Churchless Christians?

Do I need to go to church to be a Christian?

Answer: Yes you do.

An unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation is that there is a separation and space between the realities of “church” and “Christian” for many people. For 500 years a wedge has been pushed between church and Christian, such that for many Christians, church is an optional extra to their spiritual life. The legitimate argument that true believers could break from the Roman Catholic Church and form alternative protest churches has over five centuries morphed into the claim that Christians don’t need any church.

I suspect that much of the contemporary angst about church amongst Christians is not much more than our culture’s view of church being recycled and repeated by insiders.

Our culture takes a dim view of authoritarian organisations. It prizes the authenticity of the individual. And it doesn’t like religion.

And so it comes as no surprise to hear Christians decrying the institution of church, favouring personal autonomy, and expressing a more “informal faith” (which looks remarkably like staying home or going to the beach or playing sport).

This graph captures some Australian research(1) about the perceived importance of church among those who attend and those who don’t attend church. (Yes, it’s not New Zealand, but it is a bit more like us than U.S. stats):

Nearly half the people who go to church regularly (Frequent Attenders) are not convinced that church is a necessity. So this is a big problem! Secondly, the Infrequent Attenders express the same low view of church as people who don’t go at all. In others words, our culture’s view of the low importance of church taints the view of many Christians.

The long-term effects of disassociating yourself from church are catastrophic for Christian belief:

The research shows that the longer a person separates themselves from church the less orthodox their beliefs become. The longer a person is away from church the less they look and sound like a real Christian.

In other words, church keeps most people Christian; it sustains and nurtures their Christian beliefs.

I haven’t given much theological rationale for the essential place of church in the Christian life, for example; that Jesus is building his church; that it is the wedding feast of the Lamb and the Bride we see in Revelation; that the New Testament is largely addressed to congregations of believers; that it is a congregation that recognises and authenticates my individual profession of faith through baptism and the Lord’s supper; and of course, the simple command of Hebrews 10:25, “don’t give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing”.

I haven’t majored on those arguments because I don’t think our problem is a lack of biblical instructions or illustrations. Rather, we have adopted our culture’s view of church, which suits our own sinfulness.

I suspect that if you are reading this then you’re not one of the exceptions: you are not trapped on a desert island; you are not a thief dying on a cross; you are not home-bound because of age or sickness.

So, if you want to call yourself a Christian, here’s one more reason that you do need to be going to church.

(1) Australian research from “Exploring Effective Ministry under God” presentation (http://www.effectiveministry.org) drawing from the Australian Community Survey 1998.

17 comments

  1. Really enjoyed yr blog here. I have to disagree in part with yr terminology tho. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian…. (sound familiar).. it is quoted quite a bit, (usually as an excuse not to go to church funnily enough) but its true. Anything we ‘do’ doesn’t make us a Christian. Jesus said.. it is by grace you are saved, not by works… and that includes church. But, obviously church is important otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have told us to not stop meeting with the brethren. I hear what you are saying, and really found the cultural bit interesting., but too many Christians try to maintain their faith by ‘living right’ and ‘striving’ , and I guess yr statement just adds to that. The question is rather….. what is missing in church that people don’t happily get out of bed in the morning in anticipation?…. rather, they drag themselves out feeling they have to go. How can we change that thinking I wonder?

  2. Thanks Paul. Your stats quantify the arrogance of the foot saying “since I’m not a hand, I don’t need the body” (cf 1 Corinthians 12:15) in a starkly and disturbingly but helpful way. Even if they come to church (when it suits them) so many retain their individualism. Church is about “What can I get?” and no longer “How can I serve?” That is certainly “our culture’s view of church being recycled and repeated by insiders.”

    I’m not so sure though that the space between church and Christian is a consequence of the Reformation. While 16th and 17th Century Protestant churches emphasised the priesthood of all believers they also had a strong sense of Christians being saved into the body of Christ.

    But contemporary church life (reflecting contemporary culture) is so focused on individualism (“Does this make me happy?” “What space am I given to exercise my gifts?” “Let me express myself in worship.” “I must respond to what I feel.”) that it’s a miracle of God’s grace that any church services involving sacrifice, putting others first, focusing on God instead of felt needs, actually take place.

