About 30 years ago, a young man came to interview me as part of his Master’s degree thesis on ‘The Unchurched’.
His research indicated that over 1.5 million committed Christians in South Africa were not attending church. I don’t know what the situation is today, but my impression is that in post-Covid19 South Africa, it is far worse than three decades ago. I have encountered many believers who either do not attend church or who do so only because their families drag them along. The reasons given tend to cluster around the following:
- Sports and family activities take priority
- There are many online alternatives available
- Don’t see the need for church rather than private spirituality
- Offence by church leaders or other church members
- Disagreements over doctrines
- Finding church services long, boring, and not relevant to modern life
There could be many other reasons, but everyone has a personal story to tell. I have a story to tell because for the first time in my 46 years as a Jesus-follower I have experienced being part of the large yet invisible ‘Unchurched’. In the past, I have seen this ‘church problem’ from the perspective of a church leader, but now I have experienced it from the other side. I don’t believe there is much to gain from detailing just how I found myself on the ‘dark’ side, but my experiences may well help others who are part of The Unchurched.
The Value of the Local Church
I have always believed that the local church is very important to the Lord Jesus and, therefore, to every one of his followers. My recent experiences have not shaken this belief. Some of the reasons why the church is important are:
- Acts 20:28 Once a year for the 28 years that I led a local church I would read this verse to my fellow Elders: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’. This alone should settle the matter of the worth and importance of the local church.
- Hebrews 10:23-25 ‘Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’.
- God designed the local church to be more organic than organisational in nature. In some mysterious, but very real way, it is a living manifestation of the Body of Christ in a particular area and culture. Each born-again believer is a cell within this body and can therefore only thrive over time as a functional part of this body.
- The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the ‘place’ of his presence. When believers come together as a church, they, in a wonderfully mysterious way, constitute this temple.
These are four reasons why the local church is important to God and should be important to all Jesus-followers.
What I Missed
Having spelled out the value and importance of the local church, the place I want to start, in setting out my experiences and observations, is by mentioning what I missed most by being unchurched.
- I missed the faces, voices, hugs, and simple presence of other believers. A properly functioning church is one in which the people get to know each other, interact, and over time come to love one another.
- Another feature of a properly functioning church is that it provides the opportunity to give and receive, to minister and to receive ministry, and to witness others experiencing this.
- I missed the spiritual stimulation of singing out praise and worship together with many others.
- I dearly missed the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit moving among his people and animating us all to become more than just solitary parts but co-joined living cells within something greater.
I filtered out these types of churches when I eventually started to look for a church to attend. Instead, I initially did two things – I prayed and I viewed the online services of several churches in the area. I later visited a few. This is what I observed:
- Most of them had positioned themselves as alternatives to modern secular life. They turned off the main lighting during the worship and even during the preaching, much like a theatre. The leaders sported ‘with it’ clothing, trendy facial hair, and eerily similar styles of speaking. The services minimised worship, sharing, and ministry and maximised notices, offerings, and preaching. The preaching was mainly superficial and self-improvement-oriented.
- However, I visited a couple of churches where the leaders were genuinely trying to create what they saw as authentic biblical church life. Here other questions rose in me – could I contribute meaningfully to this church? Could I accept the particular rules and doctrines that they thought important enough to insist on? Would they accept me for who and what I am, an elderly past church leader and theologian?
I did not find one that I could join and serve, but I never stopped being open to joining a local church. However, I needed the Lord to guide me because on my own it is so hard to find a place to belong.
What Surprised Me
There were some things that I just did not expect to experience when I left the church that had been my spiritual home for over three decades.
- I didn’t expect to find myself “cancelled”. I knew of the cancel culture so prevalent in the world, but I did not expect it from Christians. In my case, I do not think it was a strategy, but rather just out-of-sight-out of mind. In the months after leaving, very few people reached out to me, particularly among the men I had shared leadership with and regarded as genuine friends for so many years. To most, I became generally invisible and irrelevant. Not to all, of course, and most who were ‘house friends’ continued their relationships with me. I also have to note (with a wry smile) that when I was a leader in the church there was an expectation that the missing sheep also had an obligation to reach out to us. I can see how unrealistic this is because someone who is grieving loss just doesn’t know how to re-establish relationships without creating further problems.
- I also did not expect to experience the severity of the resentment and emotional pain that came with severance from my church family. My wife and I have been married for 55 years and so I have never experienced the negative power of divorce, although I have often observed it. Well, leaving a church body seems similar in many ways to a divorce.
- Although I had warned people from the pulpit how spiritually lonely it is to be outside of the local church, I did not expect it to take such a toll on personal devotions, prayer, and spiritual passion. It is a truism that a lump of coal cannot remain hot for long when removed from the fire.
What I Needed to Do
I cannot presume to say what other unchurched believers should do; all I can do is mention what I have done in the hope that this may be helpful.
- I resolved to continue to grapple with the difficulty of finding an authentic local church where I could belong. I tried to ensure that I was open to the possibility and I constantly asked the Holy Spirit to lead me to one. When I came across a new possibility, then I went there to see if it was ‘the one’. I widened my field of vision to include house churches or Christian fellowship groups that are not necessarily part of an established church.
- I continued to try to deal with offence, resentment and hurt. I wanted to respond to these realities in the way Jesus taught and demonstrated, but I found it difficult, complex, and full of lose-lose options. In the past, I might have said “Oh boo hoo, just get over yourself” but I won’t be making that mistake again.
- I refrained from bad-mouthing the church leadership to their members or saying and doing anything that could hurt the church. I did not volunteer to others the reasons why I resigned and only gave details if specifically asked.
- I continued to value the local church in what I said and wrote and I tried my best to keep my relationship with Jesus and his followers sincere and transparent.
Why I have Written This Article
Over the last year I have learned, and relearned, some important life lessons. One of these was the difficulty in grasping how others might view the things I said and did. For instance, I felt abandoned and did not realise that others might have felt abandoned by me. Another important issue I had to face was the destructive power of unforgiveness, which I knew had to be dealt with if I could but find a satisfactory way to do so.
I have written this article in the past tense because for the last several weeks I have been back at my ‘home’ church. The Lead Elder graciously reached out to me and we were able to forgive and reconcile. Things will probably not be the same as they were ‘back in the day’, but they never are, are they?