be the church

Confession: I haven’t gone to church consistently in months, and not a single time in the last 6-8 weeks. Summers are always hard on my church attendance of themselves, and at the end of this one I threw a new job into the mix and didn’t realize there was such a high likelihood that I’d be scheduled to work every single Sunday morning for weeks on end.

This has brought up a lot of questions for me, and shed light on some of my deeply-held beliefs. In my family growing up, there was no such thing as missing church, unless we were very sick or out of town; in all other cases, Sunday mornings from 9:30am to 12:30pm were permanently booked. It was one of the rituals of our lives, as natural as eating breakfast or feeding the animals. There was no “I don’t feel like it” or “I’m too busy” - it just was what it was.

I have relaxed this standard a little as an adult, but never have I actually been away from a Sunday morning service entirely for this long. And I didn’t know it would have as much of an impact as it has.

It has made me wonder: What is a Christian, if not the person who faithfully goes to church every Sunday? Have I, in fact, spent the last twenty-five years of my life equating “Christian” with “church-goer”? What is it that makes me a Christian if church-going is no longer a regular occurrence in my life, and I haven’t lately set foot in that building?

I’ve never consciously thought to myself, “A Christian is someone who goes to church on Sundays, and people who don’t go to church every week can’t be Christians.” But even so, the last several weeks have felt like something of an identity crisis. They’ve jolted me into reality and forced me to face the uncomfortable notion that perhaps I was box-ticking to fit the acceptable mold, not following in the footsteps of Jesus for His glory.

Maybe I’ve mixed up going to church with being The Church.

When I read my Bible, I find that ritualistic attendance to a particular building at specified times is certainly well-represented, but that building is the Tabernacle or the Temple, not a church. I find that as the story goes on, God Himself came to earth and tabernacled with us as a human being, and that the Bible now calls us the temple of His Spirit. The Church does not seem to have a building, Biblically speaking - it just has people.

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Even the verses most often used to call people back to church are verses about people, not about a physical place:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:23-25

Notably, in the verses just before this passage, entering “the holy place” and Christ as “priest over the house of God” are mentioned. But there is clear a shift from the discussion of familiar physical objects to the revelation of far vaster spiritual implications as the author of Hebrews tries to help his Jewish readers understand Christ’s role in their long tradition of Temple-located worship. The holy place, now, is not a corner of a building behind a veil; it is the presence of God Himself to which we all have access by the blood of Jesus. The veil has been torn in two. The house of God is no longer a building, but a body.

Indeed, let us not forsake assembling together, for we need the encouragement of other believers in our lives - and undoubtedly, traditional Sunday morning church services are one of the more obvious and efficient ways to give and receive it. But they are not the only way, and I worry that if we think so, knowingly or unknowingly, we may forget that church is not a place we go. It is something we are, and that identity is a reality seven days a week. What about the believer who needs encouragement today, even though it’s Friday? Should we wait to offer it until we go to church, or could we be The Church with them in this present moment?

I have particularly ached in recent weeks for the housebound Christians, for whom getting out early on a Sunday morning is no longer a viable option due to age or illness or extenuating circumstances. It’s very difficult (arguably, Biblically impossible) to be The Church alone, and I hope we are sensitive to the fact that sometimes we must bring The Church into the homes of those who can’t bring themselves to church. Jesus said He dwells “where two or three are gathered” in His name (Matthew 18:20) - “assembling together” doesn’t have to be all of us to be sacred. For me, it’s been life-giving to meet with other Christians by nontraditional means: A brunch for newer attendees at the pastor’s house; a couple of one-on-one meetings with friends and mentors to talk about the things of God; a four-hour Bible teaching workshop; a few days with my family and in-laws, all of them believers.

In all of these instances, I experienced the love and encouragement that the book of Hebrews says is to be characteristic when the people of God meet together. In all of these instances, we were The Church, though we were not “at church.” Jesus was there in the midst of us.

This coming Sunday morning, I will (Lord willing) get to go to church for the first time since early August. I’m so, so excited to go to the church building and be with the whole congregation in song, worship, prayer, and learning. But even if that remains a rare occurrence in months to come, I can still be an equally dedicated “living stone” in the House of God (1 Peter 2:4). I can still find ways to do my part as a member of the Body (1 Corinthians 12). I can still be The Church as a wholehearted follower of Jesus’ steps.

It’s the highest and most humbling encouragement to remember that God’s will and God’s mission in the world don’t hinge on me, or on my perfect attendance to “my” congregation. We are but one tiny segment of a movement that spans the ages and the globe. The Church is alive and well, and I get to be a tiny part of it no matter where I am. I praise God for that.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

Lord, to whom shall we go?

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I’m going to begin by assuming that everyone reading this knows who Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are, and the news that they’ve recently made. If you don’t, read this and this.

It’s not easy to watch iconic Christian leaders crumble. I was particularly impacted (for better or for worse, but that’s a discussion for another time) by Joshua Harris as a teenager, and his public renunciation of his faith in Jesus Christ left me with a lot to process about my own roots in the Church and journey with Jesus.

Some of it is not easy. Like one hundred percent of church-attending Christians, I have experienced pain there, pain that has been inflicted on me by other believers. That’s sad, but that’s life until the King returns - we will hurt each other.

Like ninety percent of church-raised children, I have been very sure of what I believe until the day came that I wasn’t. I have experienced doubts and fears, and that’s hard, but that’s life until the King returns - faith is not yet sight.

And like an untold number of Christians in this age, I have wondered what it means to love others and tell them how lost they are at the same time, when it feels like the only voices speaking are those of self-worshiping license or self-powered hypocrisy. That’s a wild pendulum to ride, but it also seems to be the ride of choice, because it’s always easier to shout from an extreme than to dodge the hazards of interpersonal nuance.

