Is it possible to steer clear of church and still be a good Christian? Many people would say yes to that question, and perhaps you would agree. You believe in God; you pray once in a while; you consider yourself a Christian; but you feel you can get along just fine without church. The important thing is how you relate to God, not how you relate to church. Right?
Is it possible to steer clear of church and still be a good Christian? Not if God knows what he's talking about. God's Word, the Bible, shows again and again that when people belong to Christ, they also belong to his church and are deeply involved in the life of the church. So if you think you can be a good Christian without the church, you're saying that you know better than God. And that's not a very bright thing to do.
I've come across a lot of different reasons that people have for staying away from church. Some of you feel you have no other choice. You feel you have to work Sundays. If you don't, you fear that you could lose your job. Going to church and praising God may be fine, but going to work and pleasing your boss is what pays the bills. God will understand, won't he?
Others of you don't spend Sunday on the job, but you want to get some extra sleep on Sunday mornings. Or you want to cut the grass and wash the car. Or you want to go shopping. Or you plan your whole weekend around a trip to the beach or a round of golf or a sports event. Taking time out to go to church could mess up your weekend plans.
Still others of you stay away from church because a member of the church or one of its leaders did something that really turned you off. You figure, "If that's what the church is like, who needs it?" You want nothing to do with your old church, and you're not eager to find another one, either. Why hang around with a bunch of hypocrites, when you can follow God on your own?
Maybe you stay away from church because you feel just plain uncomfortable there. If you try going to church some Sunday, you feel out of place. Everybody but you seems to know when to stand up and when to sit down. Everybody there seems to know each other, but you don't know a soul, and hardly anyone talks with you or makes you feel welcome. Why go back to a situation that makes you feel so awkward?
Or maybe you have a very different reason for feeling awkward and staying away from church. You've belonged to a church for years. You know most of the people, and they know you. Then you go through marriage problems and divorce, or you go through something else that makes you feel guilty and embarrassed, and you can't bear to face all those people. You'd rather steer clear of the church.
Those are just some of the reasons why people say they stay away from church. But in a way, these are beside the point. No matter what your reason for staying away, the first question you need to deal with is: Are there any good reasons for going? If nothing important happens in church, then almost any activity is better than wasting your time there. If there aren't any strong reasons for going, then the flimsiest excuse is reason enough to stay away. On the other hand, if the reasons in favor of church are strong enough, then you really have no choice but to get involved, no matter what your reasons have been for staying away.
If you think faith is purely private, a "me and Jesus" thing, you're fooling yourself. You might ask, "Who says you need church to be a good Christian? Who says so?" Well, God says so. Just look at some of the ways that God describes the church in the Bible.
The Bible calls the church God's household (Eph. 2:19), God's family (Eph. 3:14-15). It is home for all who belong to God. So if you stay away from the church, you're either running away from home or you're not part of God's family at all.
The Bible speaks of the church as the bride of Christ. The Lord sees in her a beauty that becomes more and more radiant. He shares with her a deep love and intimacy. The church is more precious to Christ than a bride to her husband. If you despise the church and want nothing to do with it, your attitude is at odds with Jesus.
The Bible also calls the church the body of Christ. Each Christian is a part of that body. Obviously, for any body part to be alive and active, it must be connected to the body, and so each Christian must be connected to the church. As the body of Christ, the church is alive with the Spirit of Christ and carries on the work of Jesus in the world.
God himself calls us to be part of his church, not only to see the beauty of Jesus, who embodies God in human flesh, but also to see and take part in the beauty of the church, where flesh-and-blood people live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Why church? Because it's the family of God, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ. Even at its ugliest, even when it is least attractive, any genuine church has in it a beauty and a power you can't find apart from the church. Why church? Because God says so. Why church? Because you and I need it.
The Bible makes it clear that when people put their faith in Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, they don't just go their separate ways to do their own thing. No, they become part of the church through baptism. Baptism is the sign and seal of being washed in Jesus' blood and being raised again to new life. Baptism also marks people as new members of the church. Through baptism, they are added to the community of believers.
The Bible says in Acts 2:42 that in the time shortly after Jesus' resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, newly baptized people "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). In just that one sentence, we have a superb fourfold answer to the question, "Why church?" First, for teaching. Second, for fellowship. Third, for breaking bread. Fourth, for prayer.
