"Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?" Usually this question, although expressed in a wide variety of terms, is attacking the church and/or questioning its necessity. There is a great confusion about the word 'church' and sometimes it is helpful to point out the ambiguities. Sometimes the question is asked with emotional overtones caused by unpleasant events. Generally people have specific complaints to be made about 'church'.
What is the church?
A Church is a gathering of Christians meeting with Jesus, who promised that he would be present when two or three gather in his name. The gathered believers worship Jesus by hearing him in the reading and exposition of the Bible, praying to him, thanking, praising and confessing him. Unity (love, fellowship....) with God and the other members of the church, along with an expanded knowledge of the will of God, are the main results of the meeting. So it is the assembly itself that is the church and it exists so that people who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour might be encouraged and strengthened by meeting together with like-minded people and be informed by the teaching of God's word. It also exists to display to mankind the reality of God's intervention in the world in Jesus Christ. That is, it is a little piece of heaven on earth.
It is therefore important for Christians to meet together. This is why the Bible says "do not forsake the meeting together of God's people". It is probably true to say that not all people who go to church are Christians, but that most Christians do go to church. There may be times when circumstances force us to stay away for an interval, but it is usually only be a temporary situation.
The church is not
i] Institution - like all humans we need organizations to regulate, and in many cases these organizations become top heavy, bureaucratic, worldly. It is the nature of mankind.
ii] Denomination - the divisions in Christianity are a very sad product of history. They arise out of differences of opinion. Christians today are seeking to heal the divisions. Bigotry now is often confined to religious people who do not attend church.
iii] Church Building - It is the special place where Christians meet, but it is not the church.
iv] Missionary organization - This false understanding of church is usually only confined to believers. Non-church attenders are not usually aware of such fine distinctions. Within Evangelical circles there has always been a tendency to oscillate between church as a fellowship of believers or a missionary team. A church can organise itself as a missionary team, it can use the infrastructure of denominational institution for evangelistic purposes, but church is not an evangelistic organization. It is indeed a fellowship of believers meeting for the purpose of worshipping Christ.
An answer to the question
i] Of course it is possible to be a Christian without going to church, just as it is possible to be a footballer without playing football, or a school pupil without going to school, or a typist without typing. If you have a car accident or are marooned on a desert island you don't cease to be a Christian because you can't get to church, any more than you cease to be a school pupil or a typist or a footballer........
ii] Christians have different sets of values and attitudes from non-christians. As Christians are people who submit themselves to God, they want to get together with fellow believers to teach, study, learn and discuss the word of God and to encourage each other in prayer and fellowship. Where else can Christians find such things?
iii] It is true that there are many things wrong with 'the church'. Not going doesn't solve them.
a) A church and its denominational and institutional structure might be abused by some, but that doesn't mean that the system itself is rotten, eg. the university is full of hypocrites, but we still go.
b) Granted that 'the church' has many failings, what other alternatives have you to offer? For example, the sermons might be a bit boring, but where else can you go to hear the word of God and meet with Christians? The service might be a bit conservative/staid, but you know what it's like trying to please all the people all the time. Sure there's a great problem with church wealth, but what are you to do when people give the organization vast sums to administer? What is better, to give away money or invest it and give away the proceeds?
iv] A church is simply a meeting of Christians for fellowship and the understanding God's word. If you think that's important then you should be coming to church.
Note: Be careful with the term "worship centre" for a church. People will often respond, "I can worship God in the open air, amongst the trees, more adequately than following through some service book."
Answer - "Yes I reckon I can too, but I can't be encouraged and strengthened by fellow Christians sitting in a car watching the trees flash by, nor can I learn much about God that way."
Index of studies. Resource file.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons