This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Fighting Our Feelings
In this episode, Gunner Gunderson, author of What If I Don’t Feel Like Going to Church?, discusses what to do when you just don't feel like going to church. He explains why that might be the most important time to lean into corporate worship with other Christians, reflects on the hard work of bringing our emotions and affections in line with what we know to be right and good for us, and he offers advice for the person who feels hurt or betrayed by the church.
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.
- What the Future Might Look Like
- What It Means to Be God’s People during Separation
- Getting Comfortable with Staying Home
- Why We Need Church When We Don’t Feel Like It
- When Pastors Don’t Feel Like Going to Church
- The Importance of Contributing to the Church
- Advice to the Discouraged
- What to Do with Doctrinal Concerns
- Engaging in Discussion with a Pastor
- When You’re Skeptical of Leadership
- The Apostle Paul’s Example
What the Future Might Look Like
I know it's probably impossible for any of us right now to know what our transition back to normal, in-person church is going to look like as this pandemic comes to an end; but as you've watched and observed both in your own church and talking with other pastors and just even watching the news, do you have any thoughts or predictions about what that might look like or what might happen in terms of how churches restart their in-person gatherings?
I think it's a real challenge right now to discern what that's going to look like. I think one really positive thing about that is that we're all being faced with the fact that we just don't know things we thought that we used to know. I think so much of the way that we're usually able to do church, at least in the States, is based on predictable things—what schedules are going to look like, programs, calendars, building situations—those are things that have really been taken from us, and so we're really all depending on the Lord for wisdom in that. I think the things that are pretty clear to me are that the reopening that churches do is going to be staged in different ways—not everybody is going to come back right away because of all sorts of limitations that we have, different vulnerabilities people have, different conscience issues that people have. So I think it's going to be staged, number one. I think a second thing is that it's clear that there is some disagreement on what's best, even in any given church community, and so it's going to take a lot of humility as people come back. I think we'll have to learn a lot of Romans 14 and 15—ways to treat each other in those gray area kinds of disagreements that we might have, whether they're spoken or just felt among us. I think there's going to have to be a lot of humility. And then I think every church is going to be different as well because churches are in different states; different parts of the country; they have different demographics in terms of more or less vulnerable populations, sizes can vary really widely. There are a lot of variables, but a few things that we can expect. But I do know this: the church is going to regather because people are embodied humans—they have to be together—and God has called us to gather and, as Christians, the Spirit is in us, pulling us back together. So whatever things we have to do to make that happen in the safest and wisest way I know that the Lord is going to do that in our midst.
What It Means to Be God’s People during Separation
As you think about your ministry as a pastor—you've been a pastor for a number of years now—do you feel like you've learned anything about the church, the nature of the church, what it means to be God's people and gather through this time of separation?
For sure. I think my time as a pastor has had some interesting features to it. I came to my current church in June of 2017 in Houston, Texas right before Hurricane Harvey came through. Within three months our church building was flooded, we were disrupted, and we had to meet at another location for the next year and go from a good-sized building where everything was set up for us to becoming a mobile church plant type of situation. That taught me a lot about the faith and the resilience of believers because I saw that in our church. It revealed so much of the character of the people in our midst—in our church—which I was so thankful for. I know for us it really drove home this reality that the church is a people, and it's not a building. We were still gathering every week during that time, but we were just so reminded that our identity as the church was not tied to our physical address here in Houston and that we could be picked up and moved elsewhere and we would still be the church. This pandemic is different now, obviously, because churches, for the most part, have not been able to gather anywhere. They've been meeting online, and that's a different situation; but I think it is a really good reminder about what the nature of the church actually is. One difference I think that's important here is a church, partly by definition, is a gathering—it is a gathering of people. So I wouldn't want to say we can just keep doing what we're doing online indefinitely and still say we're being faithful as a church; whereas back in Hurricane Harvey and what we went through, we could meet at that school we met at forever and we could still be a faithful church. So I think there is a difference, and my hope is that believers don't miss that even as some people are saying, Hey, we are not a building but a people. That's true, but we are gathered people, too.* And I think that our hunger for that, collectively, is a good reminder that that desire is borne in us by the Spirit.
