Thursday, January 27, 2011

Do you have to go to church to be spiritual? My answer...

I recently heard someone say “you don’t have to go to church to be spiritual.” True, God is certainly sufficient to care for our needs and we can still get to heaven if we don't go to church; however, it isn’t easy to keep your eyes on God without having a church home – far from it. I know from experience.

Church was a regular part of life when I was growing up but my family strayed away after my Granddaddy passed away. I still went with my Grandma for awhile but by middle school I pretty much didn’t attend except for special occasions and this continued for most of my adult life. God was not a priority and I aimed to take care of myself. That doesn’t mean I didn’t believe.  I have always believed in Him without a doubt and prayed for others but I didn’t feel my life was worthy of His grace. I experienced a lot of pain and trials in my life - the death of the love of my life and my baby girl’s Daddy, an abusive relationship, other hurtful relationships, financial struggles, loneliness and one disappointment or hardship after another. I tried to make life right and find real happiness to spread over my children and my life but no matter what choice I made I just couldn’t get things right.  After my divorce I found myself close to my mid 30’s still waiting for life to happen for me. I have two beautiful children that I love with all my heart; however, my life had no substance other than them.  For 17 years my life had pretty much been going through the motions…being away from home 12+ hours a day commuting to D.C. to earn enough to support us payday to payday, raising my babies alone, settling for relationships to try to create a whole family and ending up feeling more alone that when I was single.  Not only that but I was hurting that I wasn’t able to give my children all the things kids should have. Money was tight which meant no vacations or nights out and with the commute my time was limited and I was always tired so most days quality time wasn’t much more than the daily routine of eating dinner, doing homework, baths, bed and importantly we had a broken family and as hard as I tried to be both Mom and Dad I knew I wasn’t providing all they needed. My saving grace was my loving and supportive parents to help fill the gap. Once I found myself single again I reflected on my life and was determined to turn it around. I was lost. I had no direction and was always hitting dead ends. My thoughts took me back to my childhood and my Grandparents. They were hard working, God fearing, Bible believing people that lived humbly and I always felt a sense of security, comfort, joy and peace with them. I suddenly grasped it wasn’t just because they were my Grandparents who loved me. It was because they had a relationship with our Heavenly Father that gave them strength and comfort to get them through anything and that carried over into their love and caring for their family.  Their love of God instilled so many values in me that I had set by the wayside and they had finally resurfaced! A light came on and I knew without a doubt what was missing in my life and I was determined to keep God in front of me instead of on a shelf only to take down when I needed Him. I dusted off my Bible and set out to seek Him.  It was hard and I wasn’t getting very far alone but God’s timing is always right on time and my dear friends had started attending a nearby church and I decided to join them.  

It was fantastic and encouraging to have other people around me that loved God. I was involved as much as I could be and was so excited to grow and I did…for awhile. Then I got to a point that I wasn’t being fed spiritually and I was having doubts. However, not having a lot of experience with different churches I was convinced it was me and that I must be subconsciously fighting back to what I experiencing. The church I grew up in was the only thing I had to compare it to so I assumed that this is what it was supposed to be like so I persevered but wasn’t really “feeling it”, you know?  I went with the knowledge that I was supposed to attend and I certainly learned things but I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t “getting it” and why it started feeling like a job and not a desire.  There was something missing…something I knew I should be feeling and desperately needed to feel. I loved Jesus, I prayed, I was a decent person, or tried to be, but there was still a huge void on the inside. Was it because I had left God on the sidelines for too long? Was it because I had done something wrong? What was the problem? I was to the point of feeling that it was time to give up but something happened that changed my mind. I got the new Rascal Flatts’ new CD the day it was released and as I listened I heard a song that I felt so deep inside of me that all I could do was cry – I still tear up when I hear it.  It wasn’t just a song but I was hearing my Savior talking to me and I knew I couldn’t give up on Him. God opened my ears to receive the song with a heart for Him to let me know He wasn’t leaving me…and that He never really had.  It goes like this…