I don’t know the whole story of why Joshua Harris left the faith. I would imagine that immense pain, doubts, and exhaustion helped to pave the way.

And there is just one passage of Scripture that keeps echoing in my mind:

“… The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to Him from the Father.”

As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:63b-69

I think there’s room in following Jesus to acknowledge that others on the journey sometimes hurt us - and sometimes excruciatingly so. I think He is gracious and understanding with our biggest, scariest doubts. I think the complicated messiness of trying to love people enough to not leave them in their sin is something we all get tired of after awhile.

But I will not turn off His way, because honestly - to whom would I go? It is He who holds eternal life - the Holy One of God.

A mentor and friend recently inspired me to imagine what my life would be, right now, without Jesus - and what I saw in that imaginary world made me so thankful that I don’t live there.

Without Jesus, there would be no refuge from the misery of sin, guilt, and shame. I would live with those ugly entities for all of my days. I’m an over-thinker and a people-pleaser, and it is only Jesus who sets me free from the unnecessary burdens I often carry - and even redeems the necessary ones with His blood. Only Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Without Jesus, all the good relationships I treasure would evaporate, from my marriage and my family to my closest friends and spiritual mentors. Yes, I’ve been hurt in the community of the faith, but I’ve also found healing there. Perhaps there would be other relationships, but none with the iron strength of bonds wrought in Christ’s blood.

Without Jesus, where would this deep-thinking, endlessly-learning spiritual seeker find her rest? God made me with too much thirst for what is real and true to be satisfied in the vanities that other philosophies can offer. I would have spent my life searching and yet returned void, hopeless, despairing.

My view of Christianity is not rosy or naive. I am the first to challenge and question any idea, belief, or tradition that is presented as truth, and I am not afraid to acknowledge the incredible harm that some individuals in some churches have done. I’m against hiding sin, sweeping pain under the rug, telling people to band-aid their wounds with more Jesus, or rebuking doubts. I don’t think there’s a right denomination or a right translation of the Bible or a black side and a white side to every moral issue.

But I do know that there is nowhere to turn for what fills the void in the human soul except Jesus.

Comment

Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

big, improbable ideas

This week I read a statistic that troubled me. On the YouVersion app, which populates different Bible reading plans and similar resources, a reading plan covering the theme of “justice” in the Bible has a 70% user completion rate.

The problem? It’s only a three-day plan.

That is, only 70% of people who sign up for a reading plan that will take three days can actually follow through on those three days.

It’s not surprising. We all know that our attention spans are shrinking, our lives are getting busier, and longform content is becoming less and less popular. We’d rather get the one-minute summary video with an eye-catching slideshow than take in the full depth and breadth of a topic. But it is still troubling.

One of the biggest projects I’ve created through this blog so far is a plan to read through the Bible in 180 days. If 30% of people won’t follow through for three days, how many will still be in it at the end of 180? One percent? Less?

Part of me fears that my vision is too big. It’s too much to expect of people, to read through the whole Bible. It takes too long. They don’t want to do it. They’re too busy. They’re too distracted. It’s one of those lovely, big ideas that I should probably pass off as improbable, if not impossible.

And I know that IT IS a hard task. I myself took this year off from Bible180, because it’s a big investment of time, energy, and brainspace to read through the whole Bible in such a concentrated amount of time. But whether you try to read the Bible in seven days, 180 days, or 365 days - it’s still going to be a really big book that requires really big commitment. We can’t distill it down to a one-minute video and still capture the beauty and complexity of who God is and what He has done.

And I know this, too: There are people that have completed Bible180 from beginning to end. Some of them within the 180-day timeframe, some of them taking a bit longer, but they’ve done it. I know who they are. They’ve shared with me how it has impacted them. Even the ones who made it to Deuteronomy, or to Jeremiah, or to the end of the Old Testament - they experienced transformation, too.

There is a pressure to make things easier. Faster. More bite-size, accessible, watered down. There are plenty of voices telling me I have too many big, improbable ideas - that nobody wants to do that much work.

But I contend that some of us are hungry to put in the work.

Some of us are hungry for the dense, nutritious meat of the Word. Some of us - probably more of us than anyone realizes - have been on a diluted diet for far too long, and we long to know God in His richness. His depth.

Maybe it isn’t about whether I can keep 500 people on task to read through the Bible that matters. Maybe it’s about whether the five or ten or twenty of them that were truly starving get fed.

The Bible school that I attended in Florida attracts one, maybe two dozen students every year. Not the hundreds or thousands that other institutions can boast. But the ones that uproot their lives to spend their days marinating in the fullness of the Bible, the ones that put dollars and hours behind their desire to learn from its every page whether they ever reap a tangible return on the investment or not - these are just one example of the truly hungry. And when the truly hungry seek after what can truly satisfy, they will be filled - even as their appetites are whetted for more.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Matthew 5:6

We’re all in different places in our walks with Jesus. Some of us need the milk-based diet - we are babies and we need someone else to hold the spoon. Some of us have been stuck on milk for a bit too long, but haven’t yet identified our real need for something different. Some of us have long outgrown the liquid diet and our souls are crying out for more substantial nutrition - and the skills to feed ourselves - to fuel our growth.

There’s a good place for cutting things up into bite-size pieces. But to the fear that I have too many big, improbable ideas that “no one” will ever want to partake in, I say that’s not true. Because I am someone, and I am starving, and I know that I am not the only one.

Are you one of the hungry ones? I’d love to hear about your experience with the Bible and what you feel is missing from your current spiritual “diet.” Leave me a comment below!

(The photos in this post were taken on a recent hike to McCall Point, Columbia River Gorge.)