Return to Index Page
Why I don’t go to church
By Richard Gunther
This is not a gripe against Christians. If it were, I would need to start with myself. It is all too easy to find fault with other people, and even easier to find fault with Christians, besides, by and large they are the ones who are already aware of their faults. The ‘Church’ is like a hospital for people who need a lot of help, so it is logical that the most offensive people, the ones with the faults, will gather there – for healing and help. It would be just as silly to go into a hospital and complain about all the sick people as it would be to go into a church and complain about the faulty people. As Jesus put it, he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:7) A true Christian will tell you "I’m full of faults!" as would I.
I do not go to church, that is attend the regular Sunday meetings, not because of any brother or sister. I have not been offended, as many others have, and I do not harbour smouldering resentment against some individuals in particular, or the entire Church in general – as some do.
The reason for this essay came about because of a certain dear brother, who has asked me on several occasions why I do not attend the local fellowship, which meets every Sunday in a building not far from where I live. I have tried to respond to his question but I know that I am a ‘condemned man’ before I open my mouth. He never listens. He is like the child who wants sweets and no amount of discussion about cavities or diabetes or oral hygiene will make the slightest difference.
But I feel that an answer ought to be given, just in case there are others like me, who have made a choice, before God, and who do not like the critical stare of brethren. I have found quite a few like myself, and we all share a few things in common. Perhaps this essay will be an encouragement to them, and others who have already made some inner decision but have not as yet acted on it outwardly. Quite frankly, it takes courage to walk your own path as a Christian, and there are times when the opposition comes from the very brothers and sisters you would prefer to have as allies.
"Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" Galatians 4:16
My earliest years were touched by ‘church’. I was baptized in a church
and my mother took me to ‘church’, along with my two sisters. At five and six I
remember helping push the pram, in which my youngest sister lay home, up the
road from the Mt.Pleasant Presbyterian church,
It was at the Presbyterian church that I went to Sunday school, and there, under the sweet influences of a very nice woman teacher, I "gave my heart" to Jesus. At five years old this was a real commitment, and from then I a sincere and committed convert, though this hardly seemed the case for the other boys, who broke from the Sunday school rooms like wild animals and proceeded to have clod fights around the building.
But that Presbyterian church was not a good start, as far as first impressions go. Just getting to the place was an enormous hassle. I was very reluctant to dress in Sunday clothes, which were always alien to me. Bend-resistant collars on white shirts, best jerseys, best trousers, black leather shoes which needed to be polished . . . and my mother had to round up my two sisters as well, though I imagine they were comparatively easy. My father was not a Christian, but because my mother was a determined woman, he either stayed out of the way, or added his anger, so we would finally emerge from the house and walk down the road. As we arrived the smell of flowers, mothballs and the sound of an organ, meandering around the keyboard, would meet me. I would sequester myself somewhere in the wall of bodies and spend the first half an hour grinding through endless, tuneless hymns and examining all the curious bobby pins and collars, hats and types of cloth all around me. I would also swing my legs, and scribble things on the back of bits of paper. Church was a bore, and it was not for me.
Sunday school on the other hand was a different matter. We had the obligatory colouring-in pages to do, crosswords (with Biblical words of course) and stories. I took such a keen interest in the Bible stories I was allowed to read to the class. I felt very important. Around this age my grandmother gave me a small, King James Bible, with very small type and some very well-painted pictures, which I often went to and contemplated. I set to to read one chapter of this Bible every day, until it was such a solid ritual I could not go a day without reading some Word. I am now fifty two and I have never missed a day without some Scripture in it. Praise God for habits.
My mother’s dedication to ‘going to church’ seemed to vanish as soon as her children were a little more grown up. From then on she remained at home, so for us children it was a matter of invitation, as to whether we went or not, usually to special church events, or youth groups, which I attended very occasionally. But despite my failure to attend church I was still reading a chapter a day, and God was speaking to me, regularly, and I may have been one of the youngest New Zealanders ever to read the entire Bible at the age of about 9 or 10. Having completed the almost unintelligible last chapters of Revelation I started again at Genesis, and continued until I needed a new Bible. So it went on. One Bible, which I purchased in 1977, I read from cover to cover 28 times between 1977 and 1988. I have never regretted this reading program. It has given me a panoramic view of God’s Word, like the camera pan in a big movie. It is all to easy to focus on this verse and that chapter, but to have the whole Bible in one continuous flow is a great advantage. Every detail falls into its correct context and the whole counsel of God is heard.
