I’ve been to a lot of churches. Dozens, certainly. I go for the architecture, the art (the mosaics in this one are so lovely I went back twice), and sometimes to get out of the rain — although I generally prefer a Starbucks for shelter.
Never have I stood or sat in a church and felt the slightest religious stirring. To me, entering a house of worship is like stepping into a Salvador Dalí painting. It’s always intriguing there, and the best ones can inspire awe; but it always seems to me that this is what you get when you’re high. And like the painting, the church serves up an illusion. It’s very nice, possibly sublime; but what it represents is not real. (Surreal is more like it.)
I guess that makes me a disappointment to Pastor Michael Chandler (pictured) of Victor Valley Bible Church in Victorville, California, who argues in a column in the Daily Press that it’s vital that believers get together — even during a pandemic — because
… the church provides a witness for non-Christians who sometimes attend our churches. When Spirit-filled Christians gather as one body, they speak of the things of God, which can result in the salvation of the unbelieving visitor to our church: “he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all, the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” (1 Cor 14:23-25).
Chandler presents just a snippet. Let’s see what else is in the verse he quotes, and what the context is. 1 Corinthians 14:22-23 claims that unbelievers will be duly wowed by congregations who speak in tongues.
“Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”
Yes, we will. Sorry. Nothing will have members of the reality-based community looking for the exit faster than Christians entering their glossolalia la-la-land. Each of those last four words contains a link to a different YouTube video. If you have a few minutes, click through and watch. Are you now practically falling over yourself to join the club?
Another thing: Chandler is quoting from the New King James version of the Bible. In the NIV translation of the same verse, we are told that unbelievers
“… are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all.”
The pastor has additional reasons for why the faithful should definitely assemble, including
We also enjoy a foretaste of heaven when we come together.
But seriously: Every time a freethinker sets foot in a church, Christians have a chance to make us feel welcome in their sanctuary — to impress us with such love and light that we can’t wait to come back. Considering the dechurching of America and the rise of the Nones, I wouldn’t say their best efforts are paying off.
How many Christians have you encountered who consider going to church a virtual slice of heaven, per Chandler’s assertion? How many are, by contrast, bored, fidgety, and anxious for the service to be over? If you gave Christians a choice between meeting their friends at church and meeting them over lunch at a restaurant, and you removed the fear of God from the equation, which option would win?
Of course, churches exist for a reason: People do find support and community there — and some, I’m sure, find ecstasy.
Here are other reasons why Christians go to church:
• Out of habit or tradition;
• To fit in;
• Out of duty;
• Out of dread for what God will do to them if they stay home;
• To raise the kids “right”;
• To make mom and dad happy;
• To be seen as virtuous by other congregants;
• For the business connections.
None of that involves feeling joyful, or even particularly pleased.
A “foretaste of heaven”? Please. When the Barna Group, a Christian research organization, collected five years’ of data about “opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young adults,” it found that three in five young Christians
… “disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.”
The reasons given read like one long indictment of today’s Christian culture. Large numbers of respondents said they were tired of
• the church ignoring the problems of the real world;
• their pastors and elders demonizing the secular sphere;
• feeling bored, and/or believing that God was missing from the experience;
• trying to resolve the tension between Christianity and science;
• being held to outmoded standards of sexuality;
• being judged for everything that didn’t fit the norm;
• their church’s unkindness toward other faiths and various minorities;
• being made to feel guilty or sinful for harboring doubt;
• being ignored or shamed by the church when they struggled with depression or other emotional issues.
That’s kind of a far cry from paradise, wouldn’t you say?
(Image via the Daily Press)