Is there REALLY a need for going to church? A man once told me that he loved to go hunting on Sunday mornings because he felt closer to God while sitting in a tree stand, surrounded by creation, than he did while sitting in a pew surrounded by Christians. The man's claim seemed disingenuous, but the general sentiment he shared is one I think is rampant in our post-Christian culture and even among Christians. Do Christians have to go to church? Likely, a vast majority of people would say "no," but that vast majority would be wrong. Here's why...
From the macro view in Scripture, God's people have always been called to gather together in the physical presence of both one another and God. This is how they were engaged by God. The only times someone might be engaged outside of the holy assembly of God's people was when God decided to engage them for a special purpose. We see instances of this with Moses at the burning bush and the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Yet, the vast majority of God's people were engaged by God in a corporate worship setting and as a group. The hunter I spoke with never saw a burning bush or a heavenly light or heard the voice of Jesus while sitting in his tree stand.
In fairness, none of my congregation has seen a burning bush in the middle of a worship service, but they certainly hear that story and learn about God's character and how that can shape their character. This is not something a person will experience in a tree stand. I actually have a church member who experienced a vision during a church service, not unlike what Paul experienced on his way to Damascus. She described it as a moment where the Holy Spirit's presence was so powerful that the sanctuary filled with light and power. That experience along with the promises of God's Word encourages her to this day as she struggles with various ailments. She knows God's presence and power is real and something she can trust.
Did Jesus say we have to go to church? When Peter confessed Jesus to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus responded that this truth will be the foundation on which He would build His church (Matthew 16:16-18). If we confess this truth for our own lives, why would we ignore the very institution Jesus built upon it? The church was Jesus' idea. By what rationale can we claim Jesus' idea is unnecessary?
Further, Scripture commands us to gather together.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without waivering, for He who promised is faithful. 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 encourageing one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Without the gathering of people in the church, the church becomes ineffective. When God's people physically gather together, then and only then can things happen. I think we have allowed a social media mindset to corrupt our understanding of church. Christians are not simply to have virtual relationships where we can share filtered snippets of life with each other from a safe distance. Church was designed by Christ Himself to make us be elbow to elbow, face to face, and walking through daily life together, unfiltered. If we do not gather together for worship, prayer, discipleship, evangelism, fellowship, and ministry, then we cannot stir each other up to love and good works. Our time and opportunity to do these things is limited, as the Day of Jesus' return is closer moment by moment.
Our church recently embarked on a major outreach in which we had a band come from Nashville to perform. It was an outdoor concert aimed at engaging our community, and it was a large undertaking for our congregation. Much prayer and many hours of labor went into preparing this event. People gave up their time, energy and money. The day of the concert came and so did the rain. Due to many factors, there was not a way to reschedule or have a large, indoor, backup venue. We knew this going in, but we were still disappointed after the many hours of prayer over this event and the weather. Unfortunately, the weather made things unsafe. With diminished numbers of attenders, we were able to move to a smaller indoor venue and have an acoustic worship service. The the gospel was proclaimed, and several people were stirred to address some life decisions that evening. We will still be assessing the fruit of this event for months.
Yet, the other fruit that is immediately noticeable is how the people came together, worked together, prayed together, and discovered what we are capable of through God's leading and power. We could have never experienced this if we neglected going to church.
Do Christians have to go to church? Yes. If we claim to be Christ-followers, then we need to be obedient to the One we follow. The Church is the one institution He gave us to change the world and each other. He is faithful, and He calls us to be like Him. That includes faithful and consistent engagement in the local body of Christ. Only there can we fully experience all that Christ has for us. Only there can others experience what Christ wants to do through us.
GO TO CHURCH!