One incident stands out from those formative years. I minister was talking to some teenagers, close to the Presbyterian church, at the close of a youth service. I innocently asked him why he became a minister. "The power", he replied, "I wanted the power." Looking back at this moment I cannot but admire his honesty, but I‘m sure God did not want leaders in the church to be focussed on their own personal power over others, or self-importance? It reminds me of another minister who told me he was actually an advocate of Communism, and by this he meant Russian socialism, in which people were condemned to live under the iron heel of dictatorship – for their own good of course. I was too young to ask him how he could reconcile Christianity with tyranny, and if I ever meet him again I will not hesitate to ask him, but the adults in a child’s world are not to be questioned are they.
As I went through childhood I joined the Boy’s Brigade and was exposed to another type of Christian work. We arrived spic and span, dressed in our uniforms, Brasso smudges around our brass buttons, and raised the flag. We had Bible ‘talks’ as part of the fun and we made a huge ruckus when we played games in the church hall. I made some passing friendships with a few other boys and I met a boy whose father was a minister. This boy, who shall remain nameless, was not a good boy, and my mother told me not to associate with him. One thing he liked to do was escape the hall during the meetings and bike around the dark streets on his bike. He also liked sneaking about when the adults were not looking and stealing biscuits from the kitchen. Happily I had enough sense to resist the powerful force of peer pressure, but I will never forget that exciting, dare-devil lifestyle he had, and the bravado he exhibited. I admired him for his courage, but I did not respect him.
As I moved towards the teenage years I had more varied contact with
different groups of Christians. One group met in a hall on
The Pentecostal movement reached
At every meeting there were ‘healings’ and various people would raise their hands and then have prayer made for them, very loud prayer, very demanding "In the name of Jesus . . .!" and the line was that healing was not only expected, it was inevitable. God had to heal because certain verses were being "claimed". It was quite disturbed by this, and as I was well-versed in the Bible by then, I knew the context of the verses being used, and also knew several other qualifying verses.
A qualifying verse is a balance against other verses. For example, when
the Bible says, in Acts 9:27, 28 that Paul went with Barnabas and was with the
Proverbs 27:17 "Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens countenance of his friend."
I have a debt of thanks to the many people in my life who have taught me error. Because of their teaching I have been able to search the Bible and find the truth. Their blows have toughened me. Their mistakes have helped me find the correct understanding. They have sharpened me, and although I feel sorry for them, I am grateful to God for them.
It was thanks to false teaching about tongues that I discovered the Biblical approach. It was thanks to extreme claims made on the subject of healing that I arrived at a balanced and Scriptural view. It was the same with a wide range of other subjects, including a Biblical definition of what ‘the church’ means, and since this is what this essay is about I will try to stay focussed, but I think the context is important. Pentecostalism unleashed a pack of wild teachings, which ran through the land biting and nipping at the heels of more formal Christians, and it caused a huge amount of trouble. I think the main reason why Pentecostalism took off as it did was because a vast number of Christians were not thoroughly grounded in the Bible. They were easily persuaded that ‘these things were so’ because they did not know the whole counsel of God. And the effects of Pentecostalism were not all bad. I was thrilled to meet young and old people who had been ‘set on fire’ for Jesus by the power and enthusiasm within Pentecostalism. Many new outreach initiatives were started, many youth groups sprang up, many people’s lives were changed. It was like a fresh wind, which blew through the dark corridors of a long-established church system. With some reservations I thanked God for it.
But the new teachings were fascinating. I would sit in the wild, noisy meetings and take notes, then retire to my quite room at home and start searching for the references. I used a method taught to me by Joan Brown: COMB. Context, Other related material, Meaning, Background. It was a painstaking process, slow and deliberate, even tedious and at times vaguely boring, but it was thorough. Verse by verse I gathered the words of God on each subject, looked at their original meanings in Hebrew and Greek, weighed them against their context, and gradually the undistorted teaching emerged. On the positive side I was now better informed, but on the negative side, I was ‘moving away from’ the Christians I sat beside at the meetings. A yawning gulf began to form between what they understood and what I understood. Ironically, the only way I could maintain a doctrinal fellowship with them was by not reading the Bible!
