God without Church?

It’s a common reality: people who believe in God without feeling the need to attend church regularly. They even have a name—“Nones”—because of their typical response to surveys asking about their religious affiliation. And those of us who consider Church attendance to be central to our faith might want ask ourselves why they are one of the most rapidly-growing demographics in North America.

What leads a person to believe in God, while refusing to identify themselves as members of a particular “faith community”?

These days, the answer would seem self-evident. Consider the genocides, the acts of terrorism, racism, and oppression by those who proudly claim to represent Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. Witness the petty infighting, sectarianism, power-mongering, and divisiveness within religious communities. Add to this the various abuses inflicted by religious authorities on their weakest members, and it’s not difficult to understand why someone might want to have nothing to do with a church at all.

As a pastor who must deal daily with some of this religious madness in my own Eastern Orthodox Church, I can genuinely understand the impulse to withdraw from the trials and tribulations of the spiritual life in community, and to seek out what people have frequently referred to as a “personal faith.”

It is tempting to assemble our own set of beliefs about God, picking and choosing those elements that we find the most comforting, beautiful or simple. It is tempting to establish our own routine of prayer and meditation, our own spiritually meaningful rituals. It is tempting to want to be free from commitment to a church community, especially when such commitment often seems more draining than uplifting…

Why not take this path? Wouldn’t it just be so much easier to believe without all that formal, institutional stuff that just seems to make a mess of things?

The heart of the answer lies in the definition of the word “believe.” After all, what does it mean to believe in something, anyway? For many “Nones,” spiritual belief implies an intellectual acceptance of certain ideas about God. It makes logical sense that there is some Higher Power, an ordering Force behind everything. It makes logical sense to speak of right and wrong, good and bad. And it makes logical sense that we should pay attention in some way to something beyond our material lives.

If we look closer, though, this kind of belief has nothing really to do with the actual existence of God. Rather, it’s really all about me and my needs, and if a belief in God or some Higher Power helps me with those needs, so much the better. I can pick or discard the tenets of my belief system, as I need them. I can take or leave a faith community, depending on whether or not it meets my needs. I can even stop believing, if that helps. Because, ultimately, God is not the point here—the idea of God is the point, and then only in as much as it helps me fulfil my individual potential as a productive, healthy, well-rounded, well-adjusted, friendly, and more tolerant citizen of society and the world.

There is, however, another definition of what it means to believe. The original Hebrew and Greek words for “belief” are the same as “faith,” and they imply an active spirit of faithfulness, trust, and support.

Belief in the scriptural sense is a choice to enter into a living relationship with divine reality. We don’t just acknowledge the logic of God’s existence because it’s helpful to do so. We commit ourselves to His existence, which means submitting to Him in faithfulness and accountability and most importantly, sacrificing our personal inclinations, whims, and desires, to His higher power and will.

But can’t we still have a “personal faith” without committing to membership in a Church community? Because values like accountability, sacrifice, commitment and trust are mere abstractions unless they involve other people. And unless we are willing to submit our beliefs for others to challenge, correct or even reject, our faith will remain locked inside our heads, a set of self-created ideas detached from reality.

The point of living in a community united by one faith is precisely to make our experience of God real by working it out in relation with human beings who are walking the same path as ours. Without these relationships—what I would call “communion”—we cannot meaningfully believe in God because we cannot commit to, submit to, sacrifice to, trust, or love a Power greater than ourselves in a real, tangible way.

So, if an intellectual belief in the idea of God is what we want, Church may not be for us. It may prove destructive to our most cherished notions. It may challenge us, make us uncomfortable, or force us to answer questions we would rather avoid.

If, however, a real belief in an actual God is what we want, we must be ready to meet Him in the only way possible: by engaging in human relationships, as messy, frustrating, crazy-making, and heart-breaking as they can be. Only by participating in Church life, with all the pains and sorrows of commitment, responsibility, accountability and sacrifice, can we ultimately reach the true end of our spiritual journey: peace and joy in union with each other and with the One who made us to love and be loved by Him for eternity.


Ben said…
Hi. This is Ben from Australia.
I do love God. I live honestly in my community. I abide by those simple sacred tenets given to us by our God through Moses.
I am by birth and theory, Jewish. An avenue for those who need a safe way to (find) God.
I found God outside.
I hold a concern that organized religion is simply that.
Belief in God can not be taught. Belief in God is a reward. A loving, beautiful reward.
To all in this complicated world a simple message.
Ten Commandments.
Lorelei Mercer said…
Hi, I am an Orthodox Christian convert, and while I understand the need for community in my Orthodox Faith, I can say without a doubt, that I would have faired much better had I been a "none" before converting. There are so-called christian churches out there that prey on the week to the point of destroying peoples faith in God altogether. It is heartbreaking to see and devastating to go through. My first 2 years going to St. Marys was spent learning and recovering from such an ordeal. "Nones" aren't always running from accountability but trying to "save" what little faith they have left. Had it not been for a co-worker introducing me to Orthodoxy I might still be in that semi-lost broken state.
Anonymous said…
Some times people don't feel they fit in. Try going to a church that speaks in another language it is difficult to follow and when everyone is sitting around talking in another language you feel left out.
Anonymous said…
I've never heard the term "Nones" before and I certainly wouldn't consider myself to fit the description in this article, however, after having grown up in the organized church and attending all my life, there was an issue that arose that caused myself and my family to leave temporarily - or so we thought. Having been out of the organized church now for 9 years, I've come to see that there is a huge difference between "going to" church and "being" the church. There is only one church with one high priest - Jesus - and all believers are members of it.

I've also learned that Jesus truly meant what he said when he declared that he would send his Holy Spirit who would lead us into all truth. I find the organized church doesn't really believe that the Holy Spirit can lead believers into truth, but that the human teachers are needed for this. While teachers certainly have a role to fulfill in the body of Christ, when we consistently approach the Lord for teaching, his Holy Spirit is faithful to respond.

I'm not running from accountability, I'm running towards God. In doing so, I've found that I'm better equipped to love my brothers and sisters and be a healthy, positive contributor to our Lord's body.

This is in no way intended as a criticism of Christians in institutional churches, but rather an attempt to give the perspective of those of us who have chosen to consciously be part of the universal body of Christ without affiliation to a denominational group.

- Henry

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