Getting Comfortable with Staying Home
I feel like I've heard a lot of people talking about how this pandemic and our separation has reawakened an awareness that the church is a people and reawakened the need for in-person community with one another. But I do wonder if there might still be a drop in attendance once churches can come back together. Do you think people might start getting used to the idea of home church and the flexibility and the anonymity that comes with that? Do you wonder if we might see some people deciding to stay home as we come back to normal life?
I think so. I think we'll probably see two different things. I think one will be that as things get safer and people sense that they can be back together, people will really want to be; but I think it will be a little bit of a shock to come back—with all of the limitations that are there and how it is staged out. It will just be different than it was before, at least at the beginning if not for a little while. And so I do think we'll see that other side, too, where people might be a little demotivated to come back to church and we'll need to do some gentle urging and discipleship and one-on-one communication to help people rediscover what Scripture does teach about the importance of meeting together, the value of it, and the joy of how it brings us out of ourselves and calls us into something that, even if we didn't feel like it before we went, it warms our heart and it changes us and challenges us in ways that we deeply need.
What would you say if you were sitting down to coffee with somebody who is toying with the idea of continuing on with home church in some way—a “listen to their podcast sermon with their cup of coffee and still in their pj's” kind of home church—what would you say to that person who might be thinking that way?
I think the first thing I would do is just ask them some questions. I would just want to understand what their mentality is toward church, what their specific situation is, and what some of their particular reasons are for not really feeling like going to church in person. I think if going to church in person was the standard procedure for them earlier on, then I'd want to understand maybe what's changed for them and what the challenges are of going back to church, maybe what the attraction is of staying home. But if they've never really been committed to a church and they're just thinking, Hey, everybody kind of realized that this can be done a little bit more efficiently and less invasively, so I'm just joining that crowd and we're gonna go ahead and do that, that would be different because I would feel the need to go more into the Bible's teaching on what the church is, what the purpose of the church is, the role of the church in a believer's life, and the role of a believer in the gathered church's life. And I'd want to go through more of that if the person really had not experienced much in-person church before. Honestly, I do hope that there are many people in that situation that are doing things online—maybe more consistently—and will need to be discipled to come to join churches in person. I think that would be a great thing. But I do think there will be some tensions with some people that feel more comfortable at home.
Why We Need Church When We Don’t Feel Like It
You open your book with a striking line that relates to this. You write, “The most important time to be at church is when you don't feel like it.” I wonder if you could unpack that for us because that does strike us right at the heart and is probably pretty convicting to hear.
I served for most of my ministry in Christian college ministry, so I was always working with Christian college students who often found a great deal of joy and life and encouragement on the Christian campus community and maybe in their dorms with Christian friends and Bible classes and chapels and small groups, but might not feel as clear about the need to be part of a local church. And so that phrase came to me when I had a particular week where I had several different conversations with people that were saying, I'm really struggling to go to church, and I just found myself saying that week, Hey, the most important time to be at church is when you don't feel like it. The reason I said that was that it was clear that people were sensing that this feeling of not wanting to go to church was like a good indicator that they probably shouldn't be there, or that it would be more satisfying not to go. It really made me reflect on how our feelings, while they do say something important to us about maybe where we're at and what we're going through—we should be honest about them—we can't let our feelings dictate our decisions. I think when we're feeling distant from the body of Christ, when we're sensing some frustrations with what's going on at church, for whatever reason we don't feel like being there, I think at that time is one of the most important times to actually be present and God does some very special things on our hearts when we are present. Covenants are not made for easy times but for hard times. If you only keep your covenants during the easy times, then you don't need a covenant because you can just ride on your feelings; but a promise that you've made—or that's been made to you—is really important when things get tough and it's harder to keep going.
When Pastors Don’t Feel Like Going to Church
I would imagine there might be some people listening right now thinking, Well, of course you would say all that—you're a pastor. Do you, even as a pastor, ever not feel like going to church? Do you ever have to tell yourself that the most important time to be at church is when you don't feel like it?