    Thank God that despite “casual Sunday” the gates of hell shall not prevail.

  3. Thanks Paul – you’ve provided us with a veritable feast here to digest (graphs too…whoah). My take on the cultural perspective here in Aotearoa is that we kiwis are genealogically predisposed to anti authoritarianism. Whether our ancestral homeland was Hawaiki or Bedfordshire – the predominant heritage is of a people who came here for a new start – implicit in that is that the authority in our ancestral homeland was not much chop (we left for a reason). Consequently we are pretty keen to do things ourselves – commonly called the “number 8 fencing wire” or “she’ll be right” mentality……..and we hold a deep seated suspicion of authority….(that’s my rough and ready take).

    Michael – I think I agree with your comment regarding the reformation – (sorry Paul)

    Tracey – I agree with the sentiment of what you are saying – I do wonder whether that is the question to be asking though…..beer and german sausages sprung to mind for me…and I know that’s the wrong answer…

    I guess the ultimate response like Michael said is that if you’re a Christian you are in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12) – you are given gifts to be used to serve in a collective way for the glory of God…if you’re not involved in some sort of fellowship….your not doing that.

  4. The word “church” in Greek (the language used in the writing of the New Testament) is ekklesia derived from a root meaning “called out”. So it means “the called out ones of God” i.e Christians. Going to a “church” is ok if you can find one that has Biblical leadership, but this is rarely found these days! It doesn’t matter anyway because God knows who are His: they hear His voice and He is fully able to save and sancify them even if they don’t go to a “church”. Check the Bible if you don’t believe this!

  5. HI Tracey
    I’m glad you like the blog. I thought I was being very careful to not say “Going to church makes you a Christian.” That is clearly not the case, athough hopefully going to church does help someone to become a follower of Christ.

    The wheel-barrow I’m pushing here is: Christians go to church. And if you are not going to church then I think the question should be asked: “Are you a Christian?”

    I think if people are primarily focussed on “is what’s happenening at church good enough/interesting enough/useful/relevant etc.” they should remember that that view of church is the view of non-Christians, who think church is boring and irrelevant. A consumerist approach to church seems light-years away from how the New Testament apostles speak of church.

  6. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for pushing us to be reading the scriptures carefully! However, we need to be careful not to determine the meaning of a word simply from its supposed ‘root’ (this is called the etymological fallacy). The word ‘ekklesia’ can in fact just mean ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly of people’. For example, it’s used in Acts 19:32 to refer to the riot gathered in the town square at Ephesus. So the word by itself doesn’t necessarily carry the spiritual connotations you suggest.

    In the New Testament ‘church’ can indeed refer to the spiritual reality of all those belonging to Christ (e.g. Matthew 16:18). But more often than this, it refers to an actual group of Christians who meet together as an expression of this spiritual reality (Galatians 1:2).

    I do appreciate your point that God is able to save and sanctify his elect in any way he chooses. However, the normal way God does this is through the ministry of churches – no matter how flawed they or their leadership happens to be. The Reformers surely got it right when they said, as long as the Gospel is heard through Word and sacrament, there is a true church. That is why church is the place God works in believers for their sanctification, perseverance, and salvation.

  7. Hi Michael
    I couldn’t agree with you more about the need for believers to see themselves dependant on others, as well as recognising that they having something essential to contribute to the congregation.

    My Reformation hypothesis came from thinking about the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not exactly sure how Protestants are viewed today, but historically it was a simple formula: if you are outside the RCC then you are a lost soul.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that believers in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t have a strong view of belonging to church. But what began as a trickle has mushroomed in to the multitude of denominations we have today. I can think of some good reasons for them, but there are also some poor excuses for the plethora of church brands around today.

    I do wonder if the experience of driving past ten churches that I think are “wrong” to get to “my” church, opens the door for opting out of any of them because I get a bee in my bonnet and conclude they are all “wrong”?

    I wonder if the perpetual divisions and departures, schisms and splits, opens the door to arriving at the conclusion that I am OK in a “church” that has an exclusive membership of me, myself and I?

  8. Hi William

    I also wonder if New Zealand is worse than Australia with regard to the place of Christianity in society, and the view of Church held by people on this side of the Tasman?

  9. Hi Cam

    Individualism gets a good work-out in Western culture in general, and you make the case that Kiwis push it just that little bit further.

