I’ve seen some rather frustrating takes on the internet recently about church. It seems the obligation to go to church has all but died out with the general population, and many people who call themselves Christians have given up on church as well. But why is this?
I think, in part, it’s a natural progression of our increasingly secular society. Over time, America has turned from a very traditionalist, “Christian” country into a progressive melting pot of all kinds of ideas, religions, lifestyles, and peoples. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, per se. It’s definitely made it harder to be openly Christian, but we still have it great compared to most of the world. We can still worship, study the Word, and meet together without fear in the vast majority of situations. And one thing we consider all too infrequently is that genuine faith shines brightest in the darkness (check out this comic from Adam4d).
But this isn’t meant to be a post about the evolution of religion and Christianity in America, as fun as that would be to talk about. So let’s get back on track. Church. It’s a word that inspires indifference, disgust, or guilt for many. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Let me tell you about my time wrestling with this issue; then we’ll look at what the Bible says about it.
My Experience Growing Up in the Church
As a kid, my parents always made us attend church on Sundays, and sometimes Sunday nights too. I knew it was something I was supposed to do. I knew it was a place with people I knew, and occasionally things to do or food to eat. But that was about it. Church wasn’t something I desired or enjoyed, in most cases. I always grumbled when dad got us out of bed early every week.
Then I got saved. At about age 14, I came to the realization that following in my parents’ footsteps was dumb. Either Christianity was right or it wasn’t. If it was, I needed to actually read the Bible and obey the God who was willing to die for me. If it wasn’t, the only logical thing to do would be to abandon the faith and not look back. After all, what’s the use of a religion if it isn’t true?
After reading through the entire Bible for the first time, praying more than I ever had in my life, studying practical and scientific objections to the Bible, and reading book after book, I came to the conclusion that the Bible is true. All the evidence pointed to Jesus. At this point, I felt I had no choice. To pursue truth was to pursue God’s words. The Bible clearly established church as something important (we’ll get to that). I now had a concrete reason to go to church. But as I grew up, I moved away to college. The drive to church was longer and my sleep schedule became downright irresponsible at times. I didn’t go every week, and many times I’d leave immediately after the service was over. I felt disillusioned at this time with more than just church, for more than a few reasons.
After a while, a lot of things improved for me, but I still wasn’t satisfied with church. Was it just me? Was I a bad Christian? After talking with my brothers, I realized they felt similarly. The church I was going to at the time felt a bit disconnected and aimless, especially for young people. This isn’t meant to discount the church as a whole. There were, and still are, some incredible Christians there. But I realized it wasn’t working for me, so I looked for a new group of Christians to meet with.
Today, I’m very thankful to God for the church I’ve found. I’ve had more opportunities to serve, hear truth, and meet fellow young Christians than ever. Part of this is because I matured over time. I realized I had to be more involved than I was. But part of this was the church itself. Why do I tell you this? Because I want you to know that even a “church kid” like me has had ups and downs. I’ve felt obligated, annoyed, and discouraged. I’ve skipped church to sleep in. I’ve avoided people and struggled finding my place. Despite the face a lot of Christians put on, church isn’t just a wonderful festival of joy every week for everyone.
What Does the Bible Say About Church?
Now that you know where I’m coming from on this issue, let’s take a look at what the Bible says regarding church. It’s important to note that the New Testament was written at a time when the early church was still developing. Today, we talk about buildings, potlucks, music teams, schedules, and special services. But to early Christians, church was a lot more simple than all of that. It was about meeting together to worship God and encourage one another. And remember, none of these letters were addressing individuals, but rather a whole group of Christians.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV)
Here, Paul gives us a beautiful picture of the church as a temple. Christians are the building blocks and Christ is the cornerstone. We are all joined together as one. We cannot fulfill this alone. To be a lone brick is to be useless. A brick is designed to come together with hundreds of other bricks to build a home. The same is true for how God designed us. This theme is throughout the New Testament.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (ESV)
More common than the brick analogy is Paul’s idea of a body with many limbs or “members.” Though many, we are one body of believers. This is the definition of the church. It’s the gathering of believers in the name of Christ. Now notice the last line: “The body does not consist of one member but of many.” This is undeniably proof that you cannot be a church-less Christian. It’s impossible. To be a Christian is to be a member of a body. If you aren’t a member of a group of believers, you simply aren’t living the life God has called you to.
