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Yes, Christianity Is a Religion, Not Just a Relationship

Yes, Christianity Is a Religion, Not Just a Relationship

[This article was originally published in 2017]

More weeks than not, I think about skipping church.
“We could just take this one week off, I tell myself. We’ll be back next week. It’s cold out, anyway.”

The author of the book of Hebrews wasn’t dealing with Minnesota winters when he exhorted his readers to keep “assembling together.” If he had to face sub-zero temperatures, he’d totally get why staying home sounds so good.

And anyway, I’m an introvert.

Church can feel exhausting—there are so many people to talk to, so many handshakes and hugs—and much of what happens at Sunday services seems to be designed for people who are naturally more outgoing, spontaneous and emotive than I am. I struggle to truly engage.

My rationalizations may be personal to my experience but I don’t think I’m alone in this ambivalence about showing up on Sunday, especially among people my own age. Millennials self-identify as the least religious generation in American history—yet even among young people who hang onto their faith, it seems like meaningful church involvement is increasingly optional.

And it’s not difficult to argue that that’s perfectly OK. After all, we’ve been saying for years that being a Christian is about “a relationship, not a religion.” Doing faith independently sounds like the natural extension of that principle.

If Christianity isn’t a religion, why do we need organized, religious meetings? If I’m praying, reading the Bible, volunteering in my community, listening to sermon podcasts and maybe even talking about theology with my non-Christian friends, why do I need to supplement that with a religious ritual every Sunday? Aren’t I basically doing all the important parts of church on my own?

Community is essential to Christianity.

It’s that last bit—“on my own”—that is the sticking point because church is about more than doing all these individual acts. It’s about doing them together, in community.

It’s true that our faith is fundamentally based in relationship, but it isn’t just a me-and-Jesus thing. We need other people too, and they need us.

Community is vital not simply because we’re commanded in the New Testament to keep getting together, though we are. That instruction is there for a good reason because we aren’t made to live out our faith independently. We run awry when there is no community to carry our burdens, amplify our joys, call out our nonsense and increase our self-awareness when our own reflection is obscured.

DIY faith can work for a little while, and sometimes unusual circumstances mean it must work for a little while. Still, it isn’t and cannot be a healthy approach to long-term sustenance. Discipleship is not a solo project. Committing to a church and embracing a community that is often weird, helpful, irritating and loving all at once is no magic recipe for spiritual growth, but it is necessary.

Organizing our religion isn’t a bad thing.

One advantage to the modern day wariness of organized religion is that Christians are more willing to be honest about the flaws of the church. Such humility and self-examination is valuable, but it can also be misused as an illegitimate excuse for avoiding church altogether. Yet we don’t have to defend the indefensible in church history or overlook stale and shallow church rituals to embrace the good and needful parts of organized expression of our faith.

Because when you get a bunch of people together for a specific purpose, having organization and even rituals are practical necessities. If we didn’t structure our meetings in a predictable way, community would be stunted at best, because physical proximity isn’t the same as doing things together.

We need some organization, and that’s not a bad thing. Ritual and religious practice can damage relationship, of course, but they can also facilitate it. As Paul argues in I Corinthians 11-12, church gatherings are meant to be orderly so that we can commit to coming together for better and not for worse, to engage in relationships with more spiritual heft and structure than just hanging out.

Commitment can’t be a casual thing.

I keep bringing up commitment because showing up for church—even showing up every Sunday—isn’t the same as committing to a community.

When we commit to a congregation, it should be a substantial relationship, something more demanding than signing on to a Christian-themed social club. As members of a local church, we are asking other people to shape our lives and promising to help shape theirs. We are giving a community permission to hold us accountable, to support us when we are hurting, and ask for our help when it is needed.

This intensity of commitment is a big part of what makes church so difficult. It’s why community is not to be taken lightly, and why finding a new church in a new city can be so daunting. It’s scary because it asks us to give and receive a lot, and to do it in partnership with people who also don’t have everything figured out.

This is a big reason why I think about skipping church so many Sundays—but it’s also an opportunity and why I know skipping is the last thing I should do.

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