Have you ever heard someone say this? "Don't go to church. Be the church!" Interestingly, I recently heard this from Christians who were both theologically liberal and conservative (and how often does that happen?!?). This statement is catchy—but is it true? If so, does "going to church" even matter anymore?
In the coming weeks, I'm going to make the case that going to church isn't optional for followers of Jesus. Also, I'm going to write about the costly yet beautiful things that only happen when Christians gather in a local church. This is my case for "going to church."
Where Did You Go?
First, a little context. Across the country, pastors have shared with me the reality that fewer people are attending church, and of the people who do attend, they do so less frequently. Weekly church attendance has declined to 2-3 times per month. Monthly attendance has fallen to once every 6-8 weeks or less, and so on. I've seen this trend as well. To be fair, this is part of a broader cultural shift. It's hard to get people to leave the house for any reason. Fewer people attend movies and concerts, join clubs, participate in local government, etc.
Why is church attendance less frequent? There are numerous factors, from busyness and increased mobility, to scandals and bad theology, and more. But one thing's for sure; it's much easier and more comfortable to download worship content (sermons and worship music) while we run on the treadmill of life (or on an actual treadmill) than to go to worship in a local congregation—in all it's sometimes awkward glory.
So is this trend just a change in cultural preference (a new normal?) or are there Biblical reasons to prioritize church attendance that may be increasingly countercultural? There's much to say, so let's begin.
Why We Should Be The Church
"Being the church" focuses on the fact that our Christian faith is rooted in our identity in Christ (being the church) and not in what we do (going to church). Having dinner with people doesn't make them a family. But often, families have dinner together. Why? Because they are families! Activity flows naturally out of identity. This is both helpful and Biblical in understanding the church.
Maybe more accurately, the "be the church" slogan puts our being/identity and doing/activity in the right order. Our actions (worship, service, generosity, love, justice, forgiveness, etc.) are supposed to flow out of our identity in Christ, not the other way around. For these reasons and more, we should not hesitate to "be the church!"
Why We Should STILL Go To Church
At the same time, Christians should absolutely still go to church. Meaning, Christians should faithfully, regularly gather in-person for worship as a local church. Why? Certain things only happen when people are together. You can have 1,000 friends on Facebook and still be lonely. There are certain aspects of our relationships that are impossible to replicate online.
Relationships are foundational to the Christian faith. The relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit form the basis of all reality. When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." (Mt 22:37-39).
How good would my relationship be with my family if I never saw them, spent time with them, or talked with them? How healthy would our family be if we never had dinner together, went on vacation together, or demonstrated our love for each other? Technically, they'd still be my family, but I'd need a DNA test to prove it!
The church is the family of God formed by faith in Christ. So followers of Jesus ought to regularly gather in-person as a local church—a family of faith. The more time we have together, the more opportunities we have to strengthen our relationships with God and one another. The more often we gather in-person, the more we love one another, the more healthy our family will be. Maintaining weak relational ties to God and your brothers and sisters in Christ is the context for defeat, not victory.
So how about you? Are you willing to commit the time to be with your family? Are you willing to sacrifice your preferences at times to be with your family? Are you willing to let your activity flow out of your identity as a member of a family? Are you willing to let your guard down enough so that others can know you, love you, and help you follow Jesus? I pray you do. This is what you were created for and it really is the best way to live.
In subsequent blogs, I will unpack four purposes of the local church: worship, community, ministry, and mission. In the meantime, why do you go to church?