I’m a Christian. I have been told all my life that God loves me and wants to have a personal relationship with me. My spirituality is mine, it is between God and me. Do I have to go to church?
This topic has come up a few times lately and it has pondering, yet again, if we – Christians as a whole – understand what Church is. What it is meant to be.
Paul speaks directly to the topic. We’ve all heard it before,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
– Heb 10.23-25
Do not forsake the assembling of the brethren. In layman’s terms, don’t skip church.
But why? When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, He slowly revealed His identity to her. When she realized that He was a prophet, she tested Him:
“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
– John 4.20
The Jews and Samaritans hated each other. When Israel split just after Solomon’s rule, the northern half of the kingdom was taken into captivity and intermarried with other nations. Thus the Jews from the South considered the Samaritans cross-breeds and lesser of a people. They were worshiping the same God, but the Samaritans only used the first five books of the Bible and split their traditions of worship to worship on “this mountain”, the mountain Gerizim.
The Samaritan woman wanted to test Jesus, because He was a Jew and because He was a prophet (who had just revealed to her that he knew her life story). Where is the right place to worship? Let’s look at0 His answer to her feeble attempt:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
– John 4.21-24
So out of Jesus’ own mouth, we see that location no longer matters. We do not have to go to the temple or to the mountain. We can worship God wherever we are. Therefore, we do not need to go to Church, right?
The very fact that we would ask the question “Do I have to go to church?” reveals two things about us. Primarily, we do not understand the purpose of church. Secondly, we do not understand the nature of our faith – if we are saved at all.
The purpose of the church is to worship and glorify God. To make much of Him. To praise Him. To learn about Him. If you choose your church based on what you get out of it, you fundamentally misunderstand its purpose. If you choose a church based on whether or not you like the music, whether or not it has a big youth group, whether or not you feel good when you come in, then your heart is in the wrong place. Because church is not about me and it is not about you. It is about God.
Does the music honor God? Does the preaching make great His name and lead you to worship, honor, respect and adore Him more? Does the youth group, or teaching component for children and families teach them how to know and love God? Sometimes knowing God is going to hurt. He calls us to die to our sin, to put to death the deeds of the flesh, and that is hard. Sometimes it hurts.
Church is also the place where we build community. In fact, most semi-theologians will be quick to argue that the Church is the group of people, not the building. Yes, that is correct. God did not create us as lone rangers. Our American individualism has distorted the Gospel message. Two words that the Bible never says are “personal relationship”. Now, the Bible also does not say the word, “trinity”, but all evangelicals believe in the doctrine. But the Bible does not teach that Jesus came to die on the cross “just for me“. No, He died for the sins of the world and all who would believe.
Jesus longs for us to abide in Him as He abides in the Father (John 15). He offers us direct access to God through prayer by redeeming us (Heb 4.16). Our salvation is based on our personal repentance and not the faith of another, i.e. our parents (Acts 2.38). So in that sense we understand that salvation is personal. And we make our daily decision if we will abide in Christ and become one with Him as He is with the Father (John 17).
But let’s take a closer look at what Jesus says when He says that we become one with Him:
“I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.”
– John 17.11
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
– John 17.20-23
We are one in Christ with all other believers. Our unity in Christ is not just me abiding in Christ. It is me abiding and unifying with you – the church – in the same manner that Jesus abides and is unified with God the Father and the Spirit. No, my salvation is not based on your faithfulness and I am not in danger of losing it if you abandon the faith. But God is concerned about us glorifying Him by dying to ourselves, living unto Him, serving the Church (His body!), and reaching the lost. These are the eternal things. When we die, nothing else will remain.
So, do we have to go to church? Is your salvation in limbo if you miss a Sunday here and there for vacation or work or illness? No, of course not. But we should examine our hearts on keeping the Sabbath – a day dedicated to God. But in general, we must be a part of a local body. God created the Church as His physical body and representation in the world. We each have a specific role to play to worship Him, make disciples and reach the lost.
Let’s not get caught up in the legalism of it. Let’s not abuse our freedom in grace. Let’s give our lives over to the One who gave His life for us, and serve Him by serving the body: The Church.
“If you love me you will love the Church.”