The main reason has to do with community. We Americans love individualism (“I can do it myself!”), but Christianity was always intended to be a faith of individuals inextricably linked in community. This is true to the point that it might even be possible to successfully argue that if someone is not part of community of faith, they do not belong to Christ. In Biblical language, one could say…
If you are not part of the Body of Christ, you have no part in Christ (1 Cor. 12.27).
If you are not one of the living stones, you’re not part of the spiritual house (1 Pet. 2.5).
If you have given up meeting together, you’re declaring you can go it alone (Heb. 10.25).
Here’s the point: The teachings of Scripture expect us to be humble enough to belong to a church, helpful enough to contribute to the church, and hopeful enough to not desert the church. So, you should at least go if you have any humility from being united with Christ, any spirit of helpfulness towards other people, and any hope in what God is doing in the souls of people. Here are some more reasons:
1. The church is the furnace of relationships, and it’s really the only place to do what God has called us to do. Let me put it this way: the church can be a difficult place, and it was designed that way. By nature it’s an “anybody can come in” place. You don’t have to audition for it, qualify for it, submit a resume, get a certain degree, or anything. That’s the beauty of it: you can just GO. Anybody can come in. That’s the good news. But the bad part about it is that, well, anybody can come in: fakers, deceivers, liars, cheats, hypocrites, or anybody. Anybody can come in. It’s a melting pot of humanity. There’s no other place like it. So when Jesus teaches us to “love one another,” he also says, “Be a church together to learn how to do that.” Otherwise, you have your family, your friends (whom you pick), and your mates at work, whom you can ignore. But the church is where it all happens relationally. You can’t love God unless you figure out how to love people (1 Jn. 4.20). Welcome to church. Where else can you really learn forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love? Welcome to church. Church, just as much as the world, is the furnace where our faith is refined, and where we learn to live the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22-23; 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5.21-33 [esp. 32!] . You need church to really live out the Christian life. Without the church, you cannot learn the things of the Spirit.
2. Church is where we learn that we are a people together. Our faith is not just an individual journey, but a journey of community. We’re on the road of faith with others, and church is the only place to learn that. We learn to rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, share what we have with others, disciple others, teach and be taught, and to use our spiritual gifts for the strengthening of the church. Christianity is not just a “You and Me, Lord” kind of thing. We are the Body of Christ. God has put us together with other people for a reason, and to stay away is to defy the reason.
3. Church is where we worship together. Sure you can worship while walking in the woods. In the Old Testament, each family would come, make their sacrifice, and walk away. But when Jesus came, he said, “Not anymore.” When you come, all come together at the same time. Worship me as a group of people.” Our worship as a group helps us play out #1 above (learn to worship with the people who may be annoying you, hurting you, or ignoring you) and #2 (worshipping as a group reminds us every week that we move together as the people of God).
4. We benefit by having more than one person teach us. The Bible can be a complex book, and people have a natural tendency to hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see, and do what they want to do. For a person to be truly discipled and growing in their faith in any kind of a balanced way, they need more than one person discipling them. The church is the place God established to get that perspective and breadth.
5. We need to see experience the reconciling power of God that breaks down walls between individuals, people groups, ethnic groups, racial groups, generational groups, and economic groups. Have you heard the saying, “I love mankind; it’s the people I can’t stand”? People walk away from church because they feel that way. But it’s not God’s way: Eph. 2.14. He breaks down barriers.
I’ll say this: the people who say they love God, and are believers, but don’t go to church, don’t understand the teachings of Christ or the nature of their faith. Christianity is an individual faith that of necessity plays itself out in community, for even more reasons than what I said above (I didn’t even bring in spiritual gifts and other elements). Just as when James 2 says, “Your works don’t save you, but if you’re saved you’ll have works,” the Bible says you don’t have to go to church to be saved, but if you’re saved, you’ll go to church.
