Me and Jesus: Must Christians “go to church”?

I want you to meet Sally. Sally is a Christian. She’s placed her faith in Jesus Christ. She prays regularly and reads her Bible. But Sally doesn’t go to church. She interacts with other Christians on Facebook, and occasionally she’ll hang out at a coffee shop with believers who happen to be there. Sometimes she even gets into in-depth discussions about things like Jesus and faith and life. But, like a growing number of Christians, she isn’t part of a regularly meeting group of believers.

Is this a healthy lifestyle for a Christian? Why do people decide to not ‘go to church’? There’s actually a number of different reasons—some we would recognize as legitimate concerns and others might seem more like petty complaints. Let’s see what reasons Sally might give for how she approaches the Christian life. (These are actual comments I’ve heard from real people.)

“I’ve had it with the institutional church.”
Some who read this are thinking right now, “Amen!” and others are rolling their eyes. I understand the desire to leave the “institutional” church. I spent three years in the house church movement, and I relate to many of these concerns.

When we look at the history of the church, we do notice a tendency to become focused on the church as an institution. It’s not hard to find examples of this, both in the past and in our churches today. But this isn’t a “church” problem, it’s a human one. We just seem to easily fall into focusing on systems and forms; we’re comforted by a familiar setting and structure, and end up perpetuating our church organization rather than the essence of the Christian faith and mission.

The problem is that any group of Christians who meet regularly and have even the slightest form or structure will face this temptation to slip into an institutional way of thinking. Can we avoid this danger by avoiding any form of organization and only meeting together with other Christians in random ways? Not if we’re going to be biblical in the way we live the Christian life. (More on this below.) We will always deal with the temptation to be less than loving to our spouses, but this doesn’t mean we should just walk away from the concept of committed marriage. We’re constantly tempted to be a “good Christian” through our own human efforts, but we shouldn’t therefore give up on the goal of becoming mature through the life of the Spirit.  In the same way, the continual temptation to institutionalize, and do church our way, is one we will always face in this lifetime—and God intended it to be this way. We’re supposed to struggle with this.

“The Bible doesn’t tell us to go to church, it says we are the church.”
And Sally is absolutely right. Of course you can hear the same thing taught regularly in the vast majority of “organized” churches. The fact is most pastors and church leaders long to lead a church that is spiritually organic, vibrant and thriving. They don’t want people to “go to” church, they want people to truly be the church. They’re not desiring to be the president of some cold, formal institution.

Now this doesn’t justify everything that happens in churches, and many times these same church leaders might do things that unintentionally work against this kind of vibrant church life. But is walking away really the answer? We need to remember that just as we are each a work in progress, growing into spiritual maturity, so each church body is a work in progress. Many times we expect the church to have arrived, but:

Just as each Christian is growing into the image of Christ,
so each church is growing into the image of Christ.

And God intends for each of us to help a local church body grow into the image of Christ. Again, the struggle is part of the process. Just as we are being sanctified, so is each church.

“We don’t have to meet somewhere to be the church;
wherever believers are, there’s the church!”

A friend recently sent me an article where the author wrote: “Asking me where I go to church is like asking me where I go to Jacobsen.” (Jacobsen is the author’s last name.) “I am a Jacobsen and where I go a Jacobsen is.” In one sense, this is very true. When the Bible speaks of the church, it often means all believers in Christ. “Being the church,” using the word ‘church’ in this way, means simply “being Christian.” So, wherever we go, we should be the church. Yes, but . . .

What people such as this author are missing is that this isn’t the only way the New Testament uses the word “church.” It’s not even the most common way. We do see references to the universal church, but we also see churches (the churches of Judea [Galatians 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14], the churches of Galatia [1 Corinthians 16:1; Galatians 1:2], Macedonia [2 Corinthians 8:1, 9:2], etc.). Going further, we see mention of specific churches, e.g. the church of Corinth, the church of Ephesus, the church of Philippi, etc. The New Testament speaks of individual churches in specific locations.

This isn’t simply referring to that part of the universal body of Christ who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time. If this were the case, we wouldn’t have the frequent references to plural churches. The Bible would simply speak of ‘the church currently in Judea,’ not the churches of Judea. You can’t have multiple universal churches. That doesn’t work. We also have references in Scripture to “the whole church” coming together or doing various things (Acts 15:4, 22; Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 14:4, 5, 12; 1 Timothy 5:20), which shows that a specific, gathered body of believers is in mind.

It’s true each believer is part of the universal church; it is not true we are all part of the church of Ephesus. What we find in Scripture are intentional, committed, regularly meeting, even organized (gasp!) groups of believers. There was something more to being a part of these churches than merely being a believer. So it’s simply not accurate to say that ‘wherever we are, there’s the church’ if we’re talking about the same kind of local churches that Scripture speaks of. We’re missing something very important if we neglect this truth.