As the years went by I tried hard to maintain contact with other
Christians. For a year and a half I attended a small
The problem with Bible study is that the more you do, the less you have in common with many other Christians – unless of course they are also studying the Word too.
Before I was twenty a wonderful man arrived in
But Barry was a Futurist, and it was Futurism which drew people to his
meetings. He taught that, some time in the future some Jewish man would emerge,
with miracles, and seize control of a World Government. This man, the
‘Antichrist’ would rule for seven years, and at the end of the seven years
Jesus would come. There were many other details, and I heard them all because I
attended a week-long series of Barry’s teachings, at a little church in
I remember that at the time I never doubted that Barry was correct. He spoke with such unction, and he had masses of facts and figures, which he showed to us on the wall, and he sounded so convinced, and he was after all a Christian so he would never tell us falsehoods would he. And who was I, a mere youth, to doubt such an eminent speaker? But I did check up on what he said, just in case there was the odd small detail which needed to be set right. I almost wish I hadn’t checked up, because the more checked the more disillusioned I was.
I discovered that the whole Futurist teaching was based on a number of out-of-context expositions from the Bible, a deliberate misunderstanding of Daniel chapter 9, a spurious document allegedly written by some secretive Jews, some wild conjectures about bar codes, and some deliberately deceptive book written by a Jesuit who pretended he was a converted Jew!
I was amazed in two directions: first that Barry could have swallowed so many errors, and secondly that such a large number of Christians could have trotted along like sheep behind such travesties. The more I dug into the errors the more amazed I was that anyone could believe them.
I have written several other essays about Futurism, so I will not repeat myself here – see Daniel 9, The Antichrist, Revelation, and Growing a church – but something must be said. What a shame, what an embarrassment, what a disgrace, to the Body of Christ, that such a flimsy and misguided teaching should have been accepted so readily into the teachings of ‘Mainline’ churches throughout the whole world! Here we are, at the end of the age, and we have 2000 years of Bible study, and some of the greatest students of the Bible in our heritage, yet millions of Christians today have accepted a teaching which makes a twisted nonsense of their understanding of the end times! When the Church ought to be full of light and wisdom, it is flooded with stupidity!
For example, the Futurist says there will be a seven year period just prior to the coming of Christ. Obviously, the moment the ‘Antichrist’ appears we will be able to set our watches to the moment of Christ’s return, yet Jesus said nobody would be able to predict it exactly. For example: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." Mark 13:32
Even from the practical point of view, at a time when more and more nations are claiming ‘sovereign rights’ and new independent nations are appearing regularly, is it at all likely that some man, a Jew of all people, could ever become supreme ruler over all nations? Imagine a Jew ruling Islamic Arabs! How will the Chinese react to such a blow against their Socialist rule? The very idea is nonsense. But if the historical approach is followed, and the Antichrist is identified as the papacy, and the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation are read in the correct way (as prophetic, not literal), all the pieces fit together in harmony. All the great Bible teachers and preachers of the 18th Century identified the Antichrist as the Papacy, so how is it that such a unified front of witnesses should be cast aside for the popular, modern and ear-tickling Futurist teaching? Is this an indictment against modern Christians? I think it is, and I also think if they are caught by surprise when Jesus suddenly appears, it will their own fault. They have all had a Bible to read – why did they not study it?
Why I do not go to church has just a little to do with Futurism. For me it is like attending a Creationism meeting and hearing the speaker expound on the virtues of evolution. It grates. It makes me feel sad. I have attended a small number of churches, various denominations, over the years and invariably the message has been infused with Futurist assumptions. It is the same with many TV evangelists, many Christian books, videos and so on. Futurism has taken such a hold it is not even challenged or questioned – it is accepted as fact.
On the odd occasioned I have met Christians who have asked me about the Antichrist, and I am always very happy to explain the Historicist point of view, but without exception, when I explain to them that in order to gain a better understanding of the Word one must apply one’s self diligently, day after day, searching and taking notes . . . their eyes glaze over and they quietly leave the discussion to some other time. There is the problem. Most Christians, and I say this in the hope that I will be corrected, are prepared to work very hard at a job, a hobby, a sport, an academic achievement. They will labour for hours to learn a language, a skill, a musical instrument, but they will not spend five minutes a day at the Word of God! They have endless energy and time for their own pursuits, but the Bible seems too difficult, or tiresome for them. They nourish their souls on TV, movies, DVDs, books, magazines and perhaps comics, but they refuse to read the Bible. Yet the Bible is a river of life and wisdom! The Bible is the thoughts of the very God who created them! How amazing that so many Christians are uninterested in their Creator.
