by Tanya Marlow
Can you still be a Christian and not go to church? I thought I knew the right answer: ‘Although you can technically be a Christian if you don’t attend church, you’re not very committed.’ Recently, however, I have been forced to rethink.
Let me explain. Eight years ago I quit going to church. I am married to an Anglican priest and worked as a Christian minister and theology lecturer myself. There was no crisis of faith or fallout with the church, but a crisis of health and fallout from giving birth.
Too sick to go to church
My autoimmune disease, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, was exacerbated by labour, which pushed my delicate body into severe disability. My body ‘battery’ was broken. It was terrifying contemplating looking after a newborn when I was as helpless as he was.
Even today, I can only walk a few metres and I have to lie in bed 21 hours a day. In order to leave the house for two hours in a wheelchair I must save up two weeks’ worth of energy. In the first years, my brain interpreted conversation like French and I couldn’t listen to sermons or worship music.
Church services were now a cacophony of chaos and crowds. Although my church loved me well, because of my disability I had become excluded from communal worship. As the years went by, I wondered if God had rejected me, too. I had to learn to survive in a spiritual desert.
Is church a temple?
Growing up, my big charismatic evangelical church felt like the Old Testament temple: fellowship, teaching, serving, but above all a place where all ages could come together and offer God a sacrifice of our love and sincere worship. God’s presence came via the word and Spirit to nourish and sustain us.
However, like the temple of the Old Testament, this model often excludes physically or mentally ill people – and perhaps others, like parents of young children who come bleary-eyed, supervise their noisy kids and go home again, empty.
Could I reimagine church outside of the ‘temple’ model?
The Spiritual Advantages of Social Media
It was social media that saved me. In the early days, I’d managed to keep my sanity by writing Facebook updates and joined Twitter. I couldn’t lecture theology anymore, but I could manage 240 characters. Online I discovered an international community of wanderers in the wilderness.
Some had their faith shattered by abusive leaders, others had had their children kicked out for being too disruptive, too autistic, or too gay. A few had left because they were chronically ill, devastated when no one seemed to notice or care. Some struggled to believe in a loving God, having been told their sin or lack of faith caused their suffering.
We were bruised and crushed, but not destroyed – and we were still seeking God.
I joined an impromptu Twitter community, committing to read through the Bible together and discuss it. I repeated this with a group of friends by email through the book of Job. This wasn’t a typical small group, but it worked.
As my energy gradually increased, I started a writing community with Christian women, where we share our lives, writing, and spiritual inspiration, along with prayer requests. Most of us have never met in person, yet the online space became a haven where we could be more real than the superficial conversations we have in ‘real life’ social gatherings, even in churches. We share our lives and the gospel together.
More recently, I have even felt pulled back to ministry. No longer able to preach in person, I’ve lectured via video clips and written books and articles for suffering Christians.
Worshipping a Mobile God
My life had imploded with my illness, but it was nothing compared to the shock the Israelites had when the Temple was destroyed. That one building had been the centre of God's presence and protection - now they were surely rejected by God, unable to worship. But, exiled in Babylon, Ezekiel's vision of God's fiery throne on wheels, like a heavenly wheelchair, brought hope again: God's presence can travel to God's people wherever they might be found (Ezekiel 1:15-28).
The Temple is not the only model of church. Even when we feel like we’ve been expelled from the people of God, we are not alone, we are not forsaken. God always shows up in the exile and desert – and we find God’s people with us, too.
Within my limitations, I’ve improvised Christian community.
Is this church? My answer is the same as when I worked with interdenominational mission agencies.
It is not all of church or enough church, but it is church.
What of the ‘temple’ churches who serve healthy families but unintentionally exclude elderly, troubled or disabled people? They are still church, but perhaps we need to remember they are not all of church, nor enough church.
My disability has taught me that, at the most basic level, church is as messy and simple as the New Testament scattered church who met in homes, had a meal, and told stories of Jesus. We can gather, host, and encourage one another in a variety of ways. And this is good news.
Formerly a lecturer in Biblical Theology, Tanya Marlow is a popular broadcaster, campaigner and writer who writes on finding hope in hard places. Her latest book is Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay (on sale on Kindle this week!) Keep in touch by signing up for her monthly-ish newsletter and receive her first mini-book for FREE.