It’s not uncommon to have an unpleasant church going experience or be turned off by the words, behaviors or attitudes of other Christians in your community. Flawed people often produce flawed results. The discomfort caused by such experiences can often lead us to ask the very simple question: “Do I really have to go to a church?” Visiting with friends over Sunday morning brunch is extremely enticing, especially when the church that you have visited numerous times can’t seem to remember your name. Getting a few things done around the house seems practical, especially when you didn’t really like last week’s sermon. So what of this question, do I have to go to a church? The simple answer is, “No, you don’t have to go to church.” But the truth is you should want to go, and in many ways we need to be there. We get a lot out of a meaningful engagement with the local church and we contribute a lot as well.
Unfortunately, some of us have been burned, shamed, guilt-tripped, abused, and a whole slew of other descriptions, by people in the church. These descriptions scare you, and the thought of entering a church building this coming Sunday freaks you out even more. In fact, you may have been out on your own for a long time and you feel confident that you don’t need the church. Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself, I want you to discover the beauty of the Bride of Christ (the local and global community of Jesus-followers we call the Church with a capital C), understanding that you are an integral part of the family that Christ has made through his death on the cross. But first, I would love to share some of my own personal story.
I am the churchgoer of churchgoers. My grandparents were missionaries in Nigeria for almost 20 years. Two of my uncles are pastors, my cousins are pastors, my siblings are missionaries, and my parents are both missionaries and pastors. I grew up going to the maximum amount of services, programs, ministries, kids’ choirs, Vacation Bible Schools (typically church-run children’s summer camps), youth group events, service projects, lock-ins, prayer meetings, and mission trips. But my family was severely burned by the church, and I ended up hating it all together.
I came to college burned, burned out, and searching for a community who would just accept me. I remember distinctly a dinner with a bunch of friends in the cafeteria. We were all sitting around and telling each other “horror” stories of church. “Boy, do I have a story that can top that!” I explained in detail the gross amounts of sin committed against me and my family. Gently sneering, I recounted how hurtful and how idiotic my old church was. Halfway through my story, a friend said something that I would never forget.
“Hey, can you stop talking shit on the Bride of Christ? I don’t think Jesus would appreciate that very much. Thanks.”
He went back to eating along with everyone else, but I was haunted. I felt like Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Saul/Paul, who wrote around 30%of the New Testament, wasn’t always such a saint. Before he met Jesus, he made a living persecuting Christians. On his way to imprison and likely kill Christians in Damascus, Jesus appeared to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4, ESV) It was through this experience that Saul began to follow Jesus and become the Apostle Paul that we remember today. Although this wasn’t my experience, there were some similarities.
That conversation was a big wake-up call: my speech, my thoughts, and my actions were an attack on Jesus and his Bride. Throughout Scripture, the people of God are described as the Bride, and God as the Bridegroom (Isaiah 62:5, Hosea 2:16-20, John 3:29, Ephesians 5:22-33, Revelation 19:6-8). God demonstrates his love accordingly as a Husband who gives his life for his Bride. It was this same Bride, his Church, that I had been reviling, and, after our conversation that night, I knew it. A few months later, I became involved in a church that God used to show me the beauty of his Bride.
You may have been hurt by this same Bride. You may have been abused or burned. Or maybe this Bride just doesn’t look as hot as she used to. I want to encourage you to look at the Church the way Jesus looks at her. To Jesus Christ, the Church is a collection of his people who have been purchased and redeemed by his blood, blood which he shed on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus is head-over-heels for these people, and he has brought them into his family. It is this Bride, this family, that he has called his beloved and whom he has called beautiful. If we are to understand how to think about the Church, we have to understand this from God’s perspective.
So where does the Church begin? It begins in God. God is triune which means that he is three separate persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who are coeternal, coequal in majesty and in power, who exist in perfect unity, as one God—the Trinity. I am quite lacking in space to detail everything about the Trinity, so this will have to do. In God there exists a loving unity and thus a community of sorts. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father. Same goes with the Holy Spirit.
This community—the Trinity—existed before creation. After God had made all things, he declared that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. He provided Eve to be his partner (Genesis 2). All of this happened prior to the fall and to sin, so while mankind was still in perfect, sinless creation, God knew that his creation needed relationships with one another. In other words, we were crafted for community. We are made in the image of God, to be attached and involved in a community. So the Church—the people of God—begins in the very nature of God himself and is manifested in his image bearers—his people.
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, we can see the people of God struggling to act appropriately as God’s family. We see them go through periods of doubt, periods of disobedience, and periods of distress when they cry out to God for deliverance. Time after time, the people of God realize that their actions don’t line up with their identity and that they need God to save them. He does this ultimately through Jesus Christ.