You may counter that the church is so messed up and hypocritical, you don’t want anything to do with it. Follow me down this path:
We have a picture in our heads of an ideal marriage; we dream about it, and we imagine ourselves in it. But the reality of life, no matter how good it is, is different than that, and we realize that every person has their flaws as well as their strengths, and putting two personalities together takes quite a bit of negotiation, compromise, and “real life” rather than “ideal life.” Putting TWO people together? Now imagine putting 200 together. Uh-huh.
We have a picture in our heads of an ideal family, and we think that maybe somewhere it might exist, where the parents always love each other and agree with each other, and the children are loving and obedient, and everybody gets along and is happy. But the reality of life, no matter how good it is, is different than that. We realize that parents disagree and are sometimes disagreeable, and that children in on a steep learning curve and are sometimes disagreeable, and putting multiple personalities together is a huge juggling act that has its ups and downs. Now put people together who aren’t related to each other and tied to each other by the family bond.
A person who wants to be a doctor, for instance, has this ideal in their head about helping people and keeping people alive. That does happen, of course, but that person quickly finds out about hospital politics, doctor egos, the hierarchy of power, meanness in personalities, contentious patients, and a world of other normal human behaviors that compromise the ideal of helping people. It’s all part of the picture of real life.
We have this picture in our heads of an ideal church, where the people love the Lord and are all spiritually mature, and not a single one thinks of themselves but lives for the Lord and to encourage the body of Christ. Everybody participates, and no one allows their personalities and personal preferences to interfere with the goals and processes of the community. But the reality of life, no matter how good it is, is different than that. Churches, by definition, have an open-door, open invitation policy of come-one, come-all. As I mentioned at the top of the study, you don’t have to get elected to the church, like a politician. You don’t have to qualify for it with a resume and references, like a business. You don’t have to audition, like a musician, or have try-outs, like a sports team. Anyone can come, any time. Now, that’s good thing, because if everyone had to qualify to be able to come, you’d scream foul: “What kind of church is that?!?” “I’m not good enough for that church.” “That church is like a country club for the elite.” But when people don’t have to qualify to come to church, you still scream foul. “It’s full of hypocrites!” That’s not exactly fair to scream at both options. Ultimately, the open-door policy is the one of love, but it’s also a difficult road.
Every person has their flaws as well as their strengths, and putting not only two, but 200 personalities together, it’s far from ideal. Jesus said the church is to be sort of like a hospital, where anybody can come. But if ANYBODY can come, then ANYBODY can come, and it’s full of sick people. Jesus said he wanted the people in need to come, as well as those who are able to give care, but then we complain that the church is full of needy people—they’re hypocrites! They don’t have their act together, and they don’t tell it straight or play it fair. Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If anybody can come, then that’s just what will happen, and it’s not fair to criticize it for being full of people who don’t qualify.
Jesus predicted the church would be a mess. In the parable of the wheat and weeds (Mt. 13.24-30, 36-43), he prophesied that the church would attract a lot of rabble, and that’s just what it has done. When you open the door so anyone can come in, you get the smart and the stupid, the poor and the rich, the serious and the spectators, the dedicated and the fakers, guys and girls, young and old, the real and the hypocritical. And if the church started throwing out the people who weren’t good enough, you’d scream foul. “This is a church! You can throw people out who don’t qualify!” The other choice is to work with the mess to help everyone who can possibly be helped. But then you can’t fairly criticize the church for being full of people who need help.
Have you seen the world lately? Politics is full of self-seeking, forked-tongued hypocrites. Our business leaders are hypocrites, advertising for the good of society while cheating us and lining their own pockets (but that doesn’t keep you from getting a job). Educators are hypocrites, protecting incompetence with the unions (but that doesn’t make you drop out and miss your education). The only way to avoid hypocrisy is to be a hermit. But you think the church should somehow be full of saints and only saints. After all, isn’t that the point, you’re probably thinking—that the church is a place where hypocrites are turned into saints? Yes, that is the point, and it’s long and faulty process. There are many successes, and many failures. That’s the reality. So don’t walk out the door in a huff. Realize the realities of life, and that, by design and necessity, it’s far from the ideal we would all like it to be.
Regardless, Jesus said, “Invest in it. It’s My family and yours, My blood-line, My body, and My work.”