I missed hearing the Bible taught regularly. I missed singing praise aloud to God with other people. But church visit, after church visit, I kept spotting the same problems. And it wrecked me. The discouragement got the better of me and I gave up for awhile.
I was judged by some Christians during that time, which made it even harder to want to find a church again. I want to be clear – I never gave up my faith in Jesus. I didn’t somehow lose my Christianity because I wasn’t attending church on Sundays. During my absence, I also read my Bible and listened to podcasts and sermons when possible. Thankfully, that season did not last forever, and I eventually found churches I could regularly attend again and eventually even consider my home church.
But I learned some things during that season that I think are important and sharing them could help others.
God knew what he was doing when he inspired the writer of Hebrews to instruct Christians to not forsake meeting together (it’s in Chapter 10). And it wasn’t so we could check off a box that said we’d been there, or to look good (or godly) in front of other people, or to earn his favor.
It’s because we’re parts of a whole. The Bible describes believers as part of one body (Romans and 1 Corinthians). We need each other. We need our pastors to teach us the Word of God and challenge our hearts which are so bent toward sin and self. We need our brothers and sisters to encourage us, pray with us, share godly wisdom with us and, even sometimes, gently rebuke us for our own good.
Long absences from a local church can have many negative impacts on a believer’s life and relationship with Jesus.
- Setting aside time every week to refocus on the gospel of Jesus, remember the cross and God’s grace, to worship and thank God for everything he’s done and given is an incredibly good thing. Not having that reset, makes the burdens and frustrations and grief of life even more difficult to bear. It also becomes so easy to fixate on life’s circumstances, rather than looking to Jesus and walking through all of life in faith.
- Not regularly being taught the Bible makes it very difficult to be transformed by its truth and conformed to Christ-likeness — which should be our desire as believers. Personal, regular Bible reading and Bible study may help offset this, but that practice also easily slips and becomes less regular over time.
- Idolatry becomes too easy. The word idol tends to make people think of statues of gold, but really it can be anything you prioritize over God. I personally discovered this. After quite some time out of church, the things I most loved in life and prioritized were not the priorities God wanted for my life. In my case, it wasn’t even a thing that was sinful in and of itself, but a fun activity and community that I had allowed to crowd out time with God and his people.
- Sin get easier. In a good church, we’re being taught all the time what God did for us, wants for us and how he wants us to live as his representatives on Earth. The Bible lays out in many places including Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the fact that a Christian’s life is supposed to look far different from the life of unbelievers around us. We’re supposed to stand out, because being transformed by God does that. Caring about holiness is not what the world is about. So without that regular reinforcement and the encouragement of other people also being transformed by Christ, we can easily start to think like the world. And once we think like the world, we also start acting like the world instead of like Christians. And it become easier and easier to sin.
- The longer the absence, the harder it is to change your life, habits and schedule to restart. Maybe we get used to sleeping in on Sundays, or getting work done or brunching with friends. We all live very full lives, and it can be very hard to reallocate that time to regular worship and fellowship after a long absence.