It happened again last week: I came across someone’s comment that they no longer attended church. This was not from an unbeliever or someone who had never been a churchgoer. This was from a professing Christian who had attended church regularly for years and then decided to forsake the practice. This commenter did not say why she no longer attended, but there seemed to be just a bit of vitriol in her response. Perhaps someone had offended her or something happened that she didn’t care for. People seem to be leaving the church in droves for such reasons.
I’m always grieved when I see this kind of thing. It’s necessary at times to leave a particular church, but you miss a lot if you give up church all together, such as:
1. God’s gifts to the church. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:11-13a, ESV). Yes, you can gain from hearing a good radio or Internet sermon. But that’s not the same as being personally pastored or shepherded by the man God has raised up to lead your congregation. Hebrews 13:7-17 gives more instruction about our reaction to church leaders: remembering, imitating, obeying.
2. Getting equipped. The purpose God gave those gifts mentioned in the first point was “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
3. Being fed. I Peter 3:1-4 instructs church leaders to “feed the flock.” Yes, we should feed ourselves in the Word during the week, but we shouldn’t neglect the “family dinner” available to us every week at church.
4. Being a part of what God is doing through the church. “So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). That’s an amazing thought, that God teaches things about Himself to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” through His interactions with the church.
5. Your place in the body. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes to great lengths to explain that the church is like a body. We’re not all eyes, else how would we hear or smell (verse 17 and following)? We each have different gifts and functions, designed to work together and minister to each other. When we remove ourselves from the body, we leave an empty place and we miss the function of the others.
6. The care of a church family. “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Most church members could tell you stories about being ministered to and cared for my other members.
7. A place to use your gifts and be ministered to by others. This overlaps with #5 a bit. But the Bible lists several types of spiritual gifts that God distributes to His children, among them, teaching, administration, giving, mercy, helps, and others. We’re to use them to minister to each other. Sure, they’re not restricted to the four walls of the church: we use them at work, with neighbors, online, etc. But church is the primary outlet. You miss being ministered to by others and and you miss the people you’re to minister to. As our church read through the book of Acts over several weeks, I noted several times people strengthened people (14:22; 15:32, 41; 16:5; 18:23). And I thought, “Wait a minute: isn’t it Go who strengthens us?” Yes. But He often uses people to strengthen, to encourage (often paired with strengthen in Acts), to comfort.
8. Biblical one anothers. Again, these can be done outside the church, but the context of most of them is within the church.
Wash one another’s feet—John 13:14.
Love one another—John 13:3; 15:12, 17; Romans 13:8; I Peter 1:22; I John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11.
In honor preferring one another—Romans 12:10.
Don’t judge one another—Romans 14:13.
Receive one another—Romans 15:7.
Salute one another—Romans 16:16.*
Greet one another—I Cor. 16:20, II Cor. 13:12, I Peter 5:14.
Serve one another—Gal. 5:13.
Don’t provoke one another or envy one another—Gal. 5:26.
Bear one another’s burdens—Gal. 6:2.
Forbear one another in love—Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:13.
Forgive one another—Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:13.
Teach and admonish one another with song—Col. 3:16.
Comfort one another—I Thess. 4:18.
Edify one another—I Thess. 5:11.
Exhort one another— Heb. 3:13; 10:25.
Consider one another to provoke unto love and good works—Heb. 10:24.
9. Biblical conflict resolution. In Matthew 18, Jesus gave instructions about how to handle when other people sin against you. If you just leave the church without settling these manners, you do a disservice to yourself and the other person. Some people go from church to church to church with a trail of unresolved conflicts in their wake, until they finally stop going all together.
10. Exercise in forbearance. No church is going to be perfect. How could it be, when each is made up of sinners who are not yet perfect? We all still struggle with our flesh and will til we get to heaven. Sometimes our fleshly natures irritate each other. Sometimes we need to confront each other, as in #9. But sometimes we need to depend on God’s grace to forbear each other. If we leave due to others’ irritating us, we miss out on this (difficult) grace. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3, KJV). “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15, KJV).
11. Accountability. Jesus gave an illustration about the danger of judging by showing how ludicrous it was to try to help someone get a speck out of their eye if you’ve got a 2×4 in yours. Most people get the idea that we usually have bigger issues than the person we’re judging, and we need to take care of our own faults. But we overlook verse 5: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” We’re supposed to help each other with the things that cloud our vision.
12. Obedience. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). I know some use these verses like a club, and they shouldn’t. But they are in the Bible.
Sure, there are times one can’t attend church: illness, exhaustion, travel, grief, etc. Some people can’t attend church due to long-term physical issues. We should still be the church to them and minister to them.
And, yes, some Biblical teaching about the church refers to what we call the church universal: everyone who has ever been and will be a believer. But most of the New Testament epistles were written to small local assemblies where these things were to be practiced.
And yes, attending church is not a guarantee that everything will go well with your life. But there are people there who can help when things do go wrong.
And going to church is not a substitute for a personal relationship with Christ. If we go to church all our lives and miss that, we’re in trouble. Not all churches teach the gospel or the Bible. It’s important to go to one that does. We don’t become righteous by attending church every time the doors are open: we need to repent of our sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior. But a church made up of people who have done that can help each other along the way.
A few days ago I read in Seasons of the Heart:
How unhappy it is, my dear friend, that the little family of Christ should be so torn with internal animosities and feuds at a time when the state of the world seems to render it peculiarly necessary that all its members should be bound together in the unity of the Spirit an the bonds of peace. At no period in the history of the church can we discover so many and such powerful efforts of the prince of this world and his adherents to destroy its purity and its very existence as at the present time. (June 21 entry, Susan Huntington)
And that was in the early 1800s! Susan concludes:
But thanks be to God–He is showing us, by the effusions of His Spirit on various places, that He still remembers His church and will not suffer the gates of hell to prevail against it. And blessed be His name for the assurance that none shall be able to pluck His children out of the Savior’s hands or prevent His giving unto them eternal life! My friend, let us pray for each other. And may He, who is the believer’s hope, finally present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy!
The church has always been full of problems. Most of the NT epistles were written to correct some of those problems. We’ll always have differences with each other, some due to personality, culture, stages of growth and maturity. Perhaps some differences exist to encourage us to thoughtfulness, understanding, seeing things from another’s viewpoint, grace. But some are due to blind spots. We can help each other with those blind spots if we’re open and humble (Matthew 7:1-5).
I’ve never read Phil Yancey, but I saw this quote attributed to him and it affected me so much. I’m not sure where or when he said it: “I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.” I’m also not very familiar with Jackie Hill Perry, (though I want to read her book) but she once Tweeted, “Do you know who God used to heal me of my church hurt? The church.”
The church means a great deal to Christ, so how can we dismiss or ignore it? “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). If Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her, and we love Him, can we forsake the church He loves so much?