For sure. I think as a pastor there's plenty of times that I might either feel like it's difficult to be at church, or I'd love to be at church in a different way. I'd love to be at church and be one of the members who's not preaching that day, or be at church and not necessarily have different real-time tough decisions to make as we work through the things that we have to get done that morning, or go to church with my family instead of coming earlier and them coming later. So there can be things that I wish were different on a Sunday, but I've definitely had those experience as well where it's harder to be at church: I might be feeling down and discouraged; there might have been just a really heavy week and I'm just really physically tired; like anybody else I can sometimes feel like I'm ready to move through this service and get it done instead of savoring the joy of worshiping and what God calls me to do. But here's what I'm really grateful for: I found that every single time I'm at church and I begin to greet and be greeted; I begin to sing with my fellow saints; I begin to reunite and see people that I haven't seen at least for a week—sometimes longer than that; every time I'm called to use my gifts, especially when I might not be feeling at my best, it pulls something out of me and God uses it to warm my heart because that's what he promises to do in our gatherings. I experience this in a way that I wouldn't have experienced if I would've just stayed home. That continues to remind me that consistently being present in the environments where God's called us to be present is a major way that he sharpens us, and a major way that he encourages us. And so I think it's a bit counterintuitive to go against our feelings in that way, but it is so good for us.
The Importance of Contributing to the Church
You've mentioned the importance of not just viewing church as a place to go and be served but actually to be serving as well and how there's this kind of dynamic interchange between members when they are both giving and receiving. Are there certain things that pastors should be doing to cultivate that? I can imagine some people go to church and feel like I just walk in the door, someone greets me, I sit down, I listen to a sermon, and then I walk out and no one ever says anything to me, they don't see me. I don't really see how my being there is contributing to the broader life and health of the church. What would you say to that person and even to church leaders as they seek to cultivate this understanding?
I think for church leaders Ephesians 4 is a really critical passage because it makes clear that God has given church leaders to build up the body for the work of ministry. And so instead of church leaders trying to do all the work and trying to do all the ministry, our role is really to develop others so that everybody is using their gifts, just like a healthy body has every part operating. So I think for ministry leaders to have that mentality is really critical. But it really does cut against the grain of a lot of the way that I think church in American culture tends to operate. So I think for those that are attending and and present, I think really having a clear self identity about who we are as Christians as part of a body is very important. I think this body metaphor is very, very critical because in order for our bodies to operate properly and to be healthy and to accomplish anything of significance, each part has to be working together. We all know that something as simple as just a damaged fingernail or toenail can take a ton of your focus off of what your body would otherwise be doing. Or if your foot falls asleep you might just say, Well, that's just my foot but you try to get up and you're kind of done for until that foot wakes up, and the rest of your body has to adjust and bear the burden of that. So I think every member understanding that they are not just individual Christians in silos, but that everybody is a Christian who's a part of a body. I think also to have a clear understanding of spiritual gifts is very important—for people to understand they're not just part of a body, but they have been given spiritual gifts that are meant to be used to build up the body. I found the best way to learn what those are is simply to ask God to fill your heart with love, commit to serving others, and then find out what shape your love tends to come out. I think the shape that you tend to move toward—whether it's administration or whether it be encouragement or mercy or generosity or some combination of those—begins to give you some clarity on how you're meant to serve. I will say, I think that church leaders need to be careful not to create too much of an atmosphere of just spectatorship in the church. It's really easy to design services in a way where nobody really participates that much. I think the more, even within our services, we can pause and have people pray together, or we can make sure there are testimonies and people sharing, and make sure that the way we run things before and after really gives lots of opportunities to serve and not just be a spectator. And then have different ministries outside of Sundays where people can really use their gifts in organic ways. Those are some, I think, critical components for the church getting everybody operating.
