Do Christians Have to Go to Church?

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After years of teaching, I’ve found a comment thread going like this:

“I went to church as a kid, but then XYZ-terrible-thing happened by the elders/preacher/church members/Sunday school teacher/youth pastor/parking attendant, so we stopped going.”

Often, this is followed by a statement that he is still a Christian. Many times, it’ll become apparent that the student has rarely, if ever, cracked open a Bible. That he relies more on phrases like “I feel like God wants…” or “I feel like humans should…” rather than, by knowledge of Scripture, actually knowing what God thinks on a certain topic. Sometimes, he finishes by declaring his church is in nature.

And while I have no doubt there’s something majestic in forests and rivers, and “The heavens declare the glory of God,” there is a question that remains. Do Christians have to go to church?

Here, after reading 12,653,345 critiques from students on the topic, is my response.

NO, HEAVENS NO, you do not have to go to church to be a Christian.

But before everyone starts exchanging Bibles for fishing poles, please let me clarify.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is this:

IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, `

IN NONESSENTIALS LIBERTY,

IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.

Reread this. Slowly.

What, according to Scripture, is essential in being a Christian?

Well, we have plenty in the Bible to go off of. Take Romans 10:9-10:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Or consider the criminal on the cross beside Jesus, to whom Jesus said in Luke 23, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” That criminal never had time to jump off the cross, get baptized, give money to the orphans and widows, apologize to those he’d harmed, and go to the [then nonexistent] church building to sing through his hymnal for an hour of good, solid worship. And yet, Christ said that this criminal would be entering paradise today.

Yes, we are saved by faith alone, and there are plenty of verses backing up this fact.

However.

Numerous, as well, are the verses emphasizing that genuine faith is demonstrated by a desire to do God’s will. How do you know God’s will? Not by going, “Well…hmm…just off the top of my head, I think that God wants…”

God states His will plenty of times in the Bible. We need to know Scripture thoroughly so that we are better equipped to please God. And one of the things emphasized is Hebrews 10:25:

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The earliest churches began with Christians meeting together in homes.

To worship God together—as Scripture states God desires.

To pray together—as Scripture states God desires.

To learn together—as Scripture states God desires.

To grow together—as Scripture states God desires.

To support one another—as Scripture states God desires.

To persevere—as Scripture states God desires.

God desires Christians to habitually meet together for these reasons. Will Christians screw up? Sure. Constantly. But that’s exactly why we need to keep meeting with each other.

Abigail Van Buren stated, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Try to be understanding. People inside the walls of a church are broken, too. They mess up. Say things they really, really, really shouldn’t. Do things they really, really, really shouldn’t. Forgive them.

But, if you find the broken people in a church to be too much, or those in leadership teaching something absolutely contradictory to Christ’s message, then pray about it. Perhaps go for it. Try another church.

But by all means, whatever you do, please God. Don’t quit church altogether.

 

Wishing everyone the support of a church home and family,

Melissa Ferguson

Three Things You Don’t Know About C.S. Lewis, But Want To

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C.S. Lewis. The legend.

Put your finger on any page bearing C.S. Lewis’ name and you’re bound to find the kind of thought-provoking words worth cross-stitching on a pillow, printing neatly on an index card to tape onto your fridge, or throwing out mid-conversation at any dinner party, birthday, funeral, baptism, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday.

Lewis untangled labyrinthine theories of life and faith until they were so plain it felt elementary, then turned around and discussed the plain, obvious world in such poetic descriptions you felt yourself rising on your toes.

And while many Lewis fans know a thing or two about this man who was once a toddler declaring he would henceforth be called “Jack” (and was for the rest of his life), who was injured in the first world war and called on to preach to the troops in the second, who spent hours each week writing letters back to every single person who’d sent him mail, there are several more details about Lewis’ life that are both inspiring and convicting:

  1. From his first writings, Lewis gave at least two-thirds of his royalties away

Most of the money went to orphans and widows in need. And even more astounding, his charity was largely kept secret until after his death. He says,

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.  I am speaking now of charities’ in the common way. Particular cases of distress among your own relatives, friends, neighbours or employees, which God, as it were, forces upon your notice, may demand much more: even to the crippling and endangering of your own position. For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear—fear of insecurity. This must often be recognized as a temptation” (Mere Christianity).

 

  1. Lewis cared for the mother of an army friend for over thirty years

Regardless of speculations on the details, the fact is that Lewis promised Paddy, an army friend, that if he should die during the war, Lewis would look after Paddy’s mother. After Paddy’s death, Lewis was true to his word. Not yet twenty years of age and pinched for money (as he was all his life), he shared a home with this woman he called “Mother” and cared for her the rest of her life. When she went into the nursing home for dementia, he visited her nearly if not every day.