It is through Jesus’ sacrifice that we, the people of God, ultimately become his family. Jesus’ mission was to save his people by cleansing them of their sins by his own sacrificial death. But much more than this was accomplished by his death, burial, and resurrection. John 1:12 (ESV) explains, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Jesus is not just saving you from your sins; he is also making an alternative community, the church. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19, ESV). Jesus repairs our relationship with God. In Jesus’ death on the cross, he forever made God’s fatherhood available to us. This is the Gospel, that we get God as our dad, and our fellow Christians as our brothers and sisters.
Part of Jesus’ ministry was to create this new family, beyond the natural family. There is a poignant scene when Jesus’ mother and his brothers come to get him (Mark 3:31-35) They came, not to follow him, but to bring him back home. John elaborates elsewhere that not even his brothers believed that Jesus was the Christ. (John 7:5). His family had come to take him back home so he wouldn’t heap anymore shame upon their family name. Jesus replies to his followers, “Who are my mother and brothers?” To Jesus, it is those who are doing the will of God, who hear and obey his voice. In another instance, Jesus calls his disciples to forsake everything, including their natural families, to follow him (Mark 1:14-20, Luke 14:26, Matthew 8:21-22). Jesus is creating a new family which is not based upon blood or marriage, but on faith.
Our original question of “Do I have to go to church?” seems to be the wrong question. If you are a Christian, then by definition, you are part of the church because you are a part of the family of God. Dr. Joseph Hellerman, author of When the Church was a Family, makes some very interesting points. He quotes Cyprian of Carthage, an early church father who lived in the third century, “He who does not have the church for his mother cannot have God for his Father.” Hellerman elaborates by explaining that, “He who does not have God’s children as his brothers and sisters does not have God for his Father.” (73) By this Hellerman means that if you are a Christian it makes no sense for you to alienate yourself from your family. Referring to modern Christian culture, he writes, “By separating salvation from church involvement, in a culture that is already socially fragmented and relatively devoid of relational commitment, we implicitly give people permission to leave God’s family when the going gets rough—to take their ‘personal relationships with Jesus’ with them to another church down the block, or worse, to no church family at all” (135). If you are saved, you are saved into the family of God, and thus you are a part of the Church, complete with brothers and sisters.
Thus, the question that should be asked is not “Do I have to go to Church and be a part of this family?” The question should be, “How should I act in this family?” Will you be the estranged aunt or uncle? Will you be the aloof older brother? Or maybe the parent who walked out? Instead of these strained familial relationships, Scripture encourages us to be loving brothers and sisters. 1 John is filled with these encouragements, “By this we know love, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers [and sisters]” (1 John 3:16). Sometimes this means sacrificing pride or possessions for this new family we find ourselves in. Sometimes it is as simple as taking someone out to lunch. There are an endless number of ways that we can contribute to our church families.
To review, humanity is built for community. We are made in the image of the triune God, so we require community for our completeness. Through Jesus we have new life individually, but also a new family corporately. We are saved into a new family filled with brothers and sisters. In this family, there is no divisions; we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28-29). We are called to love and serve this family. Lastly, it is this particular family that Jesus gave his life for; He values this Bride over his own life. Therefore we should see the immense love he has for it and imitate this love.
How does this look in our day-to-day life? The universal church, the entire family of God, is a little too big to love practically. Instead, we love and serve the church as it exists locally in our communities. It might be that small Baptist church on the corner or that large church you grew up in. It also might exist as a church plant that meets at your local high school auditorium. Wherever it is, that church can and should be your family. Look for a church that preaches the Bible faithfully.
So what exactly does loving our local church look like? It looks like going to their corporate gatherings which usually happen on Sundays. However it isn’t just about going or attending, but being. It looks like being apart of the family there. Imagine that you went to a family reunion and just sat there without saying anything to anyone. After about an hour or so, you left without saying goodbye. Would an observer believe that you were a part of that family? The point is that just going isn’t enough. We must belong to this local expression of God’s family because it is our family.
There are many ways you can do this, and most of them are really obvious: Sunday mornings, serving somewhere, tithing, being apart of some kind of small group, etc. Don’t just focus on the acts; focus on the goal of the acts. We must become family and we must share our hearts with one another. All of these events produce in us a deeper love for one another. The Holy Spirit promises to unite us in Christ (Ephesians 2:16-22). Essentially, the Holy Spirit knits our hearts together. Our unity, must become our focus as we learn to love one another. This unity that the Spirit produces in us doesn’t mean we won’t disagree with one another. Rather, this unity is what we can gather around and celebrate, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This unity, means that we elevate this above our differences; this unity means that at the end of the day, we are family.
I will make a very large disclaimer. This will not be easy. The Church is full of messy people learning to live like Christ. I am one of those people, and so are you. We were made for community, and through Jesus, we have been made into a new family. Luckily for us, this family is headed by God, who is a good father who loves his kids.
So, are we called to go to church? No. We are called to be a family.