Advice to the Discouraged
So what would you say to the person listening right now who, in theory, agrees with everything that you're saying about the importance of the local church and being involved there; and maybe that person has really tried to connect, serve, get involved, and engage with the people of their church and with the worship of the church, but it just feels like things are not working. Maybe it's been months of that and conversations with other church members feel awkward at best, and maybe the music just continues to feel bland or not conducive to their own worship of God. Maybe the preaching feels like it's passable. What would you say to someone who's feeling discouraged along those lines right now?
I would probably just encourage them that the desire to be an intimately connected part of a church body is a really good desire. And sometimes the frustrations that we have are not necessarily bad—we actually want something deeper than what we have. We want that for ourselves, we might want that for our church. So I would encourage them that that desire is good. At the same time, I think it's good to discern if some of those desires or frustrations have turned into just a heart of criticism that really can't see the best in a church, but can only really see the worst or the downsides. So I think the first thing I'd want to do is help them discern, What are the major reasons why you feel frustrated or unsatisfied with your church body? If they could identify what some of those things are then I think we can talk a little bit about what Scripture says about those different things, because usually it can be some combination of someone's preferences that they need to set aside, and then some biblical principles maybe that they should really figure out if they need to talk to somebody, if they need to seek counsel, if there's something they need to repent of or change in their own perspective. So those would be a few ways I'd want to go about it, but I would encourage someone in that situation to primarily seek the Lord and take active steps to discern what the issues are. Make them clear, and then God's word tends to speak clearly about what our approach should be. Should I reconcile with somebody? Should I search for another church? Should I have a conversation with my pastor? One of the ways I try to counsel people when they're in that kind of place is we often want to know what step fifteen is going to be—the conclusion. But God often calls us to just take step one and trust him. Sometimes step one is sitting down and praying for clarity and doing that for a week and seeing what God does. Or have a conversation with your pastor, even though you're nervous, and say, I'm just kind of having a hard time in church here. Can you ask me some questions to help me discern what's going on? Sometimes because we don't know what comes after step one or step two, we don't want to take it. I think it's better to take that step, and I found that God is faithful to shine light on the next step and eventually you get to a place where it's clear: Okay, I need to endure and be faithful in this situation, or I need to reconcile with somebody, or I may need to look for a different church; but now you've walked through this wise process to get to that point.
What to Do with Doctrinal Concerns
What advice would you offer to someone who maybe has doctrinal concerns about his or her church and about the leadership of the church?
I think those are really tough issues. I think it's really hard when you feel like you are somehow separated from your own church because of doctrinal differences. The bigger those things are Scripturally, or the bigger they are in our minds, the harder that can become. I think it's important for Christians not to minimize those issues in our own hearts. My encouragement would be for people to study those issues and come to whatever clear convictions they can have, if they haven't developed those already; and then I think having candid and gentle and kind conversations with leadership about those things is very important. Sometimes people either try to just silence their concerns doctrinally so that they don't feel like they’re a disunifying force in the church, or they might act more aggressively and make these really big issues without hearing from their leaders the way they think about it. I think having a conversation about it is much better. From those conversations you develop some clarity about Okay, are these big enough that I should seek another church perhaps? But I want to do that peaceably. Or Are these things smaller and I realize that there's lots of room for people like me in this church and these disagreements are minor enough that we can continue on. As a pastor I've had two different kinds of experiences. I've had people that have left the church but haven't communicated anything, and that's always difficult. When I hear that they've landed at a solid church in the area it's really encouraging, I'm excited about it and happy to hear that. But on the other hand, I've had people that have just come and had those conversations. While those can be a little bit tense if we disagree and we remain in that disagreement even after we've talked, I'm always really grateful for the opportunity that we had to have a real conversation about it. Then when I see them, even if they've left the church, there's just a sense of clarity about where we stand and who we are. Often people have good reasons for some of these beliefs on typical Christian disagreements—not talking about heresy—but just things where people have a different interpretation. So I think the conversation is really helpful to have even though it's easier to stay away from it.
Engaging in Discussion with a Pastor
What would you say to the person who maybe would like to have a conversation—whether it is about a theological issue or maybe it's more of a practical church ministry/philosophy question or concern—but feels a little bit afraid at the idea of raising that with their pastor? Maybe it's just because the pastor is someone in authority and that just inherently feels intimidating; but maybe it's also because they sense, or they have a feeling from the experience of others or their own past experiences, that the pastor might not respond very well to those kinds of questions or concerns—what advice would you offer that Christian?
