It’s inevitable that somewhere along our Christian walk there will come a dissenter, naysayer or, on a good day, a genuine seeker.
We learn to deal with these people with a half smile, or direct engagement, or hopefully, with the guidance of the Spirit. One of the common arguments I’ve heard is “Why do I have to go to church? It’s full of hypocrites and holier-than-thous who only turn up for their weekly God-fix. Most of them aren’t real Christians.”
Yeah, they’re probably right.
Jesus didn’t speak of forming a “Church”, only of a new kingdom, where we walk with God and death is no more. That’s a pretty big deal on its own, but yeah, no “Church”. So, fair question, why church?
“Church” in the New Testament refers to a body of believers. Can I be a Christian and not go to a specific, purpose built building yet still be a member of this “Church”? Well, maybe. It depends on you, your fortitude, and what you understand that was meant by the term “the body of Christ”.
Many moons past I fell out with organised religion. I felt let down by people I’d trusted and thought better of. I walked, and I kept walking. I walked for eleven years, and in that time underwent a different form of rebirth. Perhaps “unbirth” would be a better term. I drifted from the fellowship of other believers and set out as a lone wolf.
In a pretty short time I came to see that the people weren’t wrong or bad, they were just gullible, easily led, and not for nothing were they known as “Sheep”. I read theological works, but everything about the kingdom of God and the person of Christ became difficult, where before it had all been simple. We were also now into the Internet Age, and I met and spoke to others from diverse theological backgrounds online. Eventually, having been subjected to every conceivable piece of misinformation, misunderstanding and just plain wrong doctrine, and no longer a believer, I turned to the atheist chat rooms and forums. I was a successful debating atheist. I like debating, although nowadays it’s a lot more friendly, but then it was savage, and included well worn tropes like imaginary friends and sky-fairies.
Eventually, even that became tiresome and I slowed down to a gentle trot as opposed to the full-on raging gallop. I became a semi-retired atheist.
After my eleven years in the spiritual wilderness I was driving a well-worn route from London to my home in Bristol, a journey of about 120 miles – not really far in my line of business. Two thirds of the way home I became a Christian, maybe for the first time. There was no vision, no voice in my head, I wasn’t forced from the road, which at 80 miles an hour is a good thing. No, I just knew. I can only describe it as an overwhelming sense of RELIEF. Like when you’re climbing a long set of steps with your kid sitting on your shoulder and you lift him down at the top. That kind of relief. I didn’t cry or drop to my knees (though I sometimes did when I was carrying the child), but I just felt DIFFERENT. Still, it took me a year before I set foot inside another church.
I spent that year studying, this time with renewed vigour. I finally returned to a Reformed Baptist church where I’d attended for a year or so in my pre-atheistic times. Eventually I left because a few things for me became unbearable. Firstly, I wasn’t a Baptist. They knew my position and accepted it, but we mutually enjoyed the fellowship so we both compromised. Secondly, I missed the Liturgy. I saw free prayer as being dominated by a small number of old-faithfuls who could be relied upon to fill an uncomfortable silence. Lastly, the God they showed me didn’t line up either with my own ideas of God or my own experience of him. I determined to read the bible from end to end, and found that the Calvinistic overtones I’d been shown just weren’t there.
I moved back to my old church. Guess what? Every person who had let me down, disappointed me and (I felt) caused my initial departure was still there. But they embraced me, welcomed me back. I saw for the first time their dedication to Christ and their faithful commitment to each other. Maybe, just maybe, it had been me with the problem.
So, back to the point: Why go to church?
Because Christ was all about fellowship. He gathered people together for the purpose of evangelism, he gathered people together for meals. For an itinerant preacher he sure had a lot of friends. He famously said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt 18:20). Now this may or may not refer to a worship gathering, but read your New Testament and tell me where Christ says this is a solo enterprise. There is strength in fellowship. Knowing you are one of a body of people isn’t enough if you never meet with them. Praying together becomes contrived and just a little bit weird if it’s only done over the Internet and the common breaking of bread in His name is nigh-on impossible.
House Churches seem to be in vogue, particularly as of course the early Church started that way. But did it start that way as an intended model for future generations or from necessity? I argue the latter. as soon as The Way started to gain acceptance numbers of believers started to gather together in ever larger groups. Were that not the case we wouldn’t have Church as we now understand it. It is man’s natural instinct to form groups in cultures, and like attracts like. Join any online hobby group and see how long it is before somebody notices that half a dozen of you live within 100 miles of each other and “Let’s get together…”
To be part of a body of people is, for me, essentially a part of the Christian faith. You’ll never agree 100% with the theology of your peers, but you will learn. My congregation is at the upper end of middle aged. I thought that if church is all about new blood then we’re failing, until somebody pointed out to me how lucky I was to be sharing my worship with so many decades of faithful witness. Nobody goes to my church for the entertainment. we’re relatively high-church Anglicans, so why would they? No, they go to quietly worship God, to confess their sins, to be assured of God’s forgiveness and to partake of Holy Communion with Him.
So let’s gather together and bear witness to our faith in Christ, and maybe God will enable the building of his kingdom. You won’t do it on your own.