Photo credit: Zach Mazrim

Prior to living in China, my spiritual walk was one I would describe as searching, doubting, waiting, and longing. I was a Christian, but I was hungry to know more, hear more, and experience more.

Two days after I landed, I attended my first service at what immediately became my Beijing church. I threw myself into its community and my schedule quickly became jam-packed with different church-related events and get-togethers. My friends were Christians from all over the world, with a mix of experiences, and I absolutely loved picking their brains for truth.

I felt on fire for Jesus and started to experience Him in new ways. For the first time in my life I saw the church as a tangible way of meeting with God, as people started to encourage me, pray for me, and share their faith with me. During that first year I was transformed. There were moments where I swore I could physically feel the transformation. People in my life, both those who had known me prior to moving to Beijing and those I met there, were constantly encouraging me in my spiritual growth.

With my year in Beijing reaching its end, and my plan being to move back to Canada, I started to fear what would become of this newfound faith. I was scared to leave Beijing, the city where my faith took off. I feared that any other church would never be the same. I started to wonder if this newfound faith was just temporary and that it would fizzle out when I failed to find a faith community as strong as my Beijing one.

Realizing that I had no peace in leaving Beijing and that the call to stay ran deeper than a simple fear of leaving my church, I decided that I would return to China after a few months in Canada.

The day after I arrived back in Canada was a Sunday, so I headed to the church I had been visiting before moving to Beijing. I was excited to meet other Christians in my hometown and attempt to establish community for the short season I anticipated being there. Immediately upon entering the church, however, that eager, excited attitude went sour when I began to notice just how many ways it differed from my church in Beijing.

I didn’t listen at all during that service because I was busy mentally planning to go somewhere else the following Sunday. I knew of a church that was non-denominational and as close to a megachurch that my city had. I started hoping it would be my town’s equivalent of my Beijing church, because I was convinced that the best way to continue the spiritual growth I had in Beijing, was to try to replicate that experience.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

An idol is any object, person, or activity that we give a higher priority to than God. We chase it, pursue it, and prioritize it over our needs and commitments. We believe it is the thing that fulfills us, defines us, or solves our problems. Idols can be physical, tangible things like a house or a significant other. They can also be intangible things like knowledge, a relationship, or a status. Often, in speaking of idols, typical examples are more “worldly” items such as money, a career, or a vehicle. It is as if idolatry is a struggle of the secular culture and not one of the daily life as a Christ-follower. Good things become idols. We idolize education, marriage, and happiness. But can godly things become idols? Can things ordained by God Himself take His place in our eyes?

 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” Matthew 6:24

Idols will fail you. Idols are not God. They are not perfect. They will not fulfill you, define you, or relieve you of your problems. Idols have no saving power. They will fall apart on you and—proportional to your invested faith—that fall will be devastating.

When I returned to Beijing after five months away, that idol of mine came crashing down. I came running back with high expectations of an ongoing, spiritual growth coming entirely from being surrounded by my Beijing community once again. It was like I imagined my faith journey to have been on “pause” while I was away.

Instead, what I saw when I returned was a depressed and gloomy atmosphere. People no longer went out to eat after service. In fact, most people darted for the door the moment it ended. Instead of people hanging around in groups, laughing and talking excitedly before and after service, I saw people coupled off in serious or emotional conversations. For the first time, I noticed my friends gossip and pass judgment on each other. They openly speculated on details of their personal lives, and blatantly trash-talked each other. The transiency of the city finally hit home for me when people I had grown close to announced their departure dates as God called them away from Beijing.

With a spiritual growth so immediate, quick, and transformative, I had mistakenly attributed it to what I could see around me. I believed a lie that my deepening relationship with Jesus was solely the result of the church I attended. I believed it was its people, services, worship, and other activities that fulfilled me. I naively believed I needed to be in Beijing and attending that church for God to be most active in my life.

My church was not exclusively responsible for my growth. Church is a good, godly thing and definitely assisted in my faith journey. Church, however, is not God. Scripture warns us that Satan often disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). I was blinded to the reality that I was making an idol of my church, because I knew that in God’s eyes, the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). We grow spiritually by meeting with one another (Matthew 18:20), encouraging each other (Hebrews 10:25), bearing each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and loving one another (John 15:13). So how can something that is ordained by God and is what God encourages us to participate in, lead us astray from the One who truly saves?