I think in those situations it can be really wise to seek outside counsel about how to approach it. I would probably encourage that person that if you have been through some tough things with church leaders—you've been deeply hurt, or there's reasons where you just don't feel comfortable talking with your pastor—I think that's a symptom of something that would be wise to address because that's not really a healthy relationship. I'm not saying it's anybody's fault, it depends on the situation; but I think to address that is wise. I think talking to someone outside the church that knows you well and that can give you some wise, objective counsel can be good because if you go to people in the church, you might start raising questions in their minds about the trustworthiness of leadership, and that's probably not going to be helpful. But someone from outside might help you discern how to go about that in the most wise way. I think if someone continues on in a church and they really seek counsel, they pray about it, they really want to talk to their pastor, but they just think this person is not approachable, that would concern me about how that relationship seems to not be very healthy. So that would be part of what I'd want that person to dig into. On the other hand, with pastors I do think it's really important that we be very, very gentle and thoughtful and kind in the way that we engage with people that have concerns. As a pastor, sometimes we hear different criticisms or things that we know people aren't real happy with and if our first instinct is to be defensive or to accuse people of some kind of motives that we can't prove or just put up a wall when people come to us, that's not going to help people as sheep feel comfortable talking with their shepherds, and it's not going to really show the heart of Christ. Obviously, if a pastor discerns over three, four, or five conversations This person's really dangerous— they're believing and promoting things that are bad, you can strengthen your voice a little bit and try to give a firm warning about the direction they're going. But when someone just comes and wants to talk, I think it's so important to be really receptive, gentle, kind. I think that has the effect slowly of maybe reversing that feeling that I can't talk to my pastor.
Is that something that you feel like you've had to learn over the years, when it comes to being receptive to that kind of critical feedback or questions?
Yeah for sure. When I was first a resident director in college ministry—I was twenty-one when I started—I had to enforce policies. I had to enforce some policies like fining a student for using the dorm vacuum, but keeping it in their room and not putting it back in the common area for others to use—
—Exactly. Big issues. I was a young leader and I was sensitive to what people thought and as I just enforced policies day after day, it often really bothered me when I knew that a student was upset with me or was frustrated that I called them in and talked to them about something. It would just eat at me and eat at me and eat at me. Over time God taught me how important it is to engage in those uncomfortable conversations, be faithful to what your role is, and that the Lord is with you in those moments. And so I think one of the most important things for pastors to do is to, as a friend of mine said, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Understand that many conversations in ministry leadership, marriage, etc.—they can be uncomfortable; but if you can get comfortable in that place and realize God is going to use this for our good and God is going to use this to bring some sort of clarity, I think that's really, really helpful. I think I've learned as well that you have to treat those conversations as a process and not an event. So if I go into a conversation with a church member who might not be happy about something and my goal is by the end of this hour I want to make sure that everything is nailed down, we're on the same page, and it's all clear, then my expectations are often not met and there's a frustration to it. But if I realize Hey, this is a part of an ongoing relationship and not everything has to be buttoned up and nailed down at the end of this, it just helps me not to be rushed or demanding in that conversation and to know that we can get together again and talk if we want, like friends and brothers and sisters do. So I think those are some principles that have helped me.
When You’re Skeptical of Leadership
One of the most common reasons that I've heard, especially younger generations of Christians, citing why they are reluctant to join the church and be committed to a local church is because of skepticism when it comes to the idea of spiritual authority and spiritual leadership. It seems like in our culture in the US—but even around the world—over the last few years there have been repeated examples and stories of pastors and church leaders abusing their authority, doing things that they shouldn't be doing, and using their positions of power and leadership to cover stuff up or to silence people who are pushing back against them. I think many, many young Christians in particular seem to look at those examples and that becomes this overwhelming narrative that really makes them pretty cautious about the idea of spiritual authority in general. Have you seen that in your own ministry, and what would you say to somebody who—whether it's a personal experience they had or just knowing other people or seeing the news—they feel wary of spiritual leadership in general?