Why church? First, because church is where we can devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching. In the time of the New Testament church, the apostles were present in person to teach the new believers. Today, the apostles have died and gone to heaven, but they still teach us through their God-inspired writings recorded in the Bible.
The apostles teach us about Jesus-who he is, what he did, and what he taught. They teach us the great plans and purposes of God as they have unfolded in the history of salvation. They teach us what it means to follow Christ in our own life and situation. Every church that is truly Christian rings with the teaching of the apostles. Every church that is truly Christian stands on the Bible. A church cannot stand on a few pleasant ideas or scholarly suggestions. The church's foundation is the apostles' teaching, which comes from Christ and reveals Christ.
The Bible says we are "members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph. 2:19-20). To build our lives on truth, we need "God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
You may be thinking, "Okay, so maybe I do need the apostles' teaching. But why church? Why not just read the Bible on my own, or listen to Bible-based programs on radio and TV?" Well, I'm certainly in favor of Bible reading; I'll even send you a free devotional booklet to help you do that each day, if you want. And obviously, I'm not against media ministry, or I wouldn't be talking on the radio right now.
But to get the full benefit of the apostles' teaching, don't just listen to broadcasts. Be involved in a congregation in your community. There is something about just being together with God's people in a place of worship that brings a special sense of God's presence. The people praise God together, and together they confess their need for God to forgive their sins. The preacher speaks with special authority and the people listen with special openness. In a local church, the minister applies the Bible's teaching to the needs of a particular community and congregation in a way that a media ministry can't.
What's more, when you have questions about God's Word, or personal problems that you're wrestling with, your pastor or another fellow Christian can talk with you face-to-face about those needs. You have opportunities in a local congregation for Bible discussion groups and for personal conversations about how the apostles' teaching should affect your life. You can't get this just studying on your own or listening to someone like me. You need to be an active part of your local church.
Now let's consider the second vital aspect of the church: the fellowship. Church is the special community where we share in the fellowship of believers.
I remember talking with a man who stopped going to church because he was upset with his local congregation. He stayed home Sundays and watched a preacher on TV. When I urged him not to cut himself off from his church, he said, "I get what I need by watching the TV minister."
Later, we spoke together again. His son had been killed in a tragic accident. The grieving father found that there are some things you don't get by watching TV. The TV preacher wasn't there in his home to embrace him and pray with him and speak words of hope and comfort. The TV screen doesn't weep with those who weep. The only ones who could give this man the support he needed were the pastor and people of his church.
Here at the Back to God Hour, we hear from a lot of people facing difficulties. It's sad that many of them have no church. We're glad they contact us, and we try to help them as we talk on the phone or write back to them. But we know that we can only do so much. There's no way we can replace the fellowship of a local church. And so we're constantly encouraging people to get into the church. When you're facing a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one, or financial problems, or a family crisis, you don't just need good advice over the airwaves. You need people who are right there, Christian brothers and sisters who can support you in tough times.
I know that the church has its faults, that the fellowship is often far from perfect. After all, the church is a fellowship of sinners who still have plenty of changing to do. The people don't always get along very well. But I also know that when the going gets tough, the people pull together to support the one who is hurting. Time and again I've heard people facing a crisis tell me, "Now I really know what the communion of the saints is. I don't know how I would have made it without the prayers and support of the people in my church."
The church's fellowship does more than just get us through times of crisis. Christians devote themselves to fellowship because in the church the whole is greater than the parts. Like a body, the church has many parts, each with its own unique function.
You might think that the things you're gifted at aren't as important to the church as the things other people are good at. But according to the Bible, that's no way to look at it. Wouldn't it be crazy if a foot said, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," or if the ear said, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body"? What if the body were one big eyeball? It would be grotesque-and how would it hear? What if it were one big ear? How would it smell? It's a good thing God gave the body many different parts and arranged them the way he wanted.
The same applies to the church. God brings together many unique individuals, who are gifted in many different ways. If you're a Christian, but you think the church can do just fine without you, think again. Every part is important.
The church needs you, and you need the church. As the Bible puts it, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!'" So it would be totally insane for one part to say to the entire body, "I don't need you." What happens when a part is amputated from the body? It soon dies and decays. If you say to the body of Christ, "I don't need you. I can do just fine on my own," your soul will decay. To live and grow, you need to be part of the body.