 “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” Isaiah 44:6

Perhaps you are reading this and are wondering if you too have made your church an idol. Or maybe you think that others might have that struggle, but you definitely do not. The following list is not exhaustive, but it is a starting point in identifying some ways we might begin to idolize our church.

  1. Dependency on elements of service

The preaching styles. The worship. The general “vibe” of the church during service time. Everything about it speaks to you. Or it doesn’t, and it has completely wrecked your Sunday morning experience. You either hear God or you don’t… and you believe it is all because of the different elements of the Sunday morning service.

  1. Dependency on the people at church

You have never found such a community of people who get you. People who have been influential in your faith journey attend your church. The pastor, the elders, the worship team, everyone makes your church what it is.

  1. Fear of leaving the church

You know that one day you will move from the area and the thought of leaving your church gives you anxiety. What if the next church isn’t as good? What if you never find a community as good as this one? What if you never have the spiritual experiences that you had at this one?

  1. Leaving the church

The church you have been attending for a while is just not doing it for you anymore. It is not challenging you, it is not enjoyable, or you have run into problems there. Perhaps you are “church-shopping”. With a bit of a consumeristic mindset, you are testing out different churches to see what is the best fit for you. Perhaps you are in the habit of serially leaving the church.

  1. Belief that God is more present in one church than another

You feel that there is simply a bigger and better presence of God at your church. Either you are comparing megachurches with smaller churches—you either see “more God” in the presence of hundreds or in the intimate setting of a few. Or you are comparing Sunday morning service with a church service held on a different day of the week. Or perhaps you are comparing denominations and you believe you will have a more authentic spiritual experience at one denomination in comparison with another.

  1. Legalistic behaviour at church

You attend each and every service, workshop, retreat, and gathering at your church. You religiously serve on one team… or several. You love to be seen as busy at church. You pride yourself in it. You know that with your frequent volunteerism, many commitments and perfect attendance, you will gain favour in the eyes of the church.

  1. Attributing spiritual growth (or stagnation) to the church

You got saved because of the church you’re attending. You have grown spiritually because of the church you’re attending. Or the opposite: you have lost faith, gone astray, or even stopped calling yourself a Christian… all because of the church you’re attending.

It has been two and a half years since the first service I attended at my Beijing church and God has taken me on quite the journey since then. He has revealed to me the many different ways in which the church was my idol. He has healed me from the hurt that comes from the weight of this sin. He has restored church in my eyes so when I reflect on that first year, it is Him I see at the centre of my spiritual walk, and not the church.

If you feel that you have fallen into the sin of idolizing your church, please do not be discouraged. Lean in to the struggle and trust God to restore your relationship with church. Below are some practical steps that have been helpful for me in identifying the root of this sin, and allowing God to break me free from it.

  1. Ask yourself “when did I see the church being church?”

Was it when you visited for the first time and were greeted with a warm welcome? Was it the vibrant community you were invited into? The healing? The forgiveness and restoration? The truth delivered in messages? Hospitality, healing, and truth were things that Jesus preached and practiced. When we see them emulated at church, it is not by the power of the people doing it or that particular church being especially aligned to the Word. It is all God. Reframe those memories in your mind so you appreciate them as seeing God at work through the church.

  1. Reflect on times you belonged to or visited other churches.

What did you like? What was similar to your current church? What was different? Then recognize those similarities, as not what made the experience comfortable and familiar for you, but as evidence that we are part of a larger kingdom. Try to recognize those differences as parts that comprise the body and not as the aspects of that church that you did not like or that you disagreed with.

  1. Pray

Pray that God help you discern what is from Him and what is not.  Pray that He show you how He sees your church, and that He help you see it the same way. Pray that He reveal to you what idols you have created and how that has kept you from His love.

  1. Read Scripture

The Bible says a lot about what God wants for the church but below are a few verses that you can start with.

Ephesians 4:1-16

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Acts 2:42-47