  1. He was extraordinarily prepared for his passing

After recovering from a heart attack in 1963, Lewis wrote to a friend, “Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best” (The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1963). Hooper could not be more right in stating regarding his death, “No one was better prepared” (Readings for Meditation and Reflection).

 

In these ways and so many more, Lewis not only stepped out of the box of what was standard and accepted, but flung the whole flimsy box in the river and proceeded to write soundly against the soppy, wet thing it was.

Both in his writings and in his life, what a guy.

 

Blessings,

Melissa Ferguson

p.s. How about you? Any interesting facts you know about Lewis? Fav quotes?

A Snowy Day Devos


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Moments ago I stood beneath the shelter of my front porch, holding a cup of steaming coffee and watching the flurries drift onto the white canopy around me. There’s something beautiful in the silence and crisp air filling my lungs. Of course, everyone knows this. People across the country aren’t eagerly stepping out of the comfort of their own living rooms to get their feet cold and wet if it wasn’t a fairly universal feeling. There’s just something ethereal in seeing everything—from patches of dead grass to cars in driveways—covered up in delicate white.

But, and here perhaps I’m some depressing anomaly, whenever I stand around in 18-degree weather I also feel a sudden pang and worry, for what is so beautiful about winter is also deadly. What about that homeless man who always sits outside the bagel store? Did he find shelter last night? What about the children in the World Vision catalog from Mongolia, all huddled beside a fabric tent with snow piled high around them? Suddenly that crisp air able to sweep so quickly into my lungs makes me feel desperate.

Both perfect beauty—the content of a hundred jingles around the holidays—and perilous content in one single flurry. I don’t know what to do with the dichotomy of feeling equally so happy and sad.

Then, however, I shut the door and sat back on the sofa, recognizing something as I read the most stirring poem from 16th century poet, Robert Southwell:

 

This little babe, so few days old,

Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;

All hell doth at his presence quake.

Though he himself for cold do shake,

For in this weak unarmèd wise

The gates of hell he will surprise.

 

With tears he fights, and wins the field,

His naked breast stands for a shield.

His battering shot are babish cries,

His arrows made of weeping eyes.

His martial ensigns cold and need,

And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

 

(Read it in entirety here! Seriously…go read it.)

What similarity!

When we really think about it, we Christians seem pretty crazy. We gather on Sunday mornings, banging on piano and drums to sing merrily about things so gory and gruesome it would sound like insanity were it not so familiar. Imagine if we went Message version on the words to some of these traditional songs and everyone sang in unison:

Oh, the wonderful electric chair!

Oh, the wonderful electric chair!

Wants me to come and be fried,

To find that I, can truly live!

Tag on smiling old men and women wearing gold electric chairs necklaces as they shake your hand during greeting time and how quickly we would run away from that place, eh?

But the reality is that Christianity as a whole is this dichotomy of gruesome and incredible. Of absolutely terrifying and positively enticing. Of horrifying and exactly all that I need.

I would never wish for the snow to cease existing; I just would like to live in a world where people never suffered. Likewise, I hate everything about Jesus’ willing sacrifice of undue shame, abandonment, whips, glass, nails, and broken bones. I wish there had been some other way. But if His tears are what “won the field” and gained victory, then alleluia. May snow fall and praises ring.

Blessings and Merry Flurrying,

Melissa Ferguson

P.S. If you’d like to pitch in and protect children and families from frostbite, hypothermia, influenza, pneumonia, and death, consider providing clothing and shelter by clicking here: worldvision.org.

 

And some verses for our snow day…

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills…

Psalm 148

Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51

“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.

Isaiah 1

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”

Isaiah 55:6-13

 

Forsaking Your First Love

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It’s the phrase I’ve returned to over and over the past three months, and—of all places—it comes from the book of Revelation. I don’t hear a lot about Revelation (unless someone’s telling me the world is ending in a few days). But I was stopped as I read a passage in Chapter 2 a few months ago, specifically the admonition Jesus, through John, gave to the church in Ephesus:

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.”

Super, right? If I’m part of the church at Ephesus, I’d be feeling pretty good about myself.

“Yeah, I am working hard,” I’d say. “Thanks for noticing, Jesus. We here have had some intense temptations to quit and give up on you, crawling back to Artemis and the old Jewish temple, especially when people have dragged off our friends. Especially when we have seen our loved ones killed. It’s terrifying, but we have held firm to our faith. Thanks, Jesus, for acknowledging how awesome we are.”

But then Jesus’ words rip the former praises away as if they were of little significance compared to what really mattered:

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.

God Himself. The first love.

“But…Jesus,” my first-century self would reply, aghast. “We are losing work, losing friends, losing our reputations as we look like crazy people following after a poor man who ‘died’ sixty years ago… losing our very lives for you. Isn’t that enough?”

No. Frankly, no.

These Christian Ephesians did so much more than I do, but above all, God wanted loyalty to their first love: Himself.

