Do All Christians Have to go to Church?

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.

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Heavenly Minded, Earthly Commissioned

As I’ve been teaching a Sunday School class on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ve noticed that he and I have a lot in common. He pursued a greater understanding of theology, yet continually felt that head-knowledge wasn’t enough. He was disgusted at American churches with their love for liberal Christianity, social relevance, and conformity to the world. He wasn’t scared to criticize his contemporaries or entertain radical new ideas. He believed love was well worth the risks it brought and the fear of loss. He had bouts of depression. He could be rather intense at times and felt that some people were put off by him.

But what we’re going to address today is his view that the Christian life is so much more than going to church, reading motivational books, and putting on a good face. He believed the Christian is called to take their faith out of church and into the world.

“In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world. The place where the questions about the reality of God and about the reality of the world are answered at the same time is characterized solely by the name: Jesus Christ. God and the world are enclosed in this name. . . . we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We start with the fabric of reality itself. Bonhoeffer believed the incarnation of Christ supports the framework of one reality. To speak of “the world” as if it’s some foreign realm isolated from Christianity is not accurate. Christ came to the world. We are in the world. We’re not called to Paradise just yet. We ought to live to fulfill our earthly commission rather than wait around for the second coming.

“As long as Christ and the world are conceived as two realms bumping against and repelling each other, we are left with only the following options. Giving up on reality as a whole, either we place ourselves in one of the two realms, wanting Christ without the world or the world without Christ—and in both cases we deceive ourselves”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So many people gravitate to the extremes. For some, this means love of the world at the expense of their walk with Christ. They can’t get over their habits. They can’t reject addiction. They can’t break off their relationship with materialism, pride, and selfishness. They might be heard saying things like “Don’t judge,” “Nobody is perfect,” or “I’m not into legalism.”

For others, they love their “Christian” life more than their “real” life. They just want emotional spirituality without having to worry about getting their hands dirty. They ignore the fate of their unbelieving friends in the name of keeping themselves “pure.” They scoff at certain activities, labeling them “worldly” so they can rally behind others in ostracizing those who practice them. They might be heard saying things like, “Don’t be conformed to the world,” “I can’t stand people like that,” or “I’m trying to be more heavenly minded.”

“There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ. . . . [T]he theme of two realms, which has dominated the history of the church again and again, is foreign to the New Testament.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As the YouTube channel Blimey Cow once said, “Your real life is your spiritual life, and both are going to be awful until you realize that they’re not separate things.” Obsessing over Christian culture and religion to the exclusion of obedient action for Christ is sin. Obsessing over the world and amusement to the exclusion of obedient action for Christ is sin. It boils down to the object of your worship. God doesn’t care what it is; if it’s lower than him, it has to go.

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

John 17:15-19 (ESV)

Here, we witness our Lord and Savior speaking to the Father. He prays that we are kept from sin, sanctified in God’s truth. Yet he also says we are sent into the world. Here, the two realities meet in perfect harmony. We are in the world, yet not of the world. Perhaps even this phrase requires some deconstruction, as David Mathis proposes. Ultimately, we ought to imitate Christ in our actions, pursuing truth and holiness. This should lead us towards the world, not away from it. We should see the broken chaos around us and feel a deep desire to be the hands and feet of Christ to those among it. We should step out in faith, without fear.

“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

James 1:25 (ESV)

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Enter your email if you want to be notified when my next post goes live. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.

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The American Christian’s Idol of Freedom

This week’s post will be shorter, as I’m busy with a few things at the moment, one of which is teaching a Sunday School class at my church about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was killed for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. As I’ve read about this fascinating figure, I’ve grown to fall in love with his approach to theology, his unwavering commitment to Christ, and his demand for action on behalf of faith.

Before Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer visited America. The land of the free impressed upon him a number of contemplations. Here is one.

“Freedom as a possession is a doubtful thing for a church; freedom must be won under the compulsion of a necessity. Freedom for the church comes from the necessity of the Word of God. Otherwise it becomes arbitrariness and ends in a great many new ties. Whether the church in America is really ‘free,’ I doubt. They are lonely Sundays over here. Only the Word makes a true community.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What I take from this is that Bonhoeffer was annoyed at how highly American churches valued the ethereal concept of “freedom.” The term carries with it the weight and potential of nationalism, for one. Such ties are not of Christ and can only lead away from the truth. As Americans, it’s all too easy to feel a holy sense of entitlement to freedom. But as Christians, the only freedom we are promised is freedom in Christ from the bondage of sin.

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.'”

John 8:31-32, 36 (ESV)

We can see that we’re offered spiritual freedom in Christ, but what does the Bible say about physical freedom? It’s important to remember our identity. To think of ourselves as “Americans” is earthly and temporary. We are truly citizens of the kingdom of heaven (Phil 3:20), and Christ tells us what to expect.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”

John 15:18-20 (ESV)

The idea that American Christians deserve physical freedom is undoubtedly extra-biblical. We are promised opposition, not freedom. We are promised God’s loving discipline and the shaping of character through hardships of all kinds, not comfort or safety.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33b (ESV)

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

2 Corinthians 12:10 (ESV)

It is a trap to pursue earthly freedom above the Word of God. Our chains are not physical. Many a red-blooded American lies upon their bed this night as free as any man has been in a thousand years on this earth, yet bound ever tighter to their pride, their lust, their gluttony, their greed, their adultery.

Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and hanged for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler. This is what was said of him at his end.

“I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

H. Fischer-Hüllstrung

When he saw the path God set before him, Bonhoeffer gave up his high status in Germany, his reputation in the church, and his personal safety to do what had to be done. He valued his usefulness to God far above his earthly freedom. Yet he was free.

Choose this day to look down at your wrists and see the cuffs keeping you captive. Back away from the bars and see just how small your cell is. Our only hope is to open our eyes to our sin and repent, lest we be lulled into a slumber where our flesh keeps us tied to the depths of hell.

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”

Romans 6:6-7 (ESV)

Let me know your thoughts on Bonhoeffer in the comments below. Enter your email if you want to be notified when my next post goes live. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.

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