She stayed mad at Him for a lot of years
for takin' her husband
started losin' her faith
and thinkin' that her life meant nothin'
But when she looks at those kids she
raised all by herself
She knows she had some help,
No matter what you do
No matter where you go
He's always right there with you

Even from those who don't believe
And wanna leave Him behind
He ain't the leavin' kind
No, No
He ain't the leavin' kind

No, He ain’t the leavin’ kind and I didn’t want Him to leave so I continued to study and read God’s Word. I went to church sometimes several times a week but still moments like I had with Him listening to that song seemed to be fleeting.  I was just continuing to go through the motions hoping eventually something would “click” and God would reveal Himself to me in a big way again and this time stay a huge presence in my life.  I’m not saying I wasn’t growing in my relationship with Christ but it was like having a friend I only got to see occasionally and I wanted him to be there every minute. I wanted to be excited. I wanted to lean on Him and smile when there were days I could cry. I wanted there to be more to my life than there was.  There were days I would get a warm & fuzzy feel and knew that something amazing was just within my grasp only to have it slip away before I could hold on tight.  I kept trying but the more I tried the more I didn’t like going to church. It became little more than a job with people to report to and it wasn’t God that was leading me or showing me what He wanted from me. I found myself surrounded by Christians that told of how we were supposed to be living, worshiping, and treating others but what I was seeing from them was different from what my heart believed should be coming from followers of Christ. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt they loved God but I doubted that God was leading what was happening and I knew I wasn’t growing in God’s love.  I’m not saying this to put anyone or any church down. I’m saying this to express that I understand why some people feel they don’t need to go to church to be spiritual. That void wasn’t being filled and I didn’t have an inner peace and joy inside me that in my heart of hearts I knew I should find no matter what my life’s circumstances were. I saw myself allowing what people thought or told me I was supposed to do run my life. I was going to church because I had to not because I had a desire to. I was pretending and couldn’t be myself there and I moped around living in fear with insecurities. I knew that I needed to give everything over to God and trust in the plans He has for me but after three years being heavily involved in church I still wasn’t giving Him total control.  Deep down I knew that a big reason I couldn’t was because I didn’t like what I was seeing from an organization who professed to live in according to God’s Word.  I felt I was looked at critically and ended up looking at things in my life from a critical and negative perspective and that made me feel I wasn’t good enough for a better life than I had. I continued to feel alone and even though I knew God was there I still felt lost and broken and kept asking why He wasn’t allowing me to find peace and happiness in what I did have. There wasn’t any big improvement in my life from before I started going. I felt more peace driving around worshiping God while singing praise songs than I did after leaving church. I wouldn’t even push my children to come with me.  How could I compel them to go when I didn’t even want to? Why was I going to church?  About six months later I felt even worse and decided to leave the church without any intention of looking for another one. I assumed all churches were more about rituals and putting on a show to please others and not really about worshiping and giving Him the glory.  After all, I was doing ok with my life on my own.  Nothing was that bad and even though I had a void in my life and it wasn’t what I wanted I decided I could do just as good and continue to seek God on my own at home and not deal with the confusion I was feeling by involving religion. To me religion had only become a tool for others to control me with guilt and their preferences. My faith in God hadn’t gone away, it wasn’t any weaker than it had been and though it was stronger than it had been most of my life I wasn’t finding a purpose or hope for my life which is what I needed. So, that was it. The decision was made. I could worship and grow spiritually on my own and was done with church. My brain told me it was ok, after all, the Bible doesn’t divide people into the church members and the non-church members.  I was a Christian and that is all that mattered, right?  I said goodbye to my old church and asked myself “what now?”  Time for some more soul searching….