I’m not one of those people who uses phrases that sound creepily romantic regarding the God-human relationship. I find myself dropping my voice and staring at my shoes when the song plays in church, “And I’m madly in love with you, Jesus…” It’s just…God is God. He’s not a human, and while He loves us, He’s not on par with me.

Like N.T. Wright says when John fell down in Chapter 1, terrified at the sight of Jesus who had eyes like flames of fire, feet like exquisite brass, and looked like the sun in full power:

“For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving intimacy. John would agree with the second of these, but he would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside. To see Jesus as he is would drive us not to snuggle up to him, but to fall at his feet as though we were dead (Revelations for Everyone, p7).”

But sometimes in Scripture, we get glimpses of a God who isn’t just insanely powerful, insanely knowledgeable, insanely bigger than anything we are. Sometimes, like in the Bride-Christ references, we see how God uses intimate wording to emphasize that He really, truly wants an authentic relationship with each of us. A relationship so deep and real—not between a being and a thing, or a being and institution, but a being with another Being—that a marriage metaphor would suit.

“It’s easy to settle down into a vaguely comfortable existence which puts its own

needs first and, sometimes, last as well. The Ephesian church needs to wake up,

to remember how things used to be, to repent and get back on track

(Wright, Revelations, p13).”

And sometimes we do, too.

So yes, stay loyal to the faith. Yes, consider the widow and the orphan and the poor and help them in their needs. Go out and evangelize to your heart’s content.

But above all, don’t forget to do the things that show your love to your first love: God.

 

Pray. Sing. Remember. Listen.

Love.

Blessings,

Melissa Ferguson

 

That Time Jesus Got Angry

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While there are some folks out there who really do have the misplaced notion that Jesus’ hobbies were limited to holding stuffed lambs and chatting about peace under dim light in honeyed tones, most do recognize that there were gruesome aspects involved. Things like declaring sin was rather a big deal after all, and He had come to conquer it in a way hard to fathom: the way of nails and cross.

But even with so many of us grasping the fact that Jesus was crucified—after all, just about everyone in the United States at least knows what Easter represents—there is still yet another facet about his life and ministry that gets underplayed: his anger.

Oddly enough, the question popped into my head this week as the sun was setting beyond my steering wheel and I drove to our local ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) meeting:

What did Jesus get angry over?

He didn’t flip out when he talked with adulterous women. He didn’t grab the men by the tunic and shake them for inflating tax prices in order to steal from those poorest for their own gain. No, Jesus was revolutionary for the anti-cultural way he managed to love on those most despised and broken while at the same time boldly stating the truth about the Way.

So, what really got His blood boiling? Because, after all, shouldn’t that be the kind of thing I care about too?

                And it struck me in a new way, in that lovely way that the Bible continues to teach despite the thousands of times you’ve read through that story. The biggest time in Scripture Jesus was positively enraged was after entering the temple and seeing money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. Their jobs weren’t the problem, in fact they were perfectly necessary and legitimate occupations. After all, many Jews didn’t have the luxury of a minivan to toss the goat and doves into when they took the long trek to Jerusalem. So, instead, they’d take their coins and buy the sacrificial animals when they got there. But what was the thorn there that caused to Jesus make a whip out of cords, run around flipping over tables, and scare people out of their minds? And why was this story so important that it’s included not just in Matthew, not just in Mark, but in all four gospels?

One clue is when Jesus exclaimed, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Simply put, Jesus went to the temple and found people exploiting the traveling Jews who needed to exchange money and buy animals. They hiked up the prices to profit from things devoted to God. They turned the holiest and most sacred place on Earth into nothing more than an overpriced coffee shop. They used God for their own profit.

As I turned into my group meeting I wondered, what would that be equivalent to today? And the words practically whispered in my ear: using writing (about God) to magnify myself.

It was a startling and scary thought. For while we as Christians should do whatever we do as for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), it is even more essential to make sure all tasks under the umbrella of teaching are focused wholly on God.

Even James states this, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Taking on the task of teaching about God, whether through such tasks as preaching, leading a Bible study, mentoring a friend, or in my case, writing inspirational fiction, is not something to take lightly. Because while it is unfortunately tempting to focus your Olympic-level beach volleyball skills or business career on yourself, using something that is supposed to be all about glorifying God for yourself is another level. Ten lower levels. Something that could make Jesus chase you around the living room with a whip of cords.

So, all that’s to say, this is something I’ll have to constantly remind myself of as I continue the pursuit of writing for God’s glory. As editors send feedback telling me to post more blogs about myself, as I wait for a contract that will bear my name on the bottom, as one day (Lord willing) I publish that book or two and find myself under the huge temptation to take pride in my work (and alternatively, plunge into depths of despair should my work receive bad reviews, get fourth in that contest, etc.), I must be mindful to stop and ask myself, “Wait. Now who is this all for again?”

Blessings,

Melissa Ferguson