There are a lot of people today who consider themselves Christian, but never go to church. Ask them why, and you’re likely to get some variation on “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in the church.” My response is, it’s good that you don’t “believe in” the church. As Christians, we believe in the one God; “believing in” anything else in the same way would be idolatry. However, when you say “I don’t need the church,” I get concerned. The church was given by God to us as a help us in good times and bad.
While it is possible to worship God alone, God prefers us to worship together as a community. In Matthew 18:23, Jesus says specifically “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus did not travel alone; he gathered people together throughout his ministry in mutual love and support. While he occasionally prayed alone, he never went to the Temple or otherwise worshiped God by himself.
Paul, likewise, was very concerned with the church, the “ekklesia,” the gathering of the community for worship and fellowship. For Paul, one of the most important features of Christian life was that it was communal—the fellowship/partnership/full participation of all was extremely important to him. Paul called the gathering of the faithful the body of Christ, saying that no part of the body was complete without all the other parts, and that no part of the body was more important than any of the other parts. (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, etc.)
For both Jesus and Paul, the important part about the church was not the formal institutional structure. The important part was the community, the people gathered together in common cause, with mutual love and support. The community was to build each other up in love and faithfulness, to offer support and consolation in times of trouble. Anything that threatened that communion was to be dealt with, in love and forgiveness.
The church is not an institution or a building. The church is fundamentally a fellowship of people. That fellowship can nurture you spiritually when you are feeling spiritually “dry.” That fellowship can challenge you and open you up to new ways of thinking about and experiencing God in your life that you would not have found on your own, and it can comfort you with old truths of faith in a world where everything seems to be changing. That fellowship can comfort and console you in times of trouble, and it can help you learn to care for others in their own times of need. It is not a thing to be “believed in,” but it is a gift to be used and a help in our journeys as Christians.
It’s true that the church is made up of fallible, sinful human beings, and often falls short of the community to which God calls us, sometimes with tragic results. But that community of faith, imperfect as it is, is still important. You may decide you best fit in a different congregation, a different community of faith, than the one you grew up in. You may decide the worship styles of the church you grew up in don’t feed you, spiritually, as much as that of another congregation; that’s okay, too, because not everyone responds to the same way to the same worship styles. Which congregation you choose, which denomination, is ultimately not all that important; the important thing is participation in the body of Christ. The same Lord is Lord of all.
Next week I’ll talk about the importance of the sacraments in the community of faith.