I realized that there is a true difference in religion and walking in faith with God and I didn’t want to appear to be religious on the outside while burying all my crap on the inside or hide who I really am to present the perfect picture which brought me to the question, Why I had started going to church? This was an answer I needed to find. It finally dawned on me, as Christians, we need to be absolutely sure WHY we go to church. We need to be absolutely sure about the right reason so our entire focus and understanding of what church is all about isn’t faulty. It doesn’t have anything to do with obligation, guilt, following rituals, what kind of music you listen to, how you dress or whether or not it is what someone else says you should be doing.  It’s about being a part of a body of believers that will encourage and support our spiritual growth and it is about advancing God’s Kingdom. I John 1:3 makes it clear that to strengthen our relationship with God we must fellowship with Him and other Christians. Having a right attitude and a desire to worship God so we can be fed spiritually is far different than going to church as the Pharisees did.  We can’t go to church just because we think we are obligated to in order to please God and we can’t just think “if I attend and am a good person God will love me.” Well, I’m not perfect but I know God loves me no matter what and the question was still there, “Did I need to go to church to be in love with Jesus?” No, but everything inside me told me I needed to worship and give Him the glory and follow His commands. More importantly that “need” had to be a desire not a requirement of man. The answer became all too clear! I did have a desire to and have a longing to do all those things which revive and restore the soul…the things that are pleasing to God. Yes, I needed to go to church! 

However, I needed more than just going to church. I needed to go with more in my mind that just being there and going through the motions with a smile on my face when many days I really felt like crying. I needed to go with a heart for Jesus and all that He is. God created us in His image, as relational beings, to be in a relationship with Him and with other believers. Hebrews 10:25 says that the reason that we are to come together as a church is, not to criticize, but to encourage one another. “Cursing the darkness” won’t change anything, but we must light a candle and “expose the light” of God’s Word. By sharing the truth of God’s Word, and encouraging people to live in its truth, lives will change. Then we can carry on this spirit of encouragement and Jesus’ love to others in our lives. Love and encouragement is a motivational force that can change the world and I have learned that this is the real foundation for going to church. I have grown to appreciate without a doubt that there are some irreplaceable pieces of being a Christian that cannot happen when you live apart from a body of Christ.  Accountability. Belonging. Care.

