The question comes in a myriad of forms. Do we have to go to church to be a Christian? Do we have to go to church to be saved? Do we have to go to church to get to heaven? Each is but a variation on the larger question: Is church attendance necessary for the Christian life?
The question itself appears simple enough. It presupposes an answer of either “Yes!” or “No!” Google the question and you will find a multitude of sites offering opinions one way or the other. But is it really that simple?
The difficulty with this question is the problematic way the question is constructed. What do we mean by “have to”? Are we suggesting that any confession of faith is rendered null and void if one fails to sit upon a wooden pew 50 Sundays of the year?
If so, what does this mean for people who work shift work, or who hold multiple jobs to provide for family? If one cannot make it to church on Sunday morning, is their salvation revoked? In the third century, Saint Cyprian of Carthage famously wrote “outside the church there is no salvation.” Is this true?
And then there is the word “church,” what exactly do we mean? Do we mean a gathering of people or a physical building of that name? Does a church have to consist of liturgy and singing, pastors and altar guilds? Can a church be a weekly hang-out with the guys over wings and beer? Can my book club function as my church?
And then there are problems with the idea of going to church. Is church a location or a way of life? If church is a place I go to, is my presence enough or do I have to participate in some way? What if I have been hurt by the church, do I still have to go?
Despite the question’s problematic nature, the pondering is real. Many people genuinely wish to know how church attendance affects their relationship with Jesus. So how do we navigate this complex question? Does the Bible say that we must go to church to live the life of faith?
The Bible Says No
Does it shock you think that church attendance might not be necessary to live an active and robust life of faith? When we make church attendance necessary for the Christian life, or for our salvation, we twist the community of faith into a superficial body of earning and merit.
We mistakenly assume that there is something that we must do to earn our place in God’s kingdom. Scripture, however, is resolute in affirming that the is nothing that we do to earn God’s love or favor.
Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Nowhere does scripture mandate one’s attendance at church as a condition of salvation.
This is, in fact, consistent with Jesus’ own life and ministry. Countless rules and regulations dictated how Jewish men and women lived faithfully before God. This involved everything from what to eat, when to work, who to associate with, and where to be on certain days. Jesus frequently contravened these rules and allowed his followers to do so as well.
In one instance, the Pharisees confront Jesus about this, pointing out that his followers “do what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” In response, Jesus states that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 12:23-28).
Jesus teaches that an ongoing, interactive, relationship with him is of greater importance than merely attending to the humanly crafted rules of religious behavior.
Spiritual activities, no matter how well-meaning, always run the risk of obstructing our connection with Jesus when they become ends in themselves. Going to church for church’s sake does little for our spiritual growth. It may even work negatively against it.
The Bible Also Says Yes
Despite frequently contravening religious rules, despite being critical of the Temple structure and its leaders, the fact remains that Jesus was frequently at the Temple. This is significant given the fact that Jesus is the only person on earth who could justifiably live his spiritual life alone. Jesus did not need a community of faith to mediate his relationship with the Father.
And yet, Jesus gathered a community around him. He lived his faith in the company of others. He attended worship at the Temple. An interesting question to ask might be why Jesus himself participated in the community of faith. Or, to put it another way, why did Jesus go to church?
While scripture does not command Christians to attend church, it does speak powerfully about the blessing of the church community. James exhorts anyone who is sick to “call the elders of the church to pray over them,” and to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:14-16).
The Book of Hebrews calls Christians to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:24-25). The early Christians did not live their faith in isolation.
Those who joined the Christian movement were immediately immersed in a dynamic community of fellow believers. The early Christians were devoted to prayer, fellowship, teaching, and breaking bread (Acts 2:42). Meeting together was the natural way that Christian people grew in their faith.
The entire narrative of scripture testifies to the importance of community in the spiritual life. From the opening movement in Genesis, God’s creative and redemptive identity is linked to the establishment of a holy people. Scripture assumes a corporate faithfulness. In fact, scripture is rarely addressed to an in individual.
Rather, the scriptures address a people, a community of faith witnessing to the power and presence of the living God. If the early Christians embodied their faith in the atmosphere of a community, why would we assume that we are somehow exempt from doing the same?
Can You Grow in Your Faith Alone?
Ultimately, we need to change the question. The question of whether on must go to church is like the age-old query regarding golf: “Can’t we worship God on the golf course?” The answer to this question is “of course you can… but do you?”
While your first-time golfing on Sunday morning may provide a rich experience of grace and freedom, will such a worshipful attitude continue? Without a lot of focus, and the building in of spiritual practices and habits, Sunday morning golf will easily devolve into nothing more than Sunday morning golf.
Too often this is what occurs when people separate themselves for active participation in the community of faith.
Instead of asking “Do I have to go to church?” it is better to ask whether we can live our faith in isolation. Can we maintain spiritual growth? Can we maintain an active prayer life? It is important to look at these things over a length of time. What’s our true heart behind not attending church?
We are not talking about individual spiritual moments, but a life lived before God. The primary question to sit with is whether it is better for you to live out your faith in the company of others, or by yourself?
Importantly, nothing says that attendance at church is to occur at the expense of our livelihood, joy, safety, or heath. There are toxic communities in the world and God’s wish would be for us to remove ourselves from them.
God desires us to be safe, healthy, and whole. Any church set upon hate and judgment does not represent the body for which Christ is the head (Ephesians 1:22). Jesus will never call us to remain in a community that does not lead us into His loving and gracious presence.
Still, this does not detract from the reality that belonging to an authentic community of faith is beneficial to our spiritual lives. Going to church may not always be enjoyable or easy.
The church is not beneficial because it is the church, it is beneficial because we become immersed in a community of support, encouragement, challenge, and ministry. Jesus may not demand that you attend a church, but that does not mean he does not ask you to participate in one.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.