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”Colossians 1:18 (ESV)
Christ is the head of the body, just as he is the cornerstone of the temple. His place as God’s Son, having all things created through him (John 1), and having risen from the dead, is what makes him worthy of our worship. He is why we gather together.
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”Colossians 3:15-16 (ESV)
Here, we get a better idea of what church ought to look like. We are called to peace and thankfulness to God. We should know his words. We should be teaching and keeping each other accountable. We should be singing together. You can see this pattern of the early church reflected in many churches of today. This is why we meet the way we do. This is why we have liturgies and music and sermons. This is why church cannot be appropriated to just you, a Bible, and nature. No matter how spiritual or helpful your solitary experiences are, they are not and can never be “church.” Don’t fool yourself.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
It’s not just Paul commanding us to meet for church. This passage from Hebrews is one of the clearest commands in the Bible to meet together regularly. The reason I saved it for last is because, on its own, it doesn’t fully define why we meet or what that looks like. But with the context of the other passages, it’s easy to see that this is a command not just to have more baby showers or game nights, but to have more church. A key part of that is encouraging one another towards love and good works. In today’s world, I think we could stand for a lot more of that kind of encouragement.
There are so many more passages we could talk about. We could look at church discipline, sacraments, baptism, persecution, unity, and much more. I encourage you to read the letters of the New Testament (as well as Acts) for more clarity on these issues. In all honesty, I’m convinced that those who choose not to belong to a church have little to no experience reading the Bible. It’s such a pervasive and dominant topic that it’s extremely hard to miss and impossible to deny its importance.
What Should Church Really Look Like?
Now, we might ask ourselves: What should church look like for us today? What are we actually called to do? Do we really need all these traditions and rituals? It’s clear that many aspects of modern church are rooted in Scripture. Some examples might be church leaders (Titus 1:5-9), music (Eph 5:19), baptism (1 Cor 12:13), prayer (Matt 18:20, James 5:16), public readings of the Bible (1 Tim 4:13), encouragement (1 Thess 5:11), and the sharing of food, resources, and money for the betterment of the church (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).
But there are, of course, some things that go unmentioned in Scripture. There is no command to meet in a fancy building, to market your church to the world to boost attendance, to give exactly ten percent of your income, to meet on Sunday mornings, or to host social events. All these things, and more, are ancillary at best and heretical at worst. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who was killed for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, had some harsh words for the churches he saw when he visited America.
“So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that—who knows how—claims the right to call itself ‘Christian.’ And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation.
“Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you’ll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership—that person can well assess the character of such a church.
“All these things, of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically ‘charitable’ churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Christians today have a responsibility to meet together in a way that honors our Lord rather than grieving him. In a time when church has become a dirty word and religion a bad taste in the mouth of the populace, it’s all too tempting to transform our churches into something more appealing and modern. But Jesus didn’t declare Peter to be a business tycoon. Paul never rebuked anyone for having small attendance numbers. Church was never supposed to be a social club.
“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”Acts 17:11 (ESV)
It all comes back to the Bible. Hold it higher than any word spoken by men. Hold the Bible’s standard for church higher than your desire to make church into something more fun, attractive, or convenient. It’s not about you. It’s about Christ. It’s about meeting regularly to honor, worship, and serve our God together. “Let us go to the house of the Lord! (Psalm 122:1)”
Let me know your thoughts about church in the comments below. Enter your email if you want to be notified when my next post goes live. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.