“You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian,” it’s often said. And the answer is, “True!” After all, the man who was crucified alongside Jesus said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” There was certainly no chance for him to go to church, and yet he made it to heaven.
But of course, he was in rather exceptional circumstances; so basing an argument for not needing to go to church on his experience is exceptionally weak. In fact, it rather misses the whole point. Because going to church isn’t a duty or a burden; it’s a privilege and a joy.
Church isn’t a place that you go to, it’s a group of people that you are part of.
So let’s explore what’s wrong with saying, “I don’t need to go to church.”
A Wrong Assumption
First, saying “you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian” is based on a wrong assumption. Church isn’t a place that you go to, it’s a group of people that you are part of. People often use the word “church” today to mean a particular building (St. Peter’s Church) or denomination (the Anglican Church); but that’s not how it is used in the New Testament. There, “church” always means “the followers of Jesus”. In other words, “church” is a people not a place. This is reinforced by the pictures that are used of the church in the New Testament, like God’s family (e.g. Ephesians 2:19-22), Christ’s body (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31), or the Spirit’s Temple (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17), all of which not only underline the importance of “church” but also show that it is essentially a relational organism. Church is all about belonging—to God and to one another, and experiencing the benefits of that.
A Wrong Understanding
Second, saying “you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian” is based on a wrong understanding of what being a Christian is all about—that it’s simply about putting your faith in Jesus so you can get to heaven when you die.
If that were all that being a Christian is about, then clearly you can do that without the church. But while putting your faith in Jesus will certainly get you to heaven, the Bible says that this is only one small part of why Jesus came. The Bible tells us that, from the very beginning, God has been looking to build a family of faith for himself that will one day fill the whole earth (e.g. (Genesis 12:1-3) and that will work with him towards seeing it transformed; and the church is the main means that God uses to bring this about. So who wouldn’t want to be part of the biggest and most exciting thing that God is doing on the earth?
from the very beginning, God has been looking to build a family of faith for himself that will one day fill the whole earth
A Wrong Perspective
Third, the idea that you can be a Christian all on your own is built on an utterly wrong perspective, according to the New Testament. This “Lone Ranger” syndrome that says “I need no one else—just Jesus and me is enough” simply wouldn’t have computed in the minds of the first Christians. After all, they knew that Jesus himself had promised to build his church (“I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” Matthew 16:18) and “church” as the community of God’s people was the very first thing that Christians created after the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost (e.g. Acts 2:41-47).
Their Spirit-filled perspective was that they recognised their desperate need of one another for encouragement, support, prayer—and, yes, challenge. Very often one of the main reasons that “Lone Ranger” Christians don’t want to be part of a church today is that they don’t want to be challenged. They often settle for being “Internet Christians” because on the internet they can find people who will reinforce their own beliefs and practices and can carefully avoid anyone who might disturb their thinking or challenge their lifestyle. But all of us need disturbing and challenging at times because it’s all too easy to settle, become comfortable, and hold on to areas of life that we don’t want to change; but church is the family where, as we study the Bible together, we can love one another enough to ask one another the awkward questions and to help one another into the change that we often fear, yet the very change that Jesus calls us to.
A Wrong Avoidance
Very often, what really lies at the heart of someone saying they don’t need to go to church is not a theological or philosophical question, but an emotional one. They avoid church, thinking, “Why should I be part of a church when …”
“…it’s going to be boring.” Well, the truth is, some churches might be boring. But try another one! No one would consider never visiting a pub again because the first one they went to was cold or unwelcoming or the drinks weren’t great. They’d try the one down the road. Why should it be any different with church?
churches come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and characters
“…it won’t suit someone like me.” True enough, not every church will suit your character and personality. After all, some people love “smells and bells” and some hate them; some love organs and choirs and others prefer bands and singers; some like pews and others like chairs. But the great thing these days is that churches come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and characters; so there really will be one where you can feel totally at home. And if that isn't the first one you try, then try another.
“…it’s full of hypocrites” True! We Christians don’t always live up to what we proclaim, because we are all broken people. But at least give us a chance to show you that, good soundbite though this objection might be, the vast majority of Christians and churches know that they are broken and anything but perfect—which is why they need one another.
“…it’s hurt me in the past and I vowed never to be part of a church and let them hurt me again.” But isn’t that throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Church is made up of people; and people sometimes get things wrong, because we are all sinners. And following Jesus is about following his command to forgive those who offend us, not to cling on to the offence and use it as an excuse for years to come. So resolve to let your hurt go, or your hurt will never let you go. Ask Jesus to help you, and try again with a different church.
church is a community of people who are seeking to be followers of Jesus together
Whatever your reason for avoiding church, why not at least give it a chance? There’s a high likelihood that you will find your objection is based more in myth than reality. Try us out and test for yourself!
So, why go to church?
Because church is a community of people who are seeking to be followers of Jesus together; who are committed to support one another, pray for one another, help and encourage one another—and, yes, challenge one another to become more like Jesus. Church is both central to Jesus’ heart and Jesus’ plan. So why would anyone want to miss out on that?
And if you are exploring faith and what Jesus said, then church is the very best place to do it; because every single member of the church has had their own journey to Jesus. (They didn’t just wake up one day and find they were Christians!). So talking with them about their journey can help you on yours; and most churches these days run things like The Alpha Course or Christianity Explored which are designed to let people who are searching ask their questions, with absolutely no pressure. So why not try one?