'Do I need to go to church if I am a Christian?' I have gotten this question a great deal over the years and even more so over the past year. The pandemic and the resultant shift in habits has produced a much less church-going society. There are many reasons to this, I would guess, and they vary from habit, to politics, to fear, etc. And as much as the cultural tide is of some interest to me, I am mostly concerned with our understanding, or a lack of understanding, of why church is important, why it is necessary.
Now, one could say it is necessary because it is a duty. Many of us probably have heard some version of the verse in Hebrews 10, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” And although I think this is true, there other motivating reasons that come to mind for me as well:
There is something special about church.
CS Lewis made the observation, “I can say a prayer while washing my teeth, but that does not mean I should wash my teeth in church.” He is making the point that, yes, there are things we can do in our own personal life that is religious in nature and further our maturity in the faith. But there is something very different about church. For example, when we gather in flesh and blood with others of the faith, our enjoyment of God is fuller and more robust. Ever seen a sporting event in a stadium? What was it like when your team won? Or lost? Now compare that with watching it alone in front of the tv late at night. I would guess your enjoyment would be exponentially less by the mere fact you have no one was to celebrate it with or mourn the loss with. Church is what it is because we are a body of believers, not an individual. It is something special and full of meaning since we are together, doing things we cannot do alone and dropping things we would only do alone (like brushing my teeth). Your faith is special when combined with the faiths of others.
It removes our obsession with ourselves.
The church is in a very real sense an outpost of rebels who are coconspirators with Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring about the kingdom of God. Because I believe this to be true, when we fail to show up for that local gathering, we are soldiers of Christ gone AWOL — we have failed to answer to our commander and have abandoned our band of brothers. If the purpose of the church is to win people to Christ and grow them in their faith, when we don’t show up, we make it a bit weaker. We place the local church in danger! When we don’t show up, my brothers and sisters in Christ lose out on what I can bring to our gathering. (Now, I don’t mean to brag or make a prideful statement here. I am merely pointing out the truth that because of God’s great mercy, he has chosen to use us individually to spur one another on). So, by staying home because ‘I can be a Christian without church’ is an unmistakably selfish viewpoint. And it fails to see the mission of God in the church. But when we gather, our self-obsessed thoughts are more easily removed, and the brotherhood is strengthened.
Jesus loves the church, it must be amazing!
One of my former pastors / bosses once said to me that the reason he ministers to the church is because he loves the church. At the time, I must confess, I thought that reasoning really strange. I mean I sometimes enjoy church; I might like the music selection one particular day, or the warm feeling I got at communion, or maybe I like seeing my friends. But to love the church? That one was new to me. As I have matured a bit since then, I have now seen the root of this perspective, which of course it begins with Jesus. For we know “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). So if he loves the church what right do I have to be ambivalent towards it? Here is the really cool part though; once I started to ponder the truth that God loves the church, my affection for it began to grow. Is it amazing? Sometimes. But a lot of times it is difficult to love. But so are my kids! So is my dog! And if I am wise enough to see it, so am I!! And yet God has poured himself out for me and for you and for the church. I want to love what he loves. So be it.
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” Ephesians 5:25-27