Certainly there are believers who have never been tempted to skip church or stop going altogether. But many of us have experienced walking out to the parking lot on a Sunday morning and thinking, even if only in passing, Would it really be such a big deal if I never came back?
Illustrations by Abbey Lossing
The truth is, going to church can be disheartening at times. Most believers, if not all, know that sinking feeling when the body of Christ has let them down. Maybe it’s caused by a clear issue like dishonest leadership or toxic behaviors in the community. (That’s a topic we’ll discuss later in this series.) But more often, the causes of our disappointment are internal and harder to pinpoint—a general feeling of dissatisfaction or longing that hovers over us like a cloud.
It doesn’t matter whether your idea of church is a pew-filled room complete with organ music, a darkened warehouse pulsing with light and music, or a cruciform cathedral enhanced by stained glass and the sounds of chanting. The question is, What do you do when Sunday mornings don’t meet your expectations? As anyone who’s been around one for a while knows, church isn’t perfect. And just as important, neither are the people who attend it—ourselves included.
We’ve put together this guide to help you get more out of church, firmly believing that life in the body of Christ is an essential part of our relationship with God. Our time among flesh-and-blood believers—not just their digital avatars—is both the Lord’s desire for us and His gift. We want to help you move past whatever barriers are hindering your experience of sharing life with God’s people. Receiving the fullness of that gift will equip you to keep going and growing for the rest of your life.
What’s the real problem?
Though we each have a personal and unique experience with church, as members of modern society, we’re all influenced by similar pressures and values. And it’s inevitable that those influences shape our vision of church. Here are a few things people often expect from the body of Christ—things that might be altering your perception of it too:
High idealism or perfection. Knowing that we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9), we think the church should be more morally upright than the rest of society.
Excellence and efficiency. The Protestant work ethic doesn’t just improve business dealings—we think it should influence our sanctuaries as well. With God behind our efforts, we believe that the church and its initiatives should always strive to be efficient, organized, high quality, and even aesthetically pleasing.
Judgment. Because “the Lord is our judge” (Isa. 33:22), we view His church as a courtroom. Inside its walls, we weigh and measure ourselves against our brothers and sisters to know where we stand.
Do any of these ideas sound familiar? Have you expected them from your own church? While they have logical origins, these ideals don’t accurately reflect who the church is or what it is here for.
How do we reframe our expectations?
It’s natural to have misplaced expectations—they come with the territory of being human. But they don’t have to taint our experience of church. We can rewrite them to reflect what it really means to participate in and enjoy the body of Christ.
Church is for worship. Going to church has many benefits—things like friendship, guidance, and spiritual education. But the ultimate purpose of church is to help us worship God together. Here’s what Manuel Luz, author of Honest Worship, has to say about our approach to church:
“Worship” is a big word and also a small one. It can mean the way we live the entirety of our lives in response to the rhythms of God’s grace. Or it can mean the music that happens on a Sunday morning. But at its core, worship is the people of God invited by the Spirit into the fellowship of the Son with the Father. In other words, it is the imperfect community of believers invited into the perfect community of the Godhead. We join in with those around us, the church globally, the host in the heavenlies, and the saints throughout time. Together, we enter the presence of the eternal fellowship of the Trinity. And we do so with reverence, gratitude, surrender. It is much less about us than we realize.
This is a big paradigm shift. As you process it, consider praying something like this: God, let my desires for worship align with Yours.
Thinking of worship in this way, what do you want to experience more of the next time you walk into church?
Church is flawed. Though we hope for church to be a moral example set apart from society, it’s made up of imperfect people who sin and make mistakes. We can expect some amount of disagreement, inefficiency, distraction, and pride to show up in our congregations and relationships. And according to Ruth Haley Barton’s Life Together in Christ, accepting this truth is imperative to experiencing real, transformational community:
When our dreams and convictions about what we think community should be are dashed against the jagged reef of human limitations and failure to live up to one another’s needs and expectations, then and only then are we ready to accept the fact that Christian community is not about us at all. It is about the transforming presence of Christ—all he will do in and through and for each of us.
What do you see as shortcomings in your church? What kinds of flaws do you think show up even in healthy communities?
What mistakes have you made in the past? How did they impact your congregation? How do you think about them now in light of what you’re learning?
Church is a hospital. It’s where we go for healing—not to condemn, judge, or shame one another. We may be inclined to turn the sanctuary into a courtroom, but it’s more accurate to approach church as a refuge for people who are hurting because of sin. Here’s what Pastor Matt Woodley has to say about it:
My dad was a doctor, my son’s a doctor, but I always hated hospitals … until I got sick. Then I needed the hospital. In the hospital, it’s okay to be sick because everyone knows you need healing.
Jesus said He came to heal “those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). The church is the community of patients who have come under the care of Dr. Jesus. Some of us are bleeding on an ER bed. Sometimes we need open heart surgery, or we need the doctor to set a broken bone. But here’s one biblical facet of the church’s mission—we gather around Jesus, the Great Physician, as He slowly makes us strong and healthy.
How does this description of what church is change your perception of yourself? Of your brothers and sisters in Christ?
What sins are causing you pain? Take a moment to tell God about your discomfort.
How can I start to think differently?
Many of our disappointments with church aren’t unique. In fact, they are criticisms we’ve all heard before. The next time you find yourself thinking one of the following thoughts, consider the questions below and see where they lead you.
“I didn’t get much out of that sermon.”
Take a moment to think about what you hoped to receive, whether it was comfort, education, peace, conviction, guidance, or something else. How important should your expectations be, considering the larger discussion of worship we’re having here?
Did you connect with God at any point during your visit? If so, when? If not, what do you think got in the way?
What if next time your only goal for church was to show up? Imagine how you might feel. And remember, God meets us where we are.
“I don’t agree with him/her.”
Take a moment to pinpoint exactly what you disagree with. How does it make you feel—tense, annoyed, betrayed?
Imagine writing this disagreement on a slip of paper, putting it in a jar, and setting that jar on a shelf. It’s real, it’s there, but it’s also out of the way. How does this visual help you be more flexible and forgiving of your brothers and sisters in Christ?
God calls us all to the same purpose, yet no two people are alike. What might be a benefit of differences of opinion? What principles do you think should be nonnegotiable in a church, and which ones are up for discussion?
“What a busy morning.”
Make a mental list of everything you did at church, from formal activities like leading a study group to interactions as casual as a conversation.
Did you connect with God at any point during your visit? If so, when?
If you could eliminate one thing from your morning, what would it be? Is it possible to replace that activity next Sunday and instead spend a few minutes being still in God’s presence?
“This just isn’t my style.”
Do certain elements of a church service enrich your awareness of God? Spend some time prayerfully considering why that is and prepare your heart to focus on them next Sunday.
Also examine the things that rub you the wrong way. Are they worth the distraction they cause in your heart each week? Speak honestly with the Lord about them. Nothing you say will take Him by surprise, and He can help reorder your thoughts on the matter.
It’s normal to feel disappointed with your church now and then. And while that occasionally means it’s time to consider another congregation, more often than not the discontent comes from our own misguided ideas about what church should be and do for us. Let’s release ourselves from these notions and appreciate the body of Christ as it is. Because the truth is, we get exactly what God intended from worship when we let it transform us rather than demand that it conform to our earthly and shortsighted expectations.