Going to Church
Once a year, I am invited to speak to a class at a local university. At the end of my presentation, I open it up for questions. This year, one student asked me, “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?”
There are a number of ways this question can be answered. On the surface, the immediate answer is, yes. This reply, however, is much too simple, and it must be qualified. Yes, a person can be a Christian and not go to church. You can be a Christian and have not yet stepped into a church. You might have put your faith in Christ after someone shared the gospel with you, but you haven’t yet had the opportunity to get to a church.
On the other hand, this question can be answered, no. This answer, too, must be qualified. If by asking the question, Do I have to go to Church to be a Christian? you are asking, Can I be a faithful Christian but not get up on Sunday morning, not interact with other Christians, and worship the way I want to? then the answer is, no.
From reading the New Testament, it seems to be the case that early Christians wanted nothing but to “go to church.” They wanted to be in fellowship with other Christians. They wanted to meet regularly and sing together, pray together, and share a common meal together. There was something about their conversion to Christianity that drove them to desire to be in communion with other Christians.
In the Bible, the book of Acts tells us that Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). Their devotion tells us that they purposely set aside this time and day for gathering to worship. They gathered together to share in reading and recalling the teaching they received from the apostles. They gathered to join one another in fellowship. They saw the importance of being with one another.
Finally, they gathered to break bread and pray. These last two actions have formal undertones to them, meaning they didn’t just come together and have a meal and say a few prayers. Believers came together on a specific day (the first day of the week). When gathered, they partook of the meal that Jesus had taught them to participate in on a regular basis. And they did so in a formal setting where certain prayers were prayed that were written down and used for this specific purpose. These elements are important for us to consider.
Being a Christian
If a Christian just sits at home, unwilling to join with other Christians, unwilling to partake of the Lord’s supper or the praying of the church’s prayers, then what will become of the soul of that person? Can we say that he is truly following Christ? Jesus says that he is the “light of the world.” He goes on to say, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
In his first epistle, the apostle John writes,
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5–7)
To be a Christian means to walk in the light. To forsake Christ means to walk in darkness. A great part of walking in the light is walking with others who are striving for the same thing. If we purposely place ourselves among other Christians, there is accountability, friendship, mutual building up of one another, love for one another, instruction for one another, and ways to serve one another.
In the Bible, Paul likens the body of Christ to the human body. He tells us that each of us is a member of Christ’s body, and if some of the parts are not working well (i.e., not participating in the body’s functions), then the whole body suffers (1 Cor. 12:12–26). Sometimes, various factors prevent Christians from going to church, such as illness, persecution, or isolated living circumstances that are beyond their control. Yet, Christians, being born of the Spirit, will still long to attend church to receive God’s gifts and be in fellowship with other believers.
So, can you be a Christian and not go to church? If avoiding church is the goal, then the answer has to be, no.
Neil Edlin is the rector of St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Catholic Church in Orange, California.