You need the church, and the church needs you. Every part needs the others. If one part suffers, they all suffer. If one part flourishes, the others benefit. That's how God designed our physical bodies, and that's how he designed the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). It's not just "me and Jesus." It's "we and Jesus." When Christians devote themselves to the fellowship, they all benefit from each other's God-given abilities, and they accomplish many things as a group that they couldn't do as individuals.
We also need the fellowship so we can be accountable to each other. Call it positive peer pressure, if you will. The world is full of negative peer pressure, but the church can provide positive peer pressure. As the Bible says, "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another" (Heb. 10:24-25). When we get tired and discouraged in trying to follow Christ, we need a boost from others. When we fall into sin and bad habits, we need to be confronted by others. This involves more than just showing up for Sunday services, of course. It means really getting to know one another, often in the setting of small groups or close friendships. It means placing ourselves under the authority of the church, rather than simply doing our own thing.
The church is a setting for loving fellowship, where we can stop thinking only about ourselves and start loving others as Christ has loved us. Jesus says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).
Why church? So far we've talked about hearing the apostles' teaching and experiencing the loving fellowship of God's people. Now let's look at a third reason: the breaking of bread. In church God's people gather around the table of the Lord for the Holy Supper. As we eat bread broken from a loaf, we participate in the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, broken for our salvation. As we drink wine, we drink in the blood of Christ, poured out to give us life.
A living faith isn't just a matter of thinking about Jesus. A living faith feasts on Jesus, again and again and again. Jesus said, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (John 6:54-56). The Lord's Supper isn't just a visual aid or a meaningless ritual. It's a spiritual feast, and we can't afford to miss it.
Why church? Because it is there, gathered around the table of the Lord, that we find Jesus coming to us and giving us his body and blood to nourish our souls for eternal life. He doesn't come physically, but he does come really, by his Holy Spirit. As our mouths take in bread and wine, our souls take in the living Christ and the benefits of his body and blood given for us.
The fourth and final activity mentioned in Acts 2:42 is prayer. The Christians in the New Testament church got together to pray. You might wonder, "Why go to church to pray? I can pray by myself just fine." Well, it's true that personal prayer is important and that you can pray anytime, anywhere. But praying together with others is also important. When God's people come together, whether as a large congregation or in a small prayer meeting, their prayers take on added power. Jesus said, "I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matt. 18:19-20). Why church? Because there God's people pray together with one heart and praise God together with one voice.
Listen again to Acts 2:42. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). That's what the earlier Christians did together as a church, and that's a good summary of why you and I need to involve ourselves in the church still today.
Acts 2 goes on to tell about the dynamism in that church. There were great miracles taking place. Christians were selling their goods to share with fellow believers who didn't have enough. Every day they were praising God in the temple and enjoying each other's company in their homes. And the Lord kept adding to their number those who were being saved.
And still today, whatever its faults may be-and there are many-a truly Christian congregation is a setting where God's power is at work in amazing ways, where God's people give of themselves to help others, and where they bring joy to each other's hearts and to God. Why church? Because it's dynamic. It's where supernatural and splendid things happen.
When you read about the New Testament church, you might be tempted to say, "Oh, I'd love to go to a church like that, but churches today-well, they just don't have what it takes." But don't kid yourself. If you read the Bible, you find that the church back then struggled with its own problems and scandals, and if you look honestly at the church today, you'll find it's not as bad as you'd like to think when you're looking for excuses not to be involved. There may be some churches that are so corrupt and so unbiblical that you're better off staying away, but that doesn't mean you can't find an authentic church.
Every church has its problems, of course, even those where God is very much at work. But look at it another way: if the people of the church were all perfect, they might not want sinners like you and me to join it and spoil it. Be glad the church isn't too good for you, and don't act like you're too good to join the saved sinners who are in the church.
Don't pretend you've got better things to do. There's nothing more important than devoting yourself to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Try it. Find a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring church, and stick with it. You'll be amazed what happens.
The author, who is the radio minister for the Back to God Hour, broadcast this message on November 26, 2000. He quotes the NIV. Reprinted with permission of the Back to God Hour of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 6555 West College Drive, Palos Heights, IL 60463. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2003.