Not too long after I was so very blessed to have my lifelong friend insist I give it one more try and visit the church they found. She knew exactly what I was feeling and told me she had found the place I had been looking for. I attended for the first time a couple of weeks before Christmas in 2007 and the very day I walked in the door I knew it was home to me.  It is a place where people come together to “do life” together, apply biblical truths to every day living and to fellowship with others believers that live for the purpose of having a relationship with Jesus and reaching others far from God. It is a place that does not let man make the decisions but follows God’s commands. It is a place that you will find so much love and honor among each other and it was INCREDIBLE! Typically, I would go home from church feeling scolded and bad like a little girl that just got her Sunday dress muddy playing outside but that day I went home feeling lifted, loved, smiling and had a pep in my step.  I went home that day just beaming and thought “Wow! THEY GET IT!”  I had begun to think that my thoughts on what I should be receiving at church was defective but if these 230some people thought the same way I did I must not be too crazy! I have rarely missed a day since.  What I have found cannot be compared to anything else I have experienced. I have so much more joy in my life, my faith in God has strengthened tremendously and it is awesome to experience a community in which you not only give but receive. Not just a community but a family that unconditionally offers you those irreplaceable pieces…accountability, belonging, and care. So yes, I’m telling you that you need to go to church!
Not convinced?  As I said, from the first day I “belonged”. I was never judged for where I had been or who I was. I was loved on unconditionally and found I could be myself which gave me the freedom to hear God and what He expected of me. It was there I learned that serving God was not just a volunteer job to mark off of a checklist of good things I had done. Serving is important. The one problem I had was that I was very gun shy from my past experience so I just attended for a long time and stayed in the shadows. I certainly made friends but I didn’t do anything more than go to hear the amazing messages that were delivered each week and to fellowship with others. I was scared to get heavily involved in another church. In retrospect, I believe God used this time for my healing and to restore my faith in others and to build our personal relationship so He could show me what He wanted me to show others.  I eventually decided to get my hands on the net…the “net” that Jesus and the fishermen used to gather people and lead them to eternal life.  When I first starting serving I chose something simple…I greeted. Not because it was easy but because I didn’t feel I had any overwhelming skills that I could use but I could certainly smile and say hi!  Soon, I found that I really had something to offer even if I didn’t have all of the “religious training”, couldn’t recite a lot of scriptures and someone else wasn’t choosing my ministry area for me.  It was between me and God and He revealed the gifts He had given me that were to be used for His purpose. 1 Peter 4:10 commands us to use our spiritual gifts to help each other. 1 Corinthians 12:7 clearly states that these abilities are not provided to make you feel good; they are abilities to minister that should be used for the common good. I was honored to be asked to use these gifts to be the Volunteer Coordinator for our Creative Team.  I was so thrilled. The creative side sparked my passion but the experience I gained from work turned out to be a gift in the making for this very purpose and I could use my organizational and management skills in helping to advance the Kingdom. Even though God didn’t give me these gifts to make me feel better I find that I am elated when I can help point someone to a ministry area and watch them growing in Christ and see their lives changing for the better. I am elated because I know it is all for His glory and now I had a purpose in the grand scheme of life. I truly believe serving is a significant expression of being a part of God’s Kingdom and extreme appreciation for those Jesus came to save. Being a part of a body of Christ we use our gifts to strengthen ourselves and others and there is a mutual ministry that exists to meet the needs of other parts of the body. We don’t serve with our own agenda, we all work together as a whole and God intends each of us to meet the needs of others, using our strengths to help in their areas of weakness. I Corinthians 12:21 expresses it this way: "The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you." Neither can a Christian claim to be self-sufficient today so we purpose ourselves to help others whether they are near or far from God and by obeying God and using my gifts to advance His Kingdom I have reaped many blessings and seen His favor poured on me in ways I never thought possible. When I’m not serving, it’s not like taking a day off from work which we all like to do and are relieved for the break.  I feel like I am missing something because it’s NOT a job.  It is something I have a passion for…it is more like going to a celebration. A celebration to lift up God’s name and I get the honor of helping to host the party! 

That not enough to make you want to go to church?  The Bible also says that we are to comfort one another, build up one another, hold each other accountable, and pray for one another. It is hard to obey these commands if we stay away from the gathering of believers because when we do we tend to slide and take our focus off of God and holding each other up. When we slide we begin to only worry about ourselves and our insecurities and fears become our focus. This is not intended to only treat fellow Christians in this way but to treat everyone like this. I have found that being around other believers strengthens my resolve to give comfort and encouragement, to show love, passion, generosity and honoring everyone regardless of their relationship with God and without judgment. I have learned that being a part of the body Christ and not an “I can do it myself Christian” who answers only to himself holds me accountable. Without that accountability we can easily rationalize sinful attitudes or actions. The accountability I receive is not like I experienced before where I felt people were telling me what to do based on their opinion but instead my church family is there to help me to make the right choices based on biblical truths.  God designed the church as a place where spiritual leaders could watch out for our welfare, as a shepherd guards the sheep, and regular contact with other Christians can keep us sharp. What I have given is nothing compared to the immense accountability, love and support I have received in return. Even though that is not my goal in what I give in ministering to others it is so amazing when God pours out these blessings to me for living for Him.

Not to mention I have some of the most amazing friendships.  I'll admit some of my core group of friends has changed but I am now surrounded by both new friends and old friends I’ve had for years and the old friendships are better than ever.  It is such a blessing to have true friendships that I can trust in without a doubt. I know that I can be myself and I will still be accepted and loved for who I am not what the world says I should be.  I know if I have a need there will be many people by my side to help and to care for me, like this past January when I had surgery and had a long recovery. I did not have a need for anything between my family, friends and church family by my side to care for me throughout my recovery. Not only will God help form tighter bonds with the right people in your life but He can repair relationships! I am so thankful that He placed someone in my life that previously had caused hurt and I did not consider to be a friend much less someone I would trust.  His grace and love transformed us into the best of friends and I wouldn’t want to do life without her. Only God can do something like that! 