I have had some unpleasant encounters with some ‘churches’ over the years, but none of these encounters are a reason for not attending.
One encounter was with a brother, a young man who was all fired up with zeal, and whose head was filled with the fiery preaching of the Pentecostal pastor he sat under every Sunday. This young man thundered curses at me because I did not come to ‘his church’ every Sunday. He stood outside my room and he "Cursed me in the name of the Lord!" and when it was all over I told him I forgave him, and he stormed away. Later that evening he returned to apologize.
At another meeting I was three rows from the front. A woman was telling us about how she hid herself in a tree trunk to watch the sun rise. She went on to use her ‘word of wisdom’ to spot people in the room who were ‘sick’ and various people responded to her descriptions of their ailments. Meanwhile, right in front of me was a boy, in obvious pain, moaning and swaying while he pressed his hand over a sore tooth. I waited for the woman up front to receive a ‘word of wisdom’ about this boy, but despite his obvious affliction she didn’t seem to see him, so I shut my eyes and prayed very quietly for the boy. He was immediately healed. This event made me very curious. I had already long noted that Jesus never identified sick people this way, and the fact that the boy was healed so discreetly indicated that perhaps these ‘healing sessions’ weren’t what they were cracked up to be.
Another event was the ‘gold dust and gold fillings’ claims which were made during a ‘healing session’ here in Timaru. It was said that during meetings gold dust was seen falling from the ceiling and some Timaru Christians claimed to have received new fillings, made of pure gold. I met two of them, both children, and looked into their mouths. I saw silver fillings, but I did not point this out as they were so thrilled that God had touched their lives, I didn’t want to spoil their fun.
I did a little research on the ‘gold dust’ claims and found not one claimant had had the gold confirmed by a dentist. Some of the dust had been smuggled from a meeting and a chemical analysis had revealed plastic. It also made me wonder why God would use gold, a soft metal hardly suitable for fillings, and why did He not simply restore the tooth? Does God prefer dentistry these days? I doubt whether Jesus healed with prosthetics, when real bones, real muscles, and real eyes did a far better job.
Another event which struck me as rather peculiar, was a visit to an Open Brethren chapel, in Pleasant Point. I went with a brother, who was also a Brethren, and he and I were both welcomed in. Before the service, during friendly conversation, I openly stated to a brother that Jesus was my Lord and Saviour, and that I enjoyed being with Christians, and also loved to hear God’s Word preached. However, during the service, when the communion cup and bread were passing, I was side-stepped. Afterwards I asked why and was told it was because "I had not come with letters of commendation"! I pointed out that I had made a full confession of faith in Christ at the doors, and surely this was enough. (Rom.10:9) Apparently it was not. I left the building and sat in the car until my brother came out, with two other men, who tried to smooth over the incident. They were however not thinking any differently, so I decided never to return to that particular chapel.
I could recount many other such incidents, and although I have had quite a few, I must say it is not as if I deliberately look for trouble! I am not a critical person, and I do not look for faults in others. I have enough of my own. I understand that I am a sinner, saved by grace, and by grace alone. I have no right to enter heaven other than the right given to me by my Saviour, who died for me. I come as an adopted son to His throne, and stand only by his mercy. I bring nothing of worth with me – and all Christians are the same in this respect. We are all made equal by grace.
The reason I don’t ‘go to church’ is not an easy one to explain. Part of the reason is the lack of fellowship, which may sound rather strange because the supposed meaning of ‘going to church’ is for fellowship, but when I compare the modern, typical church meeting with the Early Church meetings, I find our modern counterpart sadly lacking in several areas. For a start, there is hardly any fellowship, because the meetings usually begin at a specified time, and end at approximately mid-day. This gives comers time to say good morning, and exchange a few scraps of news. At the end of the service everyone usually leaves and goes home, not seeing each other for six more days. Hardly a system designed for fellowship!
How did the church get to where it has come? What happened all those years ago, when the first Christians were eating together, sharing their lives, and really living like one big family, and then gradually they closed down the homes and started meeting in specially designed ‘church buildings’? Did they think they could improve on God’s original design? I have touched on this in more detail in other essays, for example ‘Growing a Church’:
"Looking at the style of the
Doctrine. They listened to and studied the teaching of the apostles
Fellowship. This means people with a common interest met to share their common interest with each other.
