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.