In a day when many Christians are re-evaluating church attendance, are there values that might anchor us in holding fast to regular gathering together?
Recently I was talking with a church leader who described a dilemma they had just faced in their local church with a reasonably senior office bearer. It was the end of the year and this staff person, who held a significant level of responsibility, matter of factly announced that they would not be continuing in the role they had fulfilled over a lengthy period of time.
That was enough of a surprise in itself to the leadership team, but the real kicker was that in addition, this person revealed their decision to leave church altogether to pursue a lifestyle incongruent with the expressed values of that church.
The point is that this instance isn’t exactly an isolated occurrence. People who have had a long history of faithful church attendance are – for a variety of reasons – re-evaluating their commitment, with numbers pulling the pin on being a connected part of any corporate church gathering. How should we view this and what might be some factors that lie behind this pattern of Christians moving away from doing church together?
Attempting to answer this question must take into account that the range of reasons for people withdrawing from church attendance will be as diverse as the people and church situations themselves. I’ve heard them all probably… ‘I don’t get much out of it,’ ‘I don’t like this or that,’ even ‘the colour of the carpet annoys me…’ Seriously?
Addressing all the issues promoting departures is impossible. Reasons commonly cited for leaving a church include ‘no longer meets our needs’, ‘we felt over the institution of church,’ ‘became less relevant in our lives,’ ‘bored with predictability,’ ‘a parting of ways theologically and doctrinally,’ ‘style and culture did not appeal,’ ‘discouragement with over-projected goals that under delivered,’ ‘didn’t find satisfying relationships,’ ‘was hurt or offended in some way,’ ‘found other interests,’ plus many other variants on the theme.
As difficult as it might be for leadership to accept, they don’t ‘own’ anyone and people are always going to leave their churches for any manner of reasons – often this will be done well with good grace and for perfectly valid reasons, other times it will happen due to perceptions along the lines of the ones above that fuel festering disenchantment on a variety of levels. So… given that you will never find a perfect church, here’s a few compelling reasons why Christians should never throw in the towel and feel ‘done’ with seeking out and maintaining ongoing relationship in a local church setting with other believers.
Meeting together is more than a suggestion
Jesus is our model and example in everything. In Luke Chapter 4 it describes Jesus returning “in the power of the Spirit” from forty days testing in the wilderness. “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.” (verse 16). It’s interesting to note that the word ‘custom’ is translated from the original Greek word ‘ethos’- we use this word meaning ‘value’ or ‘guiding belief’. So Jesus had a ‘guiding belief’ or value that He exhibited in gathering week by week in the context of that day.
The author of Hebrews writes to encourage Christian believers towards practices which will produce spiritual strength in their lives. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds – do not neglect the gathering of yourselves together…as is the manner of some .” (Chapter 10, verses 24 and 25) … the exact same word ‘ethos’ appears for the word ‘manner’ or ‘habit’. Put simply – Christians should never ‘lose the value or habit of meeting together.’ Why? Because there’s a dynamic of spiritual life that can only be imparted in being ‘together’. Jesus said when even a handful of people gather in His Name, that He is there in their midst.
In Acts 2, the early disciples’ passion for community and gathering together continually is clearly modelled as the church grew in both numbers and impact. There is the safety of connection and accountability in an environment of worship, sharing from the scriptures, remembering the Lord’s atoning death on the cross by taking communion together. Even the word communion itself implicitly expresses the sharing of a ‘common union’.
Isaiah 65:8 presents the thought of avoiding isolation that separation engenders, “the new wine being found in the cluster, do not destroy it, for it has benefit…”
We are members of one another, reliant on each other for spiritual life
It’s contrary to scripture to believe we can exist apart and be healthy. Grow alone and we’ll grow weird… We need the shared contribution that others bring – that’s what fellowship is. Our common union in Christ joins us and even in diversity, a unity of the faith binds believers together. Paul’s goal for the church (Ephesians 4 :13) is that we will all come together into maturity and unity of faith…note it doesn’t necessarily call us to unity around doctrine!
This passage details the ministry gifts given by Jesus Himself to the church for the purpose of perfecting the saints (that’s all the Lord’s people) for the work of ministry. The ministries described are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – they are appointed by Jesus for building up His church. Those who abandon church life forsake important exposure to these ministry gifts, turning their backs on something that Jesus determined every church should have access to.
It goes without saying that church buildings are just ‘bricks and mortar.’ They are not supposed to ever be our vision, but they can be a useful tool that the Spirit of God uses in putting legs on our vision. So church is not at all somewhere we go to, but something that we are! Christians are the real building, God’s temple. We are a spiritual house, “living stones”, being fitted together as a dwelling place for God. (1 Peter 2:5)
We are the Body of Christ – He is the head and we are all members with particular functions. What is the common theme in these two metaphors? A building does not exist as long as it remains as piles of disconnected scattered stones. That’s not a building, that’s just rubble. Similarly imagine your body with a leg over there, an arm somewhere else, a heart detached from the lungs, eyes not joined to the brain…You get the picture – a body with all its parts disconnected from its other members cannot functionally survive, never mind be healthy!
Everyone doing their part is needed in the Body of Christ.
Church attendance is one of the ways that a Christian shows a practical outward expression of their faith
Like giving, church attendance is meant to be a joy – a means of grace in our lives not a religious duty to be imposed. The phrase ‘churchless faith’ was popular a while back among people falsely advocating that church attendance was unnecessary. It was claimed that meetings of any sort do nothing to enhance our salvation, nor does it commend us to God in any way at all.
And that is perfectly true, as there is only one thing that does that – faith alone in Jesus and His finished work upon the cross. Yet John wrote in his first letter (the third chapter) some stunning words that test the authenticity of anyone claiming to be saved, or to be a born again disciple of Jesus. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters. The one who does not love remains in death.”
So, John is stating a reason for knowing that we have eternal life is to a large degree confirmed by the love we will have for the church…God’s redeemed people. To me, ‘churchless faith’ is something of an oxymoron. It is of course possible to have a faith and not go to church, since attending church is not always practically possible in certain settings. However, if we love God’s people (His church) we will not purposefully withdraw from them or deliberately exist unattached from any fellowship.
I’ve heard a surprising claim that people have made, stating “God told us to take a break from church”. My issue with this is that God never argues against his own counsel. His word is FULL of injunctions to stay in fellowship – not to abandon gathering together.
Church was God’s idea and He has big plans for a great future
Finally, I believe the local church gathering ought to hold a place in a Christian’s life and experience because in spite of its imperfections, it is still the primary vehicle through which God has chosen to reveal Himself and shine His glory into local communities and, ultimately, to the world.
“So that the multifaceted wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 3:10 The Church of Jesus has a profound calling. Remember Jesus told His followers, “You are the light of the world”. He also conferred on His church the same authority that the Father had given Him! God gave everything to secure the church unto Himself. The sacrifice of Jesus was costly beyond comprehension and to trivialise the church and its place, is to trivialise that sacrifice.
This mystical union of believers purchased by the blood of Jesus from every nation, kindred, tribe and tongue is what makes up the church – the ‘ecclesia’ or called out ones. One day, Jesus will return for these ones – His glorious Bride. He is faithful to all His promises and will complete the work He has begun of preparation. He will never give up on this task. Neither should we. Jesus declared that He will build His Church and that the gates of hell will never prevail against it.
I for one am putting up my hand to be a part of that and trusting Him to keep me from ever baling out under any pretext or distraction.
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By Murray Smith
About the author
Murray Smith is a husband, father to six children and the senior leader at Bridges Church Cambridge in the Waikato.
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