That's a great question. I remember a season in Christian college ministry a number of years ago where there was this strong impulse in the student body—for a long period of time—of anti-authority. As a staff we just felt that whatever we did seemed to be grating against them. Whenever a key leader got up in public and shared something that the school was deciding to do, there just was this undercurrent. After those conversations the dorms would be filled with everybody talking about whether they agreed or not. It wasn't necessarily a tumultuous time in the life of the school, but there was this just feeling among the student body that I still remember to this day how pervasive it seemed to be. I think these are really, really real issues because there is a lot of abuse of authority that happens in the church. And not just in the church, but in any structure of authority that you can find. I think a really critical distinction to make is that the problem isn't the structure of authority and the fact that there are people in authority and people that are called to follow. The problem is sin and the human heart that expresses itself through that authority and does damage instead of building up. The apostle Paul is really clear about this in his letters to the Corinthians, that he wants to use his authority as an apostle for building up and not for tearing down. He even knows that approach makes him look weak and makes him look ineffective at times. And yet, he's so committed to building up and not tearing down that he only uses the fullest strength of his apostolic authority when the people under his care are in danger because of some sort of false teaching or some sort of manipulative leaders who were coming in and trying to lead them astray. So I think my encouragement would be to help people understand that it's not the structure of authority but sin that can take place within authorities' lives that is the problem. And then I would encourage people to really identify if there are objective evidences that the people in their life are doing these kinds of things or misusing their authority, or if it's more of a kind of feeling that they've picked up along the way. If it's more of a feeling they've picked up along the way or something maybe from their past and other experiences they're now importing into their present situation, I think wrestling through that with wise counsel can be a great way to come to better clarity on that. But I think that's a very real issue that as leaders we need to be really aware of, that when people come to our communities we're not inheriting people that have a blank slate—because none of us do. People are coming to us with all sorts of different experiences and challenges. Sometimes I've been, as a pastor, maybe surprised at the way that somebody responds to something and I think, I think I'm a nice guy. I don't feel like I mishandled that; but then when I understand their back story it all makes sense that they interpreted me as a different kind of person than I see myself because of things they'd been through in the past and something that may have triggered a memory or something. For me it's really about being patient as a leader, and the more I know what's going on in people's lives and what they've been through, the better I can serve as I go forward.
The Apostle Paul’s Example
You cited the apostle Paul as an example of someone who had this apostolic authority and yet used it in such a way that he might have been perceived as weak. So I wonder, if that's our model for pastors and church leaders in general, what might that look like, practically speaking, for a pastor or church leader?
I've said before that I think leadership or pastoring, in terms of some of the things that are hard, can be death by a thousand paper cuts. Sometimes that can build and build—and I just mean little things that are confusing, hard decisions, a frustrated person, a situation where you don't know what to do, criticism when you're trying to do your best—all those things can be like little paper cuts. If you let all those things just scar over and you don't apply the healing balm of the gospel to your heart and your life as you go forward, you can become a pretty embittered person and be disillusioned. In Hebrews 13 we're told that people should follow their leaders because it's important for leaders to do their work with joy and not with groaning because that wouldn't be profitable for you. And so it's really good for followers—and leaders—for leaders to be doing that work with joy. And so I think as pastors one of the things we have to do is we have to be good absorbers—people who can absorb frustrations, criticisms, questioning, people leaving the church in a way that might hurt us. There's a lot of things that happen that aren't really, really dangerous for the life of a church, but they are hurtful and painful for me as a pastor. For me to constantly, as 1 Peter 5 says, be rolling those burdens onto the Lord in prayer, having wise outside counsel that can help me be healthy and process what I'm going through, consistently be in the word so God is speaking in fresh ways every day to me and I'm hearing his voice through his word. I think that's so vital because I think pastors need to be examples of how love covers a multitude of sins. When we do that, I think people increasingly come to trust that we're using our authority in a way that's for their good.
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