A popular idea amongst millennials, and perhaps every other generation, is that you can be a good Christian while never going to church. For instance, one of the great modern philosophers, Justin Bieber, once said this in the November 2010 Billboard magazine:
“I’m a Christian, I believe in God, I believe that Jesus died on a cross for my sins. I believe that I have a relationship and I’m able to talk to him and really, he’s the reason I’m here, so I definitely have to remember that. As soon as I start forgetting, I’ve got to click back and be like, you know, this is why I’m here…Some people go to church just to go to church. I’m not trying to disrespect them. But for me, I focus more on praying and talking to Him. I don’t have to go to church.”
Bieber isn’t alone in his thinking. Many more have argued that good Christians can simply pray and love others – church isn’t a requirement. But does this philosophy hold up against Biblical teaching?
Who is the Church?
The great challenge to this way of thinking is this: Jesus loves the church. The Bible even refers to the church as his “bride.” For instance, Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Other verses give this reference as well, for instance Revelation 19:6-8 and Revelation 21:9-11. The entire book of Hosea, in fact, draws an analogy between the Hosea and his bride and God and His people.
When you consider the role of the church in God’s plans, for someone to ignore the church and focus on a relationship with God is kind of like saying to a married person, “I’d love to be your friend, but I don’t really ever want to spend time with your wife. Except maybe on Christmas Eve and Easter.”
If you said that to me, I’m not entirely sure how I’d respond, but it wouldn’t be favorable. I love my wife very much, and our relationship will suffer if you refuse to have a relationship with her.
But the Church is messy!
Many people have had bad experiences with church. They’ve been judged or ostracized, ignored or hurt. If you think the church is messy, you’re absolutely right. It’s full of sinful people, and they mess up. A lot.
I mentioned the book of Hosea earlier. Yes it compares God’s people to his bride, but it isn’t a very nice comparison. In the book, we see God’s people (and Hosea’s wife) cheating and failing their husband repeatedly. And yet, despite this, God continues to pursue his bride. Hosea 3:1 says, “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.’”
Just like in Hosea’s time, God’s people sin and follow idols. But this doesn’t change the fact that Jesus chose to love the church as his bride. And although it may be imperfect now, as we saw in Revelation 21, someday the church will shine “with the glory of God, and its brilliance like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” Each day the Gospel is preached, the church becomes more like Christ. Your presence there can even help others grow.
The Purpose of the Church
God has called his people, the church, to do much of his redemptive work on this earth. He uses the church to teach his Word, to show kindness to others, to make disciples. While you can certainly make a positive impact on others without the help of other people, you limit yourself when not working with the church.
Furthermore, church is like a family reunion. It is time spent with our spiritual family, and it is a vital part of growing our faith. You probably have family members you don’t get along with or who are strange, but they’re still family, and so we’re still called to love them. In those gatherings, the benefits can often be intangible, but we often grow most as individuals when gathered with family (whether it be biological or spiritual).
The church is a unique place where people from different walks of life can come together in unity. Galatians 3:26-28 says it this way, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.“
Obviously the church isn’t always the best at acting unified, but I’ve also seen walls break down and strong bonds form amongst diverse people because of the work of Christ. Not going to church robs you of the perspectives and views of other people with different backgrounds, and it also robs others of the unique perspective you bring to the table as well.
4 Things I look for in a church
I think one reason many Christians don’t care about going to church much is they haven’t found a good one. And it can be difficult!
The following is the criteria I use. I think they’re pretty good, but they aren’t law and there might be other criteria that make sense for you.
1. I want a church that teaches the Bible: If I’m going to church, then I want to hear and learn something that I can’t get anywhere else. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Encouraging stories are nice, but I can hear those anywhere. The good doctrine of the Gospel, however, transforms my thinking in a positive way and spurs me on to love God and love others better than I could before.
2. I want a church that creates disciples: If you read through the gospels you will see many moments where Jesus teaches at synagogue (the Jewish equivalent of church) or to crowds. But his real work of ministry was investing in the 12 disciples who followed him and lived their lives with him. It was upon these disciples that the church was built, and through them the world was transformed.
A good church doesn’t just cater to passive participants, it creates disciples who are equipped for loving and teaching others.
3. I want a church that is missional: Missional is a buzzword in church today, but it remains important. Churches that are completely inward focussed will struggle to live the Great Commission and be a blessing to their neighborhoods and the nations. Being missional isn’t just about inviting others to church, sometimes it’s simply about inviting them over to a BBQ at your house.
As the church makes disciples, it should be enabling them to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
4. I want a church that understands worship: Worship is about far more than singing songs, although praise hymns are certainly part of it. The bottom line is, whether it is the lyrics we sing or the preaching we hear, the style of music or the way we treat visitors, everything a church does should focus on making much of God.
So there you have it. Can you be a Christian and not attend church? Technically, yes. Our salvation is based on the work of Christ and not the number of times we attend church. Can you experience a thriving faith and enjoy a consistently deeper relationship with God? Probably not. And in a world of both increasing connectivity and loneliness (thanks to smart phones and the internet), the relationships the church provides are not just important for our faith, they’ve become important for our humanity.
The goal of this post isn’t to make you feel guilty, but rather to excite you and inspire you to invest in your local community of God’s people. Any church will have issues, but a Gospel-centered one can bring you many blessings, and of course, you can be a blessing to those in the church as well.
Lead like an Exile
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