“Do I have to go to church?”
While the whole idea of Christians going to church should be a given, it’s an ongoing subject of discussion and debate. According to the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:24,25), there were some in the early church in the habit of neglecting to attend their gatherings. You would think we’d have this figured out by now!
Sometimes the subject comes up in the context of death. A person I don’t know dies and the family approaches me about doing a funeral or memorial. They confess that the deceased hasn’t been to church for some time, but they also assure me that they believed and prayed. A brief resume, but in their minds one worthy of consideration.
Other times it comes up in the context of all the things one might want to do or have to do on a Sunday. Whether it is work, sleep, entertaining guests, sporting events or travel, a multitude of activities compete with the church for that coveted Sunday morning time slot.
So what’s the bottom line? Can you be a Christian without going to church? How frequently must one go to church? Does a Christian have to go to church? Do I have to go to church?
No, you don’t have to go.
Technically, no. If you believe God’s Word that “one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28), you cannot insist that one also jump through additional salvific hoops. “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).
When your time is up, God is not going to check your attendance records before admitting you to heaven. Most of God’s people in the Bible didn’t go to church. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon never went to church. Jesus himself never went to church. So you can’t even ask “What would Jesus do?”
When Jesus comes again in all his glory to divide up the sheep and goats, the separation isn’t based on church attendance. It’s based on a whole lot of other things like feeding, visiting and taking care of people (Matthew 25).
The earliest Christians who heard the gospel, believed, repented, and were baptized didn’t go to church. They got together every day to learn, pray, and care for each other. Maybe that is a better picture of what church is all about.
Throughout scripture, when someone is justified by faith, they become part of a community of believers. They become part of a people, a nation, a family, a church. They never go it alone, but are always part of something much bigger, the body of Christ. In other words, church isn’t something you attend or do. It’s who you are.
When the prophet Elijah ran away in 1 Kings 19, God came to him and asked, “What are you doing out here?” Elijah said, “I’m all alone. It’s just me.” God said, “You’re not alone. I’ve got seven thousand faithful in Israel. You need them and they need you.”
Isn’t that the real bottom line? As Christians, we aren’t really ourselves unless we’re together. Our lives of forgiving one another, bearing with one another, loving one another, serving one another, comforting one another, greeting one another, honoring one another, confessing to one another, welcoming one another, and instructing one another only happens when we are with “another.” It can’t happen in isolation.
For many organizations, membership means paying dues, carrying a membership card and receiving a periodic newsletter. That doesn’t translate to the church. In the church, membership means you are a part of the body of Christ, with your unique gifts of grace, which you were created with and are called to provide for the church.
So when can we get together? You know how hard it is to get together with even one other over-scheduled person. Wait a minute. What about the Sabbath? Or a Sabbath? You know, that one day when everyone has off together. In a pre- 24/7 world, that worked pretty well. In my sleepless, caffeinated, competitive, stressed-out world — not so much.
Unless you make it happen. Unless it is a no-compromise, no-exception part of your week, it won’t happen. And that’s no good. You need us. We need you.
Yes, I have to go.
Yes, I have to go to church. I’m the pastor. It would look pretty bad if I didn’t show up!
But let’s say I’m not the pastor. Yes, I have to go to church. I have to be there because I can’t find the benefits and blessings of church anywhere else in my world. Not in my faith, not in my prayers, not in my house, not in my bed, or in my personal devotions. I need to experience being part of the body. I need to confess and be forgiven in front of and along with everyone else. I need the sacrament, to know that Jesus is still real and present in a world that largely ignores him or opposes. I need God to wield the sharp, double-edged sword of his Word to cut through all the lies, excuses, masks, rationalizations and crap in my life so I know without a doubt he still loves me with an everlasting love.
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