Meals. "breaking of bread’ can mean either communion or simply a meal.
Prayers. For each other and for the people outside the Church.
These first Christians also showed great generosity towards each other, and became a wonderful example of a sharing, caring community. As the apostles went about performing signs and wonders the unsaved, who saw this phenomenon, were drawn into the Church and God’s Building increased."
As well as this, there was a far greater sharing of gifts among Christians when they met, than ever happens in today’s traditional ‘church’. For starters, we are told that: "When you come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation." 1 Corinthians Paul advises that every Christian may contribute to the fellowship provided they wait their turn and keep things orderly. This is seldom if ever the case in today’s building-bound church, but it can happen within the family setting, in a home, over time.
Having said this, I would like to offer an alternative to the church-building-on-the-street, meeting-there-every-Sunday system. This is an alternative which works for me, and I recommend it to you, unless of course you are happy with the type of fellowship you presently attend.
Many years ago, when I was feeling disillusioned about the direction the
modern, typical ‘church’ was going I realized I would have to do something
about it, rather than nothing, to fix the problem, at least in my own life. I
could not find a homechurch near where I was living, one like the
God led me to the realization that if I could not find the sort of
When I say "we are all Christians" I need to explain that
within this fellowship there are some young, and very young children, and two
adults. All these "saints" are at different stages in their walk with
God. At the lower end of the scale the youngest are just beginning to learn
about God. The slightly older ones have adapted to a blend of Christian beliefs
and a fairly large dose of world, which makes for an awful mess, but they are
still growing in their understanding, and I expect one day they will realize
they have one foot on two different paths, and they will, I hope, make some good
choices. The teenagers are at various points between extreme worldliness and
piety, but that is normal for teenagers. The pressures of life kake it very
difficult to discern where you are going, and sometimes hindsight is the best
teacher. The adults fluctuate between godliness and ungodliness, but who
doesn’t. Show me a perfect saint and I will show you someone who belongs in a
freak show. This is reality. This is what real Christians are like. It is what
all Christians generally are like. They are never as perfect as the Christians
you meet for a few minutes each Sunday but they are real people, without the
façade of godliness which hangs about from to 12 once a week. It is impossible to maintain
the Sunday service level of niceness all through the remaining six days between
meetings.I believe this family is precisely the sort of thing the
But having said this, I have no problem with the ‘church building’ type of church in the sense of seeing it as yet another arm of God which He uses to reach the lost. It does a job, and it functions, in some ways, very well. For millions of people the traditional church is exactly right for their level of Christianity. I also see many other Christian organizations as equally a part of God’s work – even so-called Christian rock musicians, and many other ‘ministries’ which I personally never want to be involved with. But God works through many different means, and I am not permitted to judge another man’s servant. By way of illustrating this point, I sometimes picture God’s work as a huge lake, on which are a host of fishermen, each in their own little boat, and each casting a slightly different kind of net. Each net is designed to catch only a certain kind of fish. Obviously a net designed for minnows will not catch sharks, and the shark fisherman has no right to criticize the minnow fisherman, so it is none of my business to question another Christian’s work. God is using me to catch a certain kind of fish and I am determined to stick with it, therefore I leave other labourers to what they are doing, and God bless them all.
By the same token I hope God’s grace works in the hearts of my ‘go to church’ brethren to the extent that they allow me to follow my own conscience and do what I am sure is the right thing for me. Why do I not go to church? Well actually I do. Its just that the definition of what ‘church’ is needs to be redefined to fit better with what the Bible says ‘church’ is. As long as the definition is defined by people who see it only in terms of a traditional weekly service, the question is unfair. But the moment we expand the definition to include people living close to each other, helping, talking, eating, supporting, sometimes criticizing, holidaying, bearing each other up, and committed to the larger goal of growing into a likeness of Jesus we have a church.
One could just as readily turn the question round and ask: "Are you an integral, committed part of a group of fellow Christians, exercising your gifts and working in a close, intimate relationship with your family in Christ - or do you simple attend a meeting for a few minutes each week?" Of the two kinds of gathering, which is closest to being a real "church"? If all you do is "attend church" then you are missing out big time.
Back to Index Page