Written By Raphael Zhang, Singapore
Well, it wasn’t so much a day as it was years of feeling tired, but I did not get down to examining why I felt that way. Finally, one day in 2011, I decided to leave my cell group and my church.
That was the year I was doing my final-year paper at university. I was stressed and overwhelmed, and the tiredness from going to church finally got to me.
Truth be told, I felt relief after I stopped going to church. I remember waking up on Sunday mornings grateful that I could sleep in and not have to rush out, bleary-eyed, to be on time for morning service. Not attending cell group meetings also meant I could use the time to do other things. I had so much more free time to myself. And I didn’t miss going to church or cell group at all.
The Church Came to Me
When I stopped attending church, the church came to me. No, the church building didn’t march towards me. Rather, the people of God—my church mates—attended to me.
There were two groups. One was quirkily named the nincompoopeyes (assembled from the words nincompoop + poop + popeyes; it mystifies me to this day why we gave ourselves such a name), and the other was called Applelies (because we are the apple of God’s eye, as Psalm 17:8 says).
Both groups, which organized regular meet-ups where we hung out, enjoyed one another’s company, and celebrated one another’s birthdays, knew I’d stopped going to church. And although they tried to gently encourage me to go for services with them, they didn’t push me beyond what I felt ready to do. They could see I was on my own journey, and gave me space to work out my issues. I greatly appreciated that.
Each time we met up, however, I felt God’s presence through the love His people showed me. I felt embraced and accepted by them. Their friendship was a comfort to me, and when they shared their lives and walk with God with me, I experienced what the fellowship of the saints was all about (Hebrews 10:24–25).
During one of these meet-ups, a friend asked me what it was like not going to church. I told her frankly about the relief and freedom I felt. By that time, I was more able to be objective about my tiredness with church, and I told her that it was not so much the church or cell group that had wearied me, but the way I was approaching them.
Although I really enjoyed going to church and cell group initially, over time I started to be “religious” about it—I lost sight of the truth that going to church and cell group should be an expression of my love for God and His people, not because it would make God love me more. I started to focus more on doing things for God than being with God, mistakenly believing that if I did more for Him and proved my worth, I would gain more of His love and approval. Before long, this need to “perform” for God drained me of my energy. I also began to complain that I seemed to be giving more than I was receiving in my cell group.
Gradually, going for church service became an obligation I had to fulfill, and attending cell group, a weekly item to check off. And because I was running on my own strength to try to please God, I started to see them as burdens that sapped my time and energy.
I did all this because for the longest time, I saw God as a stern and silent disciplinarian who did not like me. I saw Him as an exacting God who would not express His affection for me, but was more than ready to express His disappointment and anger whenever I sinned or fell short of what He expected me to do. I thought I had to earn His love and favor.
Growing up, I did not receive a lot of encouragement from my parents. When I did something well, no compliments were given, which made me feel that doing well was the minimum standard required. But when I did something wrong, my parents were quick to express their disapproval of and unhappiness toward me. I only realized a few years ago that my experience with my parents had shaped the way I viewed God. This led me to misinterpret God’s character and His view of me.
In 2013, however, God began to open my eyes, and I started to understand who He really is. Through my mentor, I understood that God sees me as His precious son, and that He not only loves me, but He actually enjoys and treasures me. Despite my numerous failures and mistakes, God showers His grace and mercy upon me, and He reminds me continually of His prodigious love for me. He wants to restore me to Himself, in spite of my straying and sins. I now know, without a doubt, that He is a good and perfect Father who delights in me, loves me, intimately cares for me and my needs, and is eager to lavish His lovingkindness on me.
Returning to church
On a particular day in 2014, I thought about going back to church. However, I wasn’t sure if I should go back to the same church I’d left, or if I should “start with a clean slate” in another church. As I was pondering on this, I seemed to hear God say, “Did I tell you to leave?” That same afternoon, the Holy Spirit convicted me to write an email to my cell group members to apologize for leaving the cell group abruptly and to initiate reconciliation with them.
Over the next few months, I slowly settled back into my cell group and church. The cell group welcomed me back and I began to feel more at home with them. I made a commitment in my heart to love and serve them; because they are the family God has called me to, I decided to be a blessing to them. I do this not because I want to earn God’s love, but because knowing He has first loved me enables me to love others—loving others is an expression of my love for Him (1 John 4:19–21). I don’t always do this perfectly, but this is something I have committed to grow in.
I’m understanding more and more that going to church and cell group gives us an opportunity to grasp the greatness of God’s love for us and to mature in our unity and love for one another (Ephesians 4:1–6). But I’ve learned through firsthand experience that it is possible to go to church and not grow in one’s relationship with God and with people. Therefore, rather than merely committing to go to church, let us remember that we are the church. This paradigm enables me to be a blessing to others with a joyful heart. As Jesus Himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). I am blessed by giving to others as well.
Just as my friends were the church to me in my wandering years, I want to be the church to someone who’s wandering, so that God’s love might touch them and draw them closer to Him.
After all, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about?