Samantha (a pseudonym) called me just as I was leaving for church. Her voice a troubled whisper, I could barely make out the words. “Please…could you come? I need help.”
Although I was the church pianist and expected to strike up a prelude in 15 minutes, the urgency in Sam’s voice carried me past the church parking lot and into a residential drive. I found her in a fetal position on the floor, the victim of incest by her drunken uncle. We spent several hours together, crying, praying, notifying authorities and family members.
When I arrived home, I discovered several messages on the answering machine. Some were concerned for my safety although I had sent a quick message to the church office that I was needed by a person in trouble.
But later comments were accusatory, how the service just didn’t seem right without me, how faithfulness is a required virtue.
Although Samantha continued to meet with me for recovery counseling and the church staff totally agreed with my decision to miss church, some members still gave me “the look” and an occasional verbal dig. Of course, I did not tell anybody the real nature of my absence. Still, their response added to the shame-based nature thrust on me by years of membership in a legalistic church. I had to work through my own false guilt and realize I could not be two places at the same time but needed to make the best, most important choice.
Now, after years of ministry and more training, I hold the view that church membership does not require our attendance at every single service and all special events. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to take a Sabbatical now and then – especially for church staff.
A quick internet search uncovers several sites that load on the guilt for missing church. The site “Open Thou Mine Eyes” states that the Christian who misses church causes damage to himself as well as to the cause of Christ. http://www.openthoumineeyes.com/lessons/misschurch.html
Yet the “Got Questions” site holds a more balanced viewpoint with a post about reasons for missing church. https://www.gotquestions.org/missing-church.html
Another personal experience underscored my need for missing church as I recovered from a situation involving spiritual abuse. Although I loved the church people, the church itself and its many programs no longer carried the love of Christ. It had become an institution that condemned my status as a single mom yet exhausted me with its demands that I serve.
On the advice of my spiritual director and the blessing of an associate pastor, I took a Sabbatical. Sundays became true days of rest as I slept in, then spent the awake hours in contemplation and worship. I sang to the Lord, journaled about a scripture he gave me, sat on the deck and praised God for the beauty of his creation, prayed through my list and listened quietly as the divine whisper brought solace to my soul. During those weeks outside church, I grew closer to the God I love and learned more about my need to spend quality time with him – outside the church walls. That Sabbatical was the salve of healing I needed.
Some folks understood when I explained my need for a break. Others implied it was a spiritual lapse, a month of back-sliding that would damage my testimony.
What would Jesus do? Throughout the Gospels we read few instances where Jesus appears in the synagogue, actively taking part in the traditions of Judaism. He spent most of his time with the sick, the doubters and the poor who needed a kind word. Jesus followed the principle recorded in Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
To love mercy might be defined as helping another person on a Sunday morning or serving the homeless in a soup kitchen rather than occupying space in a pew.
We are encouraged to not abandon our meetings and to fellowship together (Hebrews 10:25) but does that mean we always need to be within the church walls and present at all church programs? Can’t we also fellowship with others in a coffee shop or in the bleachers at a ball game?
Could we be more evangelistic outside the church property? What if we invited a single mom to join our family for pizza rather than track her down and invite her to the next revival service?
We need to also consider the question, “Why do we go to church?” Is it because our family has always attended and we want to continue the practice? Are we members so our children can be involved in wholesome activities and make friends with other kids who live in the same neighborhood? Are we regular attendees because the pastor is a good teacher and Sunday is the only day we crack open our Bibles?
Or do we attend to use our gifts and encourage other believers? Are we there to support the institution of the church in hopes that it will not die? How can we add to the overarching value of the church? Can we be open-minded enough to allow members to use their gifts outside the church?
The landscape of “church” is changing as millennials leave and older saints die. In order to reach the lost in the future, we will need to be more flexible – to consider the possibility of house churches without a host of church staff and a stage for the worship band.
As we march into the chapters of Revelation, we will need to redefine how and where the bride of Christ meets and what church membership requires – without placing shame on any souls for not attending regularly.
Questions to consider might be:
- Why is a certain person not at church? Maybe s/he like Samantha was completely incapable of leaving her house. Without adding shame, how can we minister to that person?
- Will the church truly suffer if one less person is listed on the roll that day or misses the chance to throw an offering in the plate?
- When it comes to church attendance, what does God require of us? A five-year pin or quality time ministering to others?
Certainly, we need to encourage each other and spend time with other believers whenever possible. Like most issues, a sense of balance and moderation rules.
But when we shame our brothers and sisters for lax attendance, we take on the role of judge and jury. God does not require that attitude from us.
The Apostle Paul reminded the church in Rome not to stumble over the cornerstone of Christ. “The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 9:33).
Since the practice and consequences of shame were erased by our Lord on the cross, then we have no business trying to revive shame as a stumbling block for someone else.
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RJ Thesman is an author and a certified writing coach. She writes from the heartland of Kansas where she lives with her adult son and an elderly cat. You can follow RJ at https://rjthesman.net/.