I have better things to do than go to church. Do I have to go to be a Christian?
Church attendance in the West, even among Christians, is falling. According to a recent study, attendance at church services in any given week has declined among Christians by 9 percent since 1991. Now only a minority of Christians (47 percent) can be found at church during a typical week.1
In a culture that sees independence and self-reliance as hallmarks of a truly successful person, church can feel like an imposition on our time and energy. We ask if we have to go to church in the same reluctant way we might ask, “Do I have to go to the dentist?”
But what if followers of Jesus only truly flourished when in community with other like-minded believers? What if true fulfillment could only be found in serving them rather than ourselves?
Church in the Bible
The Bible certainly makes a strong case for being at church regularly. Jesus himself assumes that his followers will gather together habitually in self-governing “churches.”2 The writer of the book of Hebrews is explicit: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”3
According to the Bible, believers should meet together regularly so that they can
- hear God’s Word taught faithfully;4
- pray together;5
- be accountable to one another;6
- encourage one another;7
- use God-given spiritual gifts for the benefit of fellow believers;8
- exercise church discipline with the aim of restoring a person who is caught in a particular sin;9
- support one another in suffering;10
- rejoice with each other;11
- commemorate Jesus’ death and resurrection;12
- serve one another;13
- bear with one another;14
- offer hospitality to one another;15
- love one another;16 and
- demonstrate the power and goodness of Jesus to a watching world.17
This list is far from exhaustive. As you read the New Testament, it’s hard to miss how many commands contain the phrase “one another.”
The New Testament describes each gathered group of believers as “the body of Christ.” Just as with a human body, each part of the body of Christ needs the others.18 Each believer is a “hand” or an “eye” or a “foot,” and just as it would be self-defeating for the foot to say, “I don’t like this leg; I’m leaving,” so it is when a believer stops attending church or refuses to settle in one church. The church suffers and so does the believer.
Church as God Sees It
Theologian and pastor Mark Dever tells a story that sums up why meeting regularly with the same family of believers is so vital. He and a Christian friend attended church together, but his friend came just to the morning service—and even then only halfway through service when it was time for the sermon.
Dever asked his friend if he’d thought about committing himself to the church. The friend responded, “Why would I join the church? If I join them, I think they would just slow me down spiritually.”
Dever responded with another question: “Have you ever considered that maybe God wants you to link arms with those other people, and that perhaps even though they might slow you down a little, you might help to speed them up—and that that’s part of God’s plan for how we’re supposed to live as Christians together?”19
If we really saw church as God sees it, even with all the “inconveniences” it can entail, it would be one of our deepest joys. The theologian Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, writing about the book of Acts in the Bible, makes this observation:
What an utter denial it is of the whole of the New Testament, this foolish suggestion that one service a Sunday is enough—one that takes place at nine o'clock in the morning, to get rid of it, as it were, in order that you can then really go and enjoy yourselves and have real happiness in looking at the television or in rushing to the seaside or in playing golf! But what happens when people are baptized with the Holy Spirit—as you see throughout Acts—is that they begin to want to be together, to get together as often as they can. The believers in Acts steadfastly continued talking about these things, singing together, praising God together—every day. This was first above everything else. Everything else came second; even their work was just something they had to do. It was right that they should do their work, of course, but this community of praise was the thing that meant life to them, that meant joy and salvation.20
Seen in this light, the question, “Do I have to go to church?” is almost comical. We might equally ask, “Do I have to watch my favorite sports team?” “Do I have to sleep with my beautiful wife?” Or, while drowning in the Atlantic, “Do I have to get into this life raft?”
Our local churches—to the extent that they are seeking to know Christ and live out God’s Word—are unique, irreplaceable, God-given gifts to every believer. To withdraw from them is to deny others our love and rob ourselves of joy.