When I was growing up my mom would take my sisters and me to church. My grandmother made sure I went to church when I stayed with her as well. We didn’t go weekly but we went enough for me to gain a basic understanding of the gospel. When my children were growing up, my wife Lori and I took them to church every time the doors were open! How many times does the Bible command us to go to church? Are you ready? Drum roll, please. The answer is, “Zero!” We are never commanded by God to go to church. You can’t! We are the church!
We are commanded by God to gather together as the church. Scripture does command us to set aside one day a week to focus our attention totally on God (EX 20:8). Hebrews 10:25 commands us to not “forsake the assembling of the saints.” Jesus said in Matthew 4:8-11 that we are to worship God, and God alone! And yet, less than 18% of self-professing Christians attend worship services regularly. Typically, less than half of those who attend regularly participate in anything except Sunday mornings. We have to ask, “Why do so many “believers” fail to gather weekly with the body of Christ for worship?”
I think the simplest answer is that people fail to worship regularly because they have a misunderstanding of the church. First, most Christians think in terms of attending church, not being the church. For them, the church is a nice place to attend on Sunday if you don’t have anything else to do and if you weren’t out too late the night before. In their minds, attendance is optional because they fail to see that they are a much-needed part of the body. The Bible declares that we are the church, people called out of darkness, to glorify God and impact the world. We don’t go to church – we are the church!
Second, many Christians come as consumers, and not based on calling and service. They shop around for a church that best meets their needs, much like they decide on whether to shop at Wal-Mart or Target. If they like the services offered and they get a good feeling when they attend, they will give the church their business for a while. But, if they get bored or decide it isn’t meeting their needs, they shop around for another church that suits them better. Scripture declares that God determines who makes up each local expression of the church and that we are connected together for His glory and to serve one another and our neighbors.
Finally, many Christians picture themselves as the audience and the pastor and worship leaders as the performers. In reality, the congregation gathers for an audience of One – for God Himself. Our gathering is for Him, not us! The people on the stage help lead us into the presence of God and help us focus on His greatness. We respond to God’s greatness with worship.
In looking at Scripture, I believe we should define “church” in this way: A church is a community of baptized Christ-followers, gathered together by the Holy Spirit, who abandon themselves to passionately pursue the glory of God and the fulfillment of His mission to make disciples. First, we are the church – not a building! You can’t go to church because we are the church. Second, a church is made of people who have proclaimed their faith in Christ and have determined to follow Him as their Lord and Savior. Next, they are part of a specific body of believers because they believe it to be God’s will. They have also abandoned themselves to pursue the glory of God and to make disciples. God’s mission is their mission. The church is a community of people who share a specific way of life that is centered on God and His mission.
We know from Acts 2:42 that the first Christians met together regularly for teaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting at the temple and to breaking bread from house to house. It was a way of life that God blessed! We know from 1 Corinthians 12–14 that public worship was an important part of the life of the church. We see in 1 Timothy 4:13 that there were regular times for the public reading of Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, we read of instructions for “when you come together as a church,” indicating that there was a unique gathering “as a church” that was not the same as a few Christians hanging out and talking about Jesus. Later in 1 Corinthians 16, we read instructions for setting aside a collection “on the first day of the week,” suggesting that the church at Corinth met for services of worship every Sunday.
In Ephesians 2:19 the Apostle Paul declares, “So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household…” Because the Jews and the Gentiles have been reconciled to God and to one another, they are no longer foreigners and strangers. The Gentiles have become members of the body of Christ along with the Jews. We are fellow citizens with the saints.
In the United States, most of us were born citizens and take citizenship for granted. Being a citizen was a big deal in Paul’s day because it wasn’t automatically granted to people who were residents, not even to those who had been born in a country. It was a special status granted only to a select few. As you follow Paul’s life you can see some of the protections that citizenship afforded him under the Roman legal system of the time.
Paul continues by declaring that you and I are not just citizens, we are members of God’s household. We’re family. Typically each “family” is a collection of people with varied views, histories, and interests. The church is not an exclusive club made up of people who were raised like you, or have a certain level of education, or live in the right neighborhood, or come from a particular race or social class. We’re all different, and yet, we’re brothers and sisters in Christ. Some come from difficult backgrounds. Some are wounded. Some are hurting. Some are healing. Some are powerful in the Spirit. You don’t choose them, but you must love them. Why? Because you are brothers and sisters in Christ – you’re family! Everybody who belongs to the body of Christ belongs to everybody who belongs to the body of Christ.
Because we are family, we have certain responsibilities that we must fulfill. First, we are commanded by God to love one another. We’re to sacrifice for the good of the family. We’re to provide for one another during difficult times. We’re to pray for one another and to encourage one another. When one is blessed, we rejoice together as a family. When one mourns, we weep alongside them. Galatians 6:2 commands us to carry one another’s burdens. 1 Peter 4:10 says that we are to use the gifts given to us by God to serve one another. As we love one another the world notices and glorifies God. Jesus declared in John 13:35 that the world will know that we are His disciples by the love we have for one another.
Second, as members of God’s family, the church is to be committed to helping one another walk like Jesus, to become like Christ. The Scriptures tell us that God’s desire for you and me is that we be “conformed to the image of His Son.” (Romans 8:29). The Apostle Paul told the Galatians that he would labor with them until Christ was formed in them (Galatians 4:19). God’s desire for you and me is nothing less than Christlikeness. It gives evidence of our salvation (1 John 2:6). We cannot fulfill God’s desire for our lives on our own – we need each other.
As members of the body of Christ, of God’s family, we are to be committed to each other’s transformation. We are to pray for one another (James 5:16). We are to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11). We’re to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). We’re to spur one another to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). We’re to speak the truth to one another (Eph. 4:25). Colossians 3:16 states that we are to “admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” We cannot be obedient to God’s commands unless we move from the sanctuary into small groups. It is only when we study God’s Word together and share life that we can fully experience what God has for us.
Finally, as members of the body of Christ, we are to partner together to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 12 states that we are the body of Christ, a collection of different parts with different roles. When we discover and use the gifts God has given us we better represent to the world the transforming power of the gospel. When we work together as a body to fulfill the mission of God we are more successful. We need each other if we are going to make a difference!
In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands the church, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” In Acts 1:8 the church is commanded to be a witness for Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. To make these commands a reality God has united us as a body and empowered us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
As you can see God commands the church to unite as the body of Christ and to love one another, to help one another become like Christ and to partner together to reach the world with the gospel. It’s not the work of an individual. It’s the work of the church. People have told me through the years that they didn’t need to “go to church”, that they could worship God on their own. My response has always been the same. You cannot be a growing follower of Christ without being a part of a local church. You cannot fully obey the commands of God unless you are an active participant. Together, we carry the gospel to the nations. You’re needed.