What I Wish I Knew Before I Went to Church

Even—or maybe especially—lifelong churchgoers can get church wrong.

I grew up Presbyterian, became a Baptist youth pastor, lived overseas on an evangelical mission, spent an interim as an assistant to a traveling prophet, served the poor as a non-denominational, promoted justice with the emergents and launched a few house churches. You could say I’m well-rounded, or you could say I don’t know how to commit. But regardless, through my diverse exposure to modern Christianity, I’ve seen the Church at her best and at her worst. More than likely, you have too.

Which is perhaps why studies show that two out of every ten churchgoers will exit their current expression of church in the next year.

For years, I left church every week with another three-step plan to accomplishing more in my Christian life.

Even the Church at her best, when she is fulfilling her divine purpose, is full of people who don’t always represent Jesus well. And whether you find yourself in the ranks of the disillusioned or not, there’s a few things we probably all wish we knew before we darkened the door of the Church. Here are mine.

First, I wish I would have known that Christianity is not an institution.

Thanks largely to the Industrial Revolution, we have become accustomed to systemizing things. If the goal is to produce the biggest output possible, then why not build systems, plug people in and watch them produce exponentially more as a whole then they would as individual parts? Whether it’s a corporation or a routine in our homes, systems can serve tremendous value in maintaining order and building tracks for us to accomplish more in life.

Yet sadly, we often approach our faith the same way we do our systems. We bring our industrial mentalities of performance and three-step formulas into our walk with God. But that’s not how it works. Our faith is designed for relationship—not institution.

Contrary to popular opinion, this connection between God and man doesn’t have a roadmap and cannot be approached like it does. Its enigmatic nature simply requires that we leave our formulas behind, learning instead to hear His voice and walk with Him one day at a time.

Second, I wish I would have known that Christianity is really about relationships.

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly challenging to make sense of Christianity sometimes. I’ve heard the same passage of Scripture preached a dozen different ways, each way contradicting the last. Even when I sit down to read the Bible, somewhere between attempting to transpose the new covenant on the Old Testament and Paul’s rambling, run-on sentences, I am sometimes afraid I’ve missed the point of faith altogether.

We often allow our leadership structures, programs and buildings to take priority over the very thing they were built to facilitate.

Nonetheless, I am also very aware that if the Christian invitation is open to a child, then it can’t be nearly as complicated as I try to make it.

Our modern approaches to Christianity are often cognitive—and sometimes lack heart. We have this habit of taking a book that was given with the intention to invite us into a relationship with the Divine and using it to contain Him. We limit our Christian experiences to only knowing more "about" Him—rather than encountering Him.

Scripture clearly shows that the reason behind Christ’s every action was to give people eternal life. And in one unique moment with His closest friends, He put the parables aside to speak clearly on this mysterious idea. Jesus prays to the Father, “This is eternal life, that they may intimately & experientially know You.”

The brilliance of Christianity is caught in this prayer. It’s personal. It’s relational. And it’s simple. God created humankind for friendship. And from this friendship, flows every other part of what it means to be a Christian.

For years, I left church every week with another three-step plan to accomplishing more in my Christian life. And yet in the midst of all my biblical pursuits, I never knew God. Sadly, I fear this to be the case for many attempting to navigate the complexities of the faith today.

The Christian invitation is far different than I understood it to be for so many years. It’s not primarily to understand more “about” God or to know more of what’s in the Bible or how to use my spiritual gifts to benefit the world—though these things have tremendous value. The Christian invitation is to cut through the noise, even the institutional Christian noise, and learn to walk with a God who is intent on intimately doing life with us today.

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So it’s time we re-engineer our approach.

Unfortunately, we—as the modern church—are often to blame for the disappointment many find in their pursuits of God. And it’s true, we’ve often gotten things wrong. Among other things, we often allow our leadership structures, programs and buildings to take priority over the very thing they were built to facilitate.

But this doesn’t mean we should throw out our systems altogether. No, our task is to re-engineer them in a way that best supports and protects the relationship that stands at the center of our faith.

And when we do recover the heartbeat of this authentic faith, we may just become that city on a hill once again and watch as this current exodus away from the church changes directions.


Dan King


Dan King commented…

Thanks for the article. Love the focus on relationship!

Having said that, you played fast and loose with Scripture, making up your own translation of John 17:3 when you write, "This is eternal life, that they may intimately & experientially know You.” No translation says that. It may technically be a correct translation, but put it in [ ] or something rather than sneaking it in there. It shows laziness on your part as a writer.

Keep pushing into the heart of the Father mate. Peace.

Tyler Ward


Tyler Ward replied to Dan King's comment

Dan, thanks for comment.

I was making reference to the Greek here. The word Jesus used for "know" is "ginṓskō." Properly, it meant "to know, especially through personal experience (first-hand acquaintance)."

Stay in touch!

Dan King


Dan King replied to Tyler Ward's comment

Yep. I am aware of that. Just being picky on an otherwise great article. Thanks for all you do.



Matthew replied to Dan King's comment

I agree that Christianity is about relationships, first with God then with others. My experience has been that most people don’t set foot in a church except for Sunday service and it’s just not possible to jam pack everything a person needs into a hour or two. If you don’t step out and get involved you’re never going to become part of the community and you’re going to miss out on so much!

Christopher Head


Christopher Head commented…

"We limit our Christian experiences to only knowing more "about" Him—rather than encountering Him."
After reading this statement I was immediately remind of what Jesus said. Matthew Chapter 7:21-23 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Nathaniel Marshall


Nathaniel Marshall commented…

It comes down to loving God with all of hearts, minds, souls, and strength in equal parts. When we lose our equilibrium and veer towards one of those to the exclusion of the rest (over-intellectualize, over-spiritualize, overemphasize emotions or underemphasize emotions, etc.) we start losing it. Knowing about God is subservient (and essential) to experiencing him, and to experience God (not in a moment, but without interval) is the point of our existence. On the contrary, if you can quote Grudem's "Systematic Theology" word for word, but have never encountered God, thereby recognizing your wretchedness and throwing yourself on him in faith, then what was the point of the knowledge? And it goes on and on...

Individuals need to find the "sweet spot", and when we serve one another in that pursuit, and more and more people are in that sweet spot (which is in Christ, by the way), we'll discover that the church all of the sudden looks to be without spot or wrinkle. I look forward to that day.

Jonathan Galliher


Jonathan Galliher commented…

It's an interesting article. You are mistaken, however, about the lack of maps. While the spiritual life is quite complex, people have been wrestling with God, angels, and demons for nearly 2000 years, and they've managed to find some consistencies in their experiences. There's nothing that amounts to a simple recipe for whipping up a good Christian. It's more like the recipe for a white sauce, a base upon which each cook will build their own dishes based on the needs of the moment.

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