Over the years, I've had a ton of people tell me they believe in God, that they are, indeed, Christians — but they don't attend a church.
They explain it like this: "I feel closer to God fishing on Sunday mornings than I do sitting in some pew."
Or, "There are too many hypocrites in church. I'd rather stay home."
Or, "God and me have an understanding. I follow him in my own way."
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Because I'm polite and non-confrontational by nature, my usual response is to smile and mumble, "Well, that's great. Whatever works for you."
But now I'm going to say — from my home office, through a keyboard — what I've sometimes wanted to say face-to-face: If you claim to be a Christian, then no, actually, it's not OK to avoid church.
I'd assume the same principle applies to going to the temple or the mosque, if you're a Jew or a Muslim, although I can't know that for sure.
If you're a non-believer, fine, go fishing instead. Not a problem. Catch a big one.
If you claim to be a religious practitioner, though, get up off your keister and haul yourself down to your house of worship and rub elbows with other people of faith.
And don't just go occasionally. Even once a week isn't enough. You need more. Immerse yourself. Join a Bible study as well. Sit on a committee. Cut the grass.
Again, I can't speak for other religions, but I can tell you why Christians ought to be in churches every blessed Sunday and then some:
■ Faith is as much horizontal as vertical. That's a nice way of saying, It's not all about you. It's not even all about you and God.
It's equally about God, you and others.
Christianity is a team sport. Saying you're a Christian but don't belong to a church is kind of like saying you're a linebacker but don't belong to a football team. Theoretically it's possible. But it tends to make for a better ball game if you join a squad, put on the pads and show up for practices.
We don't join Christianity only for what we get from the experience (although we get a great deal), but also for what we can bring. We go to church to worship, yes. But we also go to share our gifts, service, insights and money.
■ Your fellow parishioners will infuriate and disappoint you. This is a vital element of being in a church: other members get on your last nerve. They fail morally. They sing off-key. They bore you. They act petulantly. Some smell bad.
All this is wonderful — if you stick around instead of quitting.
Guess what? It turns out you fail them, too. Sometimes you bore them. You may even reek on occasion. They have to endure you.
Over time, all these discoveries help you grow into an adult. They force you to navigate others' foibles and admit your own. They make you depend on the Lord for perseverance.
■ Your fellow parishioners will teach and inspire you. While it's true that some of the most spiteful, vainglorious people you'll ever meet are in church, it's equally true that the finest people you'll meet are there.
As you learn your fellow brothers' and sisters' stories, you'll discover friends who've conquered addiction, prison, bankruptcy, divorce, the deaths of loved ones, illness and come out the other side redeemed. Damaged, but wiser and kinder.
You'll meet people who'll stand with you as you endure your own trials.
One hopes you'll also stand with them in their bad times.
■ You can do more as part of a group than you can alone. Whatever good works you hope to accomplish — giving food to the hungry, let's say — you can accomplish 50 or 100 times as much as part of a congregation.
Plus, there's something especially instructive, even humbling, about working as part of a group for the greater good, whether it's renovating a house for a widow or carrying meals to the disabled or distributing shoes to the shoeless.
■ There's always room for another hypocrite. I find the "church-is-full-of-hypocrites" excuse the lamest of them all. Of course the church is full of hypocrites.
That's because it's full of human beings.
It's a rare person indeed who never says one thing only to do something else, who never criticizes his neighbor for a vice of which he's equally guilty. That's how humans act, within or outside the church, unfortunately. We have blind spots.
I'm willing to lay money you're a hypocrite. The odds are on my side. The good news: at church, you'll fit right in. Lots of kindred spirits there.
■ It's all about that grace. The longer and more intensely you participate in a congregation, the more convinced you become of two truths.
First, we're all hopeless. Second, God accepts and uses us anyhow. You see people — including you — endlessly fight, flounder and fail. Then you see the Lord anoint these same miscreants, despite their quirky and imperfect ways, to minister mercy in a fallen world. On your best days it gives you real hope. When it's not making you crazy.