It’s that time of year again when students take off for the first time from home and head to the university. It’s also that time in a person’s life when he or she can “slip away” from the local church.
With no mom or dad to shake them to wake them on a Sunday morning, and with no apparent bolt of lightning hitting their dorm room, new college students hit snooze after a late Saturday night, entering the world of the unchurched.
It’s not only 18-year-olds. Many people today in North American culture are leaving the church while continuing to call themselves Christians. The reasons driving this are many, but chief among them is the individualism of our culture exacerbated by the idea that being part of a local church is unnecessary. More than that, many “church refugees” would say they are tired of what they see as the politics and the brokenness of the institution itself. As one person put it: “I guess the church just churched the church out of me.” *
These folks say they still follow Christ; they just do it without the church.
But is it possible to follow Christ without the church? Church refugees would say the question is a no-brainer – of course you can. But the Bible they usually claim to follow would not support their thinking. It is certainly possible to have salvation, to be a true Christian and live apart from the church. We are saved by grace through faith, not by going to church. It’s just impossible to be an obedient Christian, that is truly following Christ…without the church. And because of that, it’s a path of great spiritual danger, and like any continued unrepentant disobedience, a possible sign that there was never salvation present in the first place. (1 John 3:6, 7)
Who is Watching Over Your Soul?
There are numerous scriptural reasons indicating that being a part of a church is part of Christian obedience, but one stood out to me recently – as the writer to the Hebrews closes his letter, he commands his readers to…
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
Apparently, it’s not enough for the “church refugee” to say, “I read my Bible and pray and have Christian friends who encourage me in the Lord.” The author of Hebrews assumed that all Christians would have spiritual leaders who would care for their souls.
Admittedly, this is not a beloved verse in our independent, individualistic culture, but it certainly makes the point. The emphasis falls on our eternal souls. As broken as the local church can be, the truth is that we are not safe outside of it. Therefore, here’s the question to ask your friend or the new university student who indicates they believe the Scriptures…but has left the church: “Who are the leaders you submit to?” And if that feels too domineering, which it probably will, ask with a heart of love, “Who is watching over your soul?”
“No One Has Ever Watched Over My Soul Before!”
They might respond that they never felt anyone was watching over them when they were a part of the local church. I get that; it’s something most of us pastors and elders know we need to do better at. I certainly feel it. But that said, it’s incumbent on church members to do three things: 1) Let their needs be known (contrary to popular belief, the hospital doesn’t call the church if a member breaks his leg), 2) Find a place of service, and 3) Get involved in a small group. These three things enable people to be known and loved. If you’ve tried all three of these, and you still don’t feel connected or cared for, my encouragement would be to find a Gospel-proclaiming body of believers where you are known and loved.
The writer of Hebrews would have scratched his head at “followers of Christ” who had no earthly leaders to follow and therefore no one to watch over them. Moreover, neither he nor any of the other apostles had a category for Christians who were not actively part of a local body of believers.
*Church Refugees by Josh Packard, PhD., and Ashleigh Hope