Some of you are reading and re-reading that title, and thinking, “What? How’s that possible?” Because in popular Christian thought, Christians go to church every Sunday, and the unchurched don’t really know what it means to be a Christian. And by Christian, I mean someone who has a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
But I’m telling you right now that not only is it possible, it’s a reality. Here’s my confession: I am an unchurched Christian.
Now, I don’t really think of myself as unchurched the way church growth experts (at least in the past) think of people as unchurched. Twelve years ago, I was the Director of Church Growth at a church here in Springfield, so I studied what church growth experts and consultants said about the unchurched, and in 1997, experts defined the unchurched as those who hadn’t been to church in more than six months. Now, the focus was more on people who were (maybe or maybe not) raised in the church, stopped going for a while, and were returning to the church as adults, usually with spouses and small children. The unchurched were generally seekers, people who were not just church shopping, but looking for a belief system.
I am unchurched in the sense that it has been over a year since I have stepped into any church for any reason: worship, wedding, funeral, etc. Don’t get me wrong — I am not proud of that fact, and very few Sunday mornings go by that I don’t look at myself in the mirror and think that I should be in church somewhere. But I am still a Christian, with the same beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as I had a year ago, five years ago, and even twenty years ago when I first asked Jesus to forgive me and committed my life to Him. In fact, in the past year of not going to church, my faith and beliefs have been strengthened and the way I live my life according to that faith has taken a turn for the better. I don’t think I’m a better Christian because I’ve been without the church, but I find it unfortunate that I’ve had to do it without the Body of Christ.
This seems to a be timely subject too. Last night on FaceBook, one of my FB friends (I hope to meet him in real life someday, God willing) and favorite blog authors posted his latest blog update titled, “Go to Church.” I encourage you to go read that post right now, before you go any further on here. Done? Good, I’ll continue. In the last paragraph, K.W.L. writes,
But regardless, you need a support system. Find one or start one. Because that—not the Sunday morning gathering—is the church. You need a church. You need support. You need a family. Jesus knew that we can’t do this alone. So go to church. Go love and be loved.
This lack of a Christian support system has been the issue that comes back to me again, and again, and again. One of my best friends, a fellow unchurched Christian, lives in Boston, and the other, the woman who had a hand in leading me to Christ when I was 16 and attends church faithfully, lives in Kiev. Connecting with them over the phone is difficult, and email doesn’t contribute to a spirit of fellowship (and if either of you are reading this, I’m not saying this to guilt-trip you; I love you both dearly and wouldn’t do that to either of you). I have been invited to Bible studies (and to those of you who have continued to invite me, thank you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.), but I don’t need a Bible study as much as I need fellowship and a group of people I trust, before whom I can lay bare my soul.
And trust Barna to do a poll, God bless ’em. When I Googled the term “unchurched,” one of the first articles to pop up was “Millions of Unchurched Adults Are Christians Hurt By Churches But Can Be Healed of the Pain.” This paragraph says it all, for my own experience at least:
Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.
Painful experiences within the local church context? Check. Dysfunctional people running the church, like K.W. said in his post? Check. And my husband and I have been through it not once, not twice, but four times. He and I will both admit to our own immaturity and mistakes, and certainly those two things contributed to our pain. But the last two times were churches Jeff worked at, and even though I know the stories, I still fail to see any immaturity or mistakes on our parts that caused the pain. What I still see, after all this time, were two congregations that promised us healing and fellowship, but a few people in both ended up causing us misery.
I don’t go to church for a lot of reasons. I’m still angry at people in the past two churches who hurt us so badly; I resent the pastor, in once case, and the congregation in the latter, and fear that I will take that resentment with me to whatever church I go to next; I fear not finding the right church, and even fear that that church doesn’t exist in Springfield; and I am hard-hearted and bitter (I think) towards the Body of Christ in general.
Now that I’ve just outed myself as one of the most judgmental, least graceful and forgiving people you’ve ever met, let me say that I will eventually forgive those that hurt us. I’ve done it before. Twice, in fact. And I’ll do it again with these past two churches. But forgiveness is a process for me, not an event. Many of you would probably just tell me to put on my big girl underpants and get over it, but I don’t work that way.
And judging by Barna’s poll, quite a few other unchurched Christians don’t work that way either.