“But wherever two or three gather in Jesus’ name, you have church!”
This is a very common sentiment, even in very traditional churches. But it’s a misunderstanding of Jesus’ statement, taking it completely out of its immediate context (Matthew 18:15-20). This is not what Jesus said. Jesus was actually speaking of the need to confront a sinning brother or sister. At some point, if the sinning believer will not repent, a Christian may need to “take your case to the church.” (Obviously, Jesus isn’t meaning for us to take our case to the universal church or to some random group of believers who happen to be in the coffee shop. We must have a church to which we belong in order to take our case to them.) Jesus is assuring them he’s right there with them in this process of church discipline, it doesn’t matter how few they are in number. We can’t twist this to mean that any group of two or three Christians constitutes a church!

So what does the Bible teach us about our church involvement?

Don’t neglect meeting together.
Hebrews 10:25 warns us to “not neglect our meeting together, as some people do.” Now, this doesn’t tell us how often to meet together, what day of the week we’re to meet, or where we’re to meet—but it’s very clear we’re not to neglect regularly meeting together. The very word we translate as church (ekklesia) means an “assembly” or “gathering”! You can look at practically every New Testament reference to God’s people in a specific locale, and you’ll see them gathering. A Christian who doesn’t gather regularly with a local church is as abnormal as a member of a physical body (an eye or a foot) that doesn’t ‘gather’ with the rest of the body. If isolation wasn’t a real danger, we wouldn’t be warned against it in Scripture.

Committed to a specific local body of believers.
It’s also obvious from Scripture we’re to be committed to a specific church. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, he referred to previous letters he had written to them (speaking to them directly: “to you”). He wrote of what he had taught them while he was with them. If these churches just included whoever happened to be hanging out together at any given time, then Paul’s letters make no sense. Paul had to have known that most of the same people who were part of these churches before were still part of the church. These had to be distinct groups of people who were committed to meeting together on an ongoing basis.

Hebrews 13:17 tells us to obey our spiritual leaders and do what they say, that their work is to watch over our souls. The recipients of the letter were also to “Greet all your leaders and the believers there [Hebrews 13:24].” But how can we have “our” leaders and how can they watch over our souls if we’re not regularly involved in a certain group of believers who are committed to meeting together on an ongoing basis (i.e. a church)?

The idea of Christians who aren’t part of a local church is completely foreign to everything the New Testament teaches about the church.

But what of those who have been hurt, or who can’t find a healthy church?
Having written all of this, I know there are far too many unhealthy churches. And there are too many communities where it’s difficult to find a truly vibrant fellowship. This really bothers me. There are people who have been deeply hurt by the very churches and church leaders who should have nurtured them. This bothers me even more.

Now, it’s easy for some to respond with well-worn cliches: “There are no perfect churches.” “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it or it won’t be perfect anymore!” “You need to just be faithful and bloom where you’re planted.” Of course, there’s some truth to these comments, but too much of the time we use these kinds of replies to dismiss the very real pain of true brothers and sisters in Christ. People have been hurt by churches, and others are longing to find a healthy church family to be part of and can’t seem to find one. This should grieve all of us.

But I want to encourage those who feel like giving up on the local church. I know what it’s like to look everywhere in your area for a healthy church. But I believe God will always provide for us some group of sincere believers who want to truly grow and mature and serve, Christians with whom we can fellowship and to whom we can commit ourselves. If you’ve been hurt or disillusioned by churches, my heart goes out to you. I would never suggest that the problem is all with you. I too have been hurt and disillusioned by churches. But still we must strive to be what God has called us to be—not just as individuals, but as part of a local church body.

It would have been so much easier if Jesus had just established the way for us to come into relationship with God and live in harmony with him—and left it at that. Then we could simply be a loose movement of individual followers of Christ. If we happened to get together occasionally—beautiful!—but it wouldn’t be necessary. We could avoid all the hassles and temptations of having a regular, organized group.

But Jesus didn’t just establish a relationship between us and God, he established a relationship between us and each other. He established a church, and his church includes local churches. And he gave, through his apostles, specific guidelines on how the church is to be structured, who is to lead it, and what it’s supposed to do. So the local church is to be organic, but it is also to have a certain organization. If we don’t like this, we need to take it up with the Head of the church, because this is the way he designed it. We need to stay vigilant to not begin focusing on the organization at the expense of the life of the Spirit. But we must also not neglect the organization the Spirit has provided for the life to flow. A body needs both blood and a cardiovascular system through which the blood can flow.

Just as we are to love Christ as he is, and not create a false Christ in our own image, so we must love the church as defined and taught in Scripture, and not try to re-imagine it in a way that’s more pleasing to us. The church is at the heart of God’s plan (Ephesians 3:10-11), so we should seek to be thoroughly immersed in the life of the church according to God’s plan in Scripture. Jesus loves the church, and so must we.