Why should I go to church?
Are you personally committed to following Jesus Christ? And are you personally committed to a specific congregation? If your answer to the first question is ‘yes’, then your answer to the second question ought to be the same. If it isn’t, then you are probably in great danger, so please read on.
The New Testament knows no such phenomenon as the Christian who is outside the church. For the Triune God loves the church, the bride of Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:25). The church is also referred to in a number of places as His body (Eph. 1:23, 5:23; Col. 1:24). Paul told the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers ‘to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28). The church is precious to God. If God so loves His church, He calls us to do likewise.
Someone might say ‘But I’m not outside the church. I belong to the universal church, the worldwide body of believers. I just prefer not to belong too rigidly to a particular local church.’ What we might call ‘church-hopping’ – attending different local churches from one Sunday to the next – is on the increase, as is the number of professing believers who are unwilling to express their commitment to a specific congregation by becoming members. Is this a satisfactory situation?
It is not, for the simple reason that the New Testament does not speak only about the one, worldwide church; it also speaks about specific local churches and calls them churches. The book of Acts describes the establishing of these churches in particular cities where Paul and his companions travelled. Many of the letters of the New Testament are addressed to these churches. The seven letters in Revelation 2-3 demonstrate that Jesus is concerned both about the whole church and these particular local congregations in the province of Asia.
A low view of church?
What are the influences that have caused so many professing Christians to take a low view of the local church? There is not sufficient room to discuss them in detail here, but surely one very significant factor is the overspill of the ‘consumer society’ into the church. That is, people in the Western world are faced with many more choices now than used to be the case. They will shop at one supermarket for one commodity and at another supermarket for others. They will watch one television channel at eight o’clock then flick over to another at nine. Fair enough. But it is not difficult to see how this spirit, which may be relatively harmless in the world, is a snare to Christians. ‘I like the preaching at this church, but I prefer the music at that church.’ ‘The ministry in this church is great, but the people in that church are much easier to get along with.’ The choice of which church I attend becomes a matter of personal taste, of what satisfies my particular interests and preferences.
There has been another development in recent years which needs to be noted. This is the great increase in the amount of online ministry. Most of us can access hundreds of thousands of sermons with just a few clicks of a mouse. Gifted ministers of God’s word, both living and dead, can be heard preaching while we sit at our computers. Now, of course, we must not dismiss all this as bad. Think of believers living in countries where Islamic or Marxist ideology holds sway, where the church is driven underground. Or think of missionaries working in these countries who need to be spiritually fed. Or even those folk in our churches who are laid up at home through ill-health or other practical inconveniences. Sermons and other materials on the internet are as gathered gold to them.
But that is quite different to a believer in Britain or the United States who, rather than joining wholeheartedly in the life of a faithful local church, gathers all his spiritual food from online material or indeed from good books. He could go along to the evening service, where the preacher is still working his way through a series on Romans he started several weeks ago – but to be honest he has a particular interest in a quite different area of theology, and he feels it would be much more beneficial (and, more to the point, enjoyable) if he could choose his own material from the wide selection at his fingertips.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews gives a number of warnings to his readers, but none is more applicable to today’s Christians than the one found in 10:24-25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
What we see here is that coming together as a church, physically, is about more than hearing the sermon. We need human fellowship where we see one another’s faces, carry one another’s joys and sorrows, pray for one another’s needs. If it is not actually impossible to implement Christlike love and fellowship in an internet chat room, then it is certainly much more difficult.
The local church is the arena where real Christianity is worked out. When you are sitting amongst other believers listening to the sermon, there is a pastoral dimension to the ministry that is entirely lacking when you are looking at a screen. The internet preacher, in all probability, does not know you and exercises no pastoral responsibility over you as such. You can switch him off whenever you feel like it. But this is not true when you are in church; those who minister God’s word to you watch over your soul and you are accountable to them.
Our local churches will probably be made up of people with a variety of ages, backgrounds and intellectual capacities. This great diversity is part of the richness of Christ’s church which many of us need to appreciate more. We instinctively feel drawn to our own peer group; we know the temptation to associate only with those who are most like us. When we throw ourselves with enthusiasm into the life of a local church, these clique-forming tendencies are broken down, which is very much the spirit of the New Testament. ‘And all who believed were together and had all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). It is our love for one another that will convince people that we are the disciples of Jesus Christ (John 13:35). This love cannot be exercised unless we get to know each other. Try it! Get out of your natural comfort zone – don’t simply stick by your family and ‘friends’, the people you instinctively warm to. Stop regarding other believers from a worldly point of view which emphasises their differences; instead see them as precious blood-bought brothers and sisters.
If you claim to love Jesus Christ, you must also love His bride, because He loves her and calls you to do the same. This is authentic and biblical Christianity, the kind that will once again turn the world upside-down.
Paul Yeulett is the minister of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.