I’ll never be perfect but I know I am a better person because I like myself  more and don’t worry that others don’t.  I am more confident in who I am. I have learned to love harder, be more patient, be more generous, avoid destructive situations, and make better life choices. I have determined to never settle for relationships less than God would have for me and consequently I have come to know the most incredible man I have ever met…yes, I really mean incredible. He can’t be any less since he measures up to all of my desires on my “Never Settle” checklist, all the way to being a Christian filled with faith. I have experienced what it feels like to be honestly cared for and treated like the most important person in the world. I have felt what is it to be liked for just being me and to be appreciated and respected. I have been made to feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. I have a best friend I can trust and depend on. The list goes on and I know that whatever the road brings I will forever be grateful to God for placing this man in my life even if it is only for a while because God allowed him to fill my life like no one else has and I have already been blessed enough for a lifetime. This man is God's answer to all the times I ever questioned Him why other people in my life didn't work out and I kept moving on. God was clearing the way to put me in the position to know and experience the joy of such an amazing person. I get the message loud and clear!  He delights in knowing what we need and showing us His goodness so that we will know His care for us.  God loves me enough to not let me stay in situations that bring me unhappiness or uncertainty and that brings me hope. Not only hope for what God promises but hope for life in this world.

I am by no means saying going to church is the end all to a relationship with Christ or being saved by His grace. Nowhere in scripture does it say that the church is a one stop shop for Christians that will meet all of our needs and it definitely isn’t like your local convenience store that is available 24/7 but you only visit it when you need something quickly. We have to engage in the Word of God every day, feed ourselves and have faith in God’s love. His love is like the love you get from your parents – He loves us unconditionally even though life will not be perfect and there will be times we will hurt. He will be there to wrap His arms around us and though He cannot prevent pain, the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will. What I am ultimately saying is that even though we don’t need church to be spiritual we do need to keep people around us that will hold us up and not drag us down. We need people in our lives that will encourage us, pray for us and build our faith. Church gives us that. It gives us a place to gather, give love and encouragement to each other and strengthen our determination to live for Him each and every day. If we were perfect we wouldn’t need that but we are far from perfect and the church is for the lost and broken. Church is a place to build relationships, relationships with Jesus and with others that will help heal our brokenness. Relationships that will help us release the strongholds that control our lives and keep us down. Jesus didn’t just come to save our souls but to give us hope, purpose, destiny and a better way to live. I will be the first to attest that the favor, blessing and protection will be yours when you walk in the will of God. He has always been with me but most of my life I didn’t surrender control. Since I began the fellowship with my church family I have learned to walk in audacious faith and and my life has significantly increased in blessings, peace and happiness many times over, more than the few instances I wrote about...Oh! Did I tell you that after 24 1/2 years of commuting to D.C. and dealing with traffic, emotional and physical stress that several months ago I received a transfer to a local office that I can get to quicker than I could get to the commuter lot?! Talk about blessings from above! Along with a life full of joy and happiness I have the assurance of eternal life...given simply for changing my perception of life and living to please God. My only regret is not getting to know Him sooner so I could raise my children with Him.  An abundant life can be yours and my prayer today is that God will give you a heart for His people and put you in a place in your life that you meet consistently with other Christians to build supportive and encouraging relationships and experience spiritual growth. The place to start is finding a church home. I think mine is the best, most awesome church ever but it may not be the home for you and in the end we are all on the same team so I am not concerned which one you choose I just care that you choose one because God is good!

Heart & Soul,

"I have come so they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."

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