Can I be a Christian and not attend church? Actually, in all my years as a pastor I haven’t fielded that question often. But I have heard the declaration, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” Well, my answer to the question / my response to the declaration is “yes” or “no” depending on exactly what is meant. For now, let’s approach it as a question, “can I be a Christian and not attend church?”
What is Church?
The word translated “church” from the original language of the biblical text simply means “gathering” or “assembly.” I think the concept of church can be a bit confusing in this day and age. First, people associate church with a building. “That’s my church” you might hear as you drive by a brick and mortar structure with a steeple and pews inside. Not exactly. I hate to play the semantic sheriff, but an accurate execution of that sentence would be “that’s the building where the church I attend meets.” Then there’s the whole universal and local church concept that can also make things a bit murky. The universal church is also referred to as “the body of Christ” which means Christians everywhere around the world. The following verse is clearly referring to the universal church:
And God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23 NIV)
As described above – Jesus is the head (leader, authority, Lord) of His body – the universal church (Christians around the world). On the other hand the verse below is referring to a local church:
Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. (Romans 16:5)
There we have it, the verse directly above is referring to a local assembly and not the universal church. In order to interpret a passage correctly one must distinguish whether it is speaking to the universal or local church. The question we are dealing with is about the local church.
Who is to Attend Church?
The answer to the question above is the Body of Christ. If you are a Christian, it is your Heavenly Father’s desire that you gather together regularly with fellow believers. God inspired the author of Hebrews to write the words below:
And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do…. (Hebrews 10:25a NLT)
The early Christian church gathered together much more often than once a week. They gathered together for worship, they had fellowship together, ministered to each others needs and studied under the teaching of the apostles. Seeing Christians living out the Christian life with purpose and love really captured the attention of the world and brought many into the universal church as well as the local church:
Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47 NASB)
Notice they were meeting at the temple Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple and they were meeting in homes and breaking bread from house to house. When they gathered, there was the church.
What is the Purpose for Gathering Together?
Most agree that Scripture gives at least five reasons that God wants His children to gather together regularly. Some would add more to this list but we will go with the five commonly stated purposes for the church:
- Worship – Worship is an appropriate response to God. When we gather together in church we have an opportunity to worship in a corporate setting. God likes His children to worship together. To focus on and respond to Him as a group.
- Ministry – Ministry is meeting needs in the name of Jesus Christ. The Lord continuously stresses for us (Christians) to love one another and meet one another’s needs. God wants His children surrounded by others who are dedicated to meeting: physical, emotional and spiritual needs in love.
- Fellowship – Enjoying other people who also know Jesus. The book of Acts describes the early Christian church gatherings which often including a fellowship meal (See Acts 2:46-47 above). Christians of all backgrounds, cultures, skin color, socio-economic groups have Jesus Christ in common and can enjoy this wonderful unity in fellowship with one another.
- Evangelism – God specifically gifted some people in His Body with the gift of evangelism. These are people who can meet a stranger in the produce section of a grocery store and lead them to Christ. However, the early church gathering together, loving each other, ministering to each others needs and demonstrating unity, joy and peace even in the midst of persecution seemed to catch people’s attention which led to many receiving salvation: praising God and having favor with all the people . And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47 NASB)
- *Discipleship* – I saved this for last but it is certainly not the least. The case could be made that this is the most important reason for gathering together in church. The following is a good academic definition of Christian discipleship from www.gotquestions.org: “Christian discipleship is the process by which disciples grow in the Lord Jesus Christ and are equipped by the Holy Spirit…. and become more and more Christlike.” Remember, there is the Universal Church (Body of Christ) and the Local Church (assembly of believers). Just like each part of your body has a purpose – so does each member in the Body of Christ. You are gifted in a specific way to fulfill a role in the Body of Christ. You are to play a role in making the Body of Christ bigger and / or healthier. God provided a way for you to be equipped to perform your role. God uses the local church to equip believers so that they can find their role in the body of Christ and serve: So Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:11-12). This verse describes the equipping gifts that are given to individual members of the body of Christ. They are given to individuals who are to then equip you to serve in the body, whatever your role may be. Question…. who is your pastor? The word pastor means shepherd. It paints the picture of an intimate relationship that a shepherd has with his flock of sheep. The shepherd provides protection and nourishment, although the pastor does so in the spiritual realm. This intimate relationship of caring personal leadership cannot take place if your answer was someone on the TV that you have never met. You can learn from a televised preacher, but you don’t have a loving, caring shepherd-sheep relationship. God wants you to receive someone as your spiritual pastor so that you can be equipped to serve in the body of Christ.
Which Purpose Would you like to Avoid?
I know, I haven’t answered the original question, “can I be a Christian and not attend church?” I will now give it a shot. But first I believe it needs to be clearly stated that going to church is not what saves you. You are not saved by receiving Jesus as your Lord and Savior….. AND going to church. But going to church is certainly a natural response to receiving Jesus as your Lord. It is a bit strange to willingly receive a Lord and then resist what He instructs you to do. Jesus put it well, Why do you call Me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46) It’s kind of like saying, “you are my leader – I just won’t follow you.”
Certainly the message of the Bible is for believers to gather together in church. But it isn’t some sort of harsh task to test your loyalty. There is a purpose to church. Church is for your good and it is what God desires for His children. Church is to make sure you are loved and ministered to; it is for you to have like-minded friends. Church is to build you up so that you are equipped to know your role in the body of Christ and then to take your post. Church is for: Worship, Ministry, Fellowship, Evangelism and Discipleship. I know people are not perfect and it is people that make up the church. If you have been hurt in church, find a church that won’t hurt you. If you weren’t receiving discipleship in church, find a church where you are spiritually fed (and make sure you are open to being fed). Don’t throw out a divine plan because you have had a bad experience. So finally I will answer the question. But I will cop out and answer the question with a question of my own. Precisely which of the purposes for attending church would you like to avoid? Worship, Ministry, Fellowship, Evangelism or Discipleship.