“I love Jesus, but not the church.”
This is what someone recently told me, and it left me puzzled. The person continued, “Can’t I watch a sermon online in my living room? I’ll never leave Jesus, but I’m done with the church.”
Is it possible to have Jesus without the church? What role does the local church play in personal transformation? Can one grow spiritually without participation in the local church?
In conversations like this one, I sense grave confusion concerning the doctrine of the church, especially regarding the nature and function of the church. As a pastor, I am convinced that we need to rediscover what the Bible says about the church.
1. We Attend Church for Ourselves
God, Himself is a Trinity of persons living in a community. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit live together in perfect fellowship, harmony, and unity. Since we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), we are also called to live in a community as well. The church is a community built by God, for us.
Even though the church by definition comprises a body of believers, the local church is not merely a man-made system. Jesus Christ promised, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18), and He does so by calling His people to Himself. The writer Luke also tells us that the growth of the church came not by human effort alone but was the work of God each day (Acts 2:47). Today, God continues to build the church for our sake and His glory.
My church once went through a difficult time. There was great division, and accusations were flying back and forth. We were convinced that we would ultimately split into different churches. Instead, God intervened, and with fasting and prayer, our church grew in unity and maturity. God alone deserves the glory for growing our church in that difficult time.
Our God is a gathering God. In the book of Deuteronomy, we see how God longed to gather His people together and make them His own even though He scattered them to punish them for their disobedience (Deut 30:1–8; 28:64). One of the main purposes of the church is for us to gather and worship. In Colossians 3:16, Paul tells us to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” In Ephesians, Paul says that we are elected by God “for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12).
What we see in Scripture is that God shapes us in pretty profound ways when we gather to worship. Worship is fundamentally a posture of the heart. We can only worship if we acknowledge that we lesser beings are in the presence of a greater and awesome being. We are sinners deserving of wrath in the presence of a holy and righteous God. It is only by the grace of Christ and the mercy of God that we are forgiven and prepared for His kingdom. So in fear and trembling, and in love and gratitude, we bow down and worship our King.
All of life is lived in worship. When we bring this mindset into our gatherings, our hearts become fertile ground for the restoring work of God. This might not be felt weekly, but we know that God is working through our ordinary gatherings.
When Paul advised Timothy in leading the church, he told him to be diligent, and to watch his life and doctrine closely, so that through perseverance “[he] will save both [himself] and [his] hearers” (1 Tim 4:13-16). We too are transformed by God when we are diligent and watch our own lives closely—when we worship in song together, hear the Word of God together, break bread in communion, and serve one another.
To put aside church on Sunday morning is to forfeit God’s design for spiritual growth.
2. We Attend Church for Other Believers
Before His death, Jesus told His followers to “love one another” (John 13:34). One primary way we can obey this commandment is to be part of a local church.
As the church, we must nurture those who are already believers and build one another up to maturity in the faith (Col 1:28). For this purpose, Christ established the apostles to be the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20), and He built it up with prophets, teachers, pastors, and ordained men (Eph 4:11–13). The author of Hebrews urges us, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they keep watching over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Heb 13:17). These are leaders that God uses to help hold us accountable and help grow us.
Under these biblically prescribed offices, we are all united in fellowship for the gospel mission. Though not all of us are pastors or teachers, all of us are in Christ and are knit together by a supernatural kinship (Eph 2:19). In the book of Acts, we see a beautiful picture of the church, where all were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. All shared in fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and prayer. All shared everything in common, including possessions and goods as each had needs (Acts 2:42).
This too, is how we are meant to live. It is impossible to read this passage of Scripture and come away with the idea that Christianity is a “just-me-and-Jesus” sort of religion. Instead, your burden is my burden, your joy is my joy, and your life is my life. God uses us all in the lives of one another to continue the work of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
My friend from the beginning of the article had initially stopped coming to church after his complaints. But the church came along him—visiting and praying—when he went through a difficult time of illness and family struggle. Slowly, he began to realize that it was not right for one to neglect the church by neglecting the assembly of believers, and so came back to church.
Salvation is not personal or private. It connects us to God and His people. It is through this biblical framework of the church community that we continue to grow to full maturity in Christ.
3. We Attend Church for Non-believers
In committing to a local church, a local portion of the body of Christ, we make a statement to the world about what matters. People around us see how we spend our time and our energy. Imagine what we tell people when we choose to sleep in, attend a sports event, or mow the lawn instead of attending church! We all know people who are too ready to single out “bad Christians” as the reason for not pursuing the faith. You and I might also know that person who subtly ridicules our choice to tithe our resources as foolishness. But the message of the cross is the power of God to those who are being saved (1 Cor 1:18).
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). Our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ is a beautiful picture to the rest of the world.
Take me as an example. I came from a broken home, and by age 12, was spending time with gang members and living a sinful life. I was angry and depressed. Above all, I hated God, and Christians were a bunch of self-righteous, hypocritical, judgmental people.
When I was 15, however, I met a pastor, and soon realized that he was somehow different. I saw the love and respect his church had for him, and he had for the church, and I asked him, “what’s the secret?” That was when he first shared the gospel with me. A year later, I decided to give my life to Christ.
Of course, we are not perfect. There are cracks and there are things that ought not to happen in the church. After all, the church is made up of a bunch of broken people! But somehow, God uses us to work in one another’s lives.
By God’s grace, our love for one another and submission to one another shines out in this world. All of us, Christians and non-Christians, are made in the image of God. All of us, deep down, desire real fellowship with other humans, and real fellowship with the Trinity. By God’s grace, our love as a church shows the world what is possible. God has chosen the local church as a vehicle to display His glory to the nations.
The church is not optional
The church is not simply a meeting to attend, or a building you enter. The roles we play in the local church form a big part of our identity in Christ, and this identity shapes the whole of our lives. The Bible recognizes that God puts certain structures in place for our growth and through which we love one another. By being a part of the church, we declare our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom!
“And let us 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, but encouraging one another— and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).