    Which means that here in New Zealand a critical application of the gospel to our lives needs to be countering that lone-ranger view of Christian faith. That go-it-alone pioneering spirit which is commended in our national heroes is not the picture we’re given in the New Testament.

    Stand-out champions for the faith like the Apostle Paul were deeply invested in forming believers into churches. And even when he was on the road, starting a fresh work in a new town he wasn’t alone. Apparently, there are something like 80 names that crop-up in the New Testament as people associated with Paul, those who helped him in the work.

  10. Hi Andrew

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion. Scott covered off a number of things I might have said. The only additional thought I had was in response to your statement about God knowing who are his and being able to save and sanctify them. I completely agree with you about God being able to do his sovereign work.

    My question is whether I can know that I am saved? How do I know that I belong to God? Because if it is possible that some people can be deceived about their faith (e.g. Matthew 7:21-23), then I am helped if there are some means to test whether I truly have found Christ.

    Now, I would be the first to say that church is not an infallible means for determining true faith. Nevertheless, I do think that is one of its roles.

    So for example, it is the church that baptises someone who has become a Christian. The congregation of believers affirms the faith that they hear and see in the convert when they baptise. Likewise, one of the functions of the Lord’s Supper is to signify a continuing profession of faith. It is to join with other Christians and together proclaim the Lord’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26), that is, to affirm that we are still following and trusting in Christ.

    Neither Baptism nor the Lord’s Supper are infallible proofs of conversion. But these corporate expressions of faith can helpfully contribute to my confidence that I am indeed a child of God.

  11. While I think the New Testament allows for a certain amount of freedom as to what churches look like, it certainly envisions all believers being part of a church. (By “church”, I at least mean a regular gathering of Christians to serve and minister to one another. Churches are more than this, but not less).

    One interesting verse, I think, is 1 John 4:20. John is writing to a gathering of Christians reminding them of the priority of loving one another. “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen”.

    How do we “love” our Christian brothers and sisters? Is it simply a warm feeling we have towards people we refuse to meet with regularly? Or is it the hard work of loving, serving, caring for people who can be quite different from us, yet they also love Christ? I think our love for other believers demands we meet with them and minister to them regularly. If John’s logic is understood rightly, this love for others is also evidence of our love toward God.

    In my experience (not necessarily reliable data!) some Christians give up on church because of hurts, disagreements or abuse from others. It is interesting to think about how we can help people forgive and seek reconciliation as part of our desire to see them return to the gathering of believers.

  12. Thanks Rob – good point. Individualism may not be the only reason people – especially those hurt by the established church – are shy of us. We can identify cultural influences that can influence many (I agreed with Paul, NZrs are as a “people” very independent and anti-authoritarian – just look at the history of NZ troops under English officers) , but there are other influences as well. Those who isolate themselves might need more compassion than correction.

  13. It’s always impressed me that God calls for submission in church fellowship: to leaders and fellow members. “Submission” wouldn’t be needed if we found the leadership and membership totally to our taste! The Corinthian church was pretty far gone – leaders and members alike – but it’s to them the Apostle Paul gives some of his clearest instruction about submission, serving one another, being part of (an unattractive?) church. It can be hard to find a church which has leaders we agree with (and therefore in practice don’t have to submit to?) or whose members are perfect. But if we are Christ’s he has made us part of his church and he has made local churches like the Corinthian church his chosen manifestation of his body. I’m thankful I’ve been blessed with a church whose fellowship I genuinely treasure, but I am also aware there are situations in which there may be no options for faithful Christians for a time. Yet to dissociate ourselves from Christ’s chosen way long-term could come close to dissociating ourselves from Christ. It’s never a situation we can settle with.

  14. Thanks for the post Paul – Agreed, Christianity in a bubble doesn’t look like anything we see of early believers. Additionally, when we consider active gathering with a group of believers outside of biblical instruction it’s still easy to pile up good reasons.

    I think the reverse is also worth considering…. “Churched non-Christians”. Going through the motions of church for whatever reason (friends, cool performance, good coffee…)

    One timely example is in the USA (*outsider looking in*), where you’ve got a sort of “political Christianity”. (ex: any prospective president pulling out the faith card, but in action – not behaving like a Christian at all).

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