Lately, I’ve read a couple of insightful articles that address a recurring spiritual question:
If you consider yourself a Christian, must you go to church?
I’ve expressed my thoughts before about this issue. My answer, unfortunately, tends to make people mad.
My answer is, yes, you have to go to church. That is, if you want to progress in your faith — if you hope to become a mature, actualized, fully functioning Christian.
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You must join a congregation, stay there for the long haul and become an active participant. You must not only attend but get involved. Church must become a central priority in your life.
There, I said it. Fire up the emails.
Before I explain why attendance is required, there are caveats here.
First, I’m not saying non-believers should go to church. They’re under no obligation.
Second, I’m not addressing the worship habits of those who belong to non-Christian faiths — Jews, Hindus or Muslims. I’m not familiar enough with their rules about attendance to offer an opinion.
Third, I’m not saying that if you’re a Christian and rarely attend church, you’re a “fake” Christian, whatever that means, or that you’re a bad person.
Fourth, I’m not implying that non-attenders are bound for hell. Deciding who goes to heaven or hell is way above my pay grade.
Fifth, I’m not saying you should stick around some toxic congregation led by a manipulative cult-leader just to punch your ticket as a churchgoer. Exercise common sense. If you’re being abused (as opposed to merely being irritated), leave.
But here are the reasons why, all things being equal, Christians must go to church:
Christianity is a team sport. Permit me a humble analogy. You might see yourself as a terrific baseball pitcher. But if you only throw baseballs in your backyard at a plywood cutout, you won’t progress. You’re not even really playing baseball.
To discover the full extent of your abilities, to understand the true game, you need a catcher, a coach, infielders and outfielders — and even someone standing in the batter’s box ready to swat your best fastball right back at you.
Same with being a Christian. You can’t do it well by yourself.
Communion is among our faith’s central sacraments, a ritual that celebrates Christians as members of a spiritual, God-ordained community. We’re many individuals who, joined together with Jesus and each other, form one great cosmic body. It’s in our spiritual DNA that we rely on one another; no one stands alone.
Attendance is commanded. The writer of Hebrews, for instance, warns us never to forsake assembling together with our brothers and sisters.
It’s not all about you. We’re sent to church to serve others as much as we’re sent there to be served. Believe it or not, you possess gifts and talents your brothers and sisters need. If you’re not present, you’re denying them benefits God intended them to enjoy.
Your fellow parishioners, including your pastor, will make you mad, hurt your feelings and get on your last nerve. This is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Finding ourselves offended and disappointed lets us see just how shallow and petty we are. It sands down our rough edges. We discover that, by gosh, we’re no better than all those other hymn-warbling yahoos!
Also, watching God work miracles through the smelly, imperfect, hypocritical men and women who make up a congregation reveals to us the unfathomable depths of God’s grace and love. It renews our faith. We realize he can use anybody — even us.
Your fellow Christians will reveal aspects of the Lord you’ve never seen. As we get to know our fellow pilgrims, as we hear them tell and retell their sordid stories while they’re bumbling along, we find they’ve experienced God in ways we haven’t. They’ve seen revelations we’ve never imagined. Over time, all these very different visions merge into a greater portrait of him than we’d ever otherwise behold.
Your fellow churchgoers will inspire and comfort you. Sure, some Christians will let you down, because they’re human and that’s what humans do. But you’ll also find disciples who’ll sit beside you in court when your kid’s up on drug charges, and who’ll hold your hand when your spouse is lying in a coffin, and who’ll bring you soup when you’re sick with the flu. When everything’s going wrong, they’ll assure you it’s going to be OK in the end, because they — and God — have your back.
To the extent you honor your church, you honor Christ. “In as much as you’ve done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters,” Jesus said, “you’ve done it unto me.” When you dishonor or ignore his church, you’re dishonoring or ignoring him.
You’ll get plenty of laughs. You’ll sing and pray, sure. You’ll snore. You’ll grow fidgety. But as much as anything, you’ll experience joy — and mirth. Each church is a microcosm of the human comedy. When you’re not cussing about it, the sheer surreal madness of it just leaves you clutching your rib cage, shaking with laughter, tears of gratitude streaming down your cheeks.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.