This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Brothers and sisters,
As COVID-19 caseloads fall, vaccinations take effect, and protocols lift across the US, many of our churches have returned to more normal services. But that doesn’t mean that everyone’s rushing back to corporate worship. Many believers are still hesitant for a variety of reasons. I’d like to share some reflections and encouragement for those of you who might feel this way.
Diagnosing the Heart
There are many reasons why a person might be hesitant about returning to church, so proactively diagnosing our hearts is an important step to take. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” We’re all masters at mental maneuvering, and our deepest motives often flow in unexamined thoughts and feelings. So we need to pause, reflect, and consider our reasoning in the light of God’s truth and wisdom.
Privacy or Accountability?
Our individualistic culture will tempt us to deliberate and decide privately about whether and when to return to church. But isolated thinking on important issues is rarely wise: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1). Instead, God has called us into relationships filled with time together, spiritual conversation, mutual prayer, heart openness, and healthy accountability.
This booklet motivates Christians to go to church even when they feel like it will be unsatisfying, unhelpful, or just plain awkward by helping them rediscover the power of being present at their church's gathering. Part of the Church Questions series.
Don’t overestimate your ability to run the Christian race—or make a difficult decision—in isolation. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12–13). If we need spiritual encouragement from wise believers “every day”—and we do—then we certainly need outside insight as we navigate our own decision-making following a global crisis.
Fear or Faith?
As you turn to God and others for help diagnosing your heart, seek to discern between your faith and your fears. Sometimes fear is healthy and appropriate and protects us from dangerous things. But other times fear is unhealthy and wrong, deceiving us and blinding us to bad decisions.
Thankfully, God loves giving his children situational insights that help us decide between the necessary risks of faith and the appropriate cautions of wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
Comfort or Commitment?
But the tension is not always between fear and faith. Sometimes our hearts take the wrong turn at the crossroads between commitment and comfort. In recent months, many believers have told me that they had to push themselves to return to church services because they’d grown comfortable with their no-commute, no-prep Sunday mornings at home. Or they could just do whatever they wanted on the weekend and watch a recorded service later.
God has called us into relationships filled with time together, spiritual conversation, mutual prayer, heart openness, and healthy accountability.
But if serious vulnerability and neighbor-love aren’t the true impulses for your continued absence from church, beware of letting newfound comforts slip ahead of biblical commitments. As believers, our relationship with God is defined by his new covenant in Christ, and this covenant grants us both privileges and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities (which is also a privilege) is to gather, worship, fellowship, and serve together (Heb. 10:24–25).
And if we’re really looking for comfort, what we need most is not the pleasure of our personal coffee brew but the bread and wine of communion; not the convenience of private watching but the fellowship of corporate worship; not a commute-free morning but the small inconveniences of preparation and travel that themselves are healthy acts of devotion to our risen Lord.
Bitterness or Grace?
One of our long-time members humbly emailed me a while back to ask for prayer. She’d felt unmotivated to come back to church because she’s seen so much division among believers in the past year. She now knows where many fellow Christians stand on a variety of controversial issues, and she’s struggling to respect and appreciate her church family as she did before. She recognized what was happening in her heart, so she began wrestling with the Lord, asking him to rewarm her heart to the family relationships she’d once enjoyed.
We’ve all experienced strained relationships this past year. But instead of reacting with the disillusionment that lets our distance linger, we need to practice the daily forgiveness that closes that distance (Eph. 4:31–32; Col. 3:12–15). “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Then, as we cultivate a forgiving heart, we should pursue proactive reconciliation: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother” (Matt. 5:23–24).
We also need to extend grace to our church leaders when they change, maintain, or cease requiring protocols in ways that frustrate us. If you’ve resisted coming to church for this reason, consider which option is more honoring to God’s word: refusing to meet with your church because you disagree with the protocols, or showing up and participating even though you disagree.
Alone or Together?
Ultimately, we must remember that we’re embodied creatures meant to interact in person (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:18–25; 3:20). I’m a relational being adopted into God’s family, not as an only child but as a sibling with brothers and sisters. The local church is by definition an assembly—a physical gathering united by a spiritual identity. We’re a body, not a prosthetic warehouse; a pack, not a scattering of lone wolves; a temple, not a dispersion of loose stones.
We’re not just solo ambassadors, but part of local embassies whose light shines brightest when we shine together, practicing the one another’s and showing the world what a community is like when God is king. Our desires to see each other should always be growing instead of atrophying so that our spiritual impulses sound like the apostle John’s: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).
All the More
The past year has been tumultuous and exhausting, with tectonic shifts in the ways we live and work and relate with each other. Societies are changing, and no one quite knows what the new “normal” will be. But as we experience the kinds of trouble that Jesus promised in our broken world, we should spend more time together, not less. With all appropriate caution and all biblical courage, we should “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25).
David Gunderson is the author of What If I Don’t Feel Like Going to Church?.
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