“Do I have to go to church?”
It is a rare occasion when I can give such a dogmatic answer. For many student questions, I try to press them out of the black and white and into the gray. I ask them to find the value in the other side of the debate. I invite them to discover the nuance.
Not this question. I even have a proof text from my favorite New Testament book. Hebrews 10:25 says, “Do not neglect the gathering of yourselves together” (translation mine). When students ask if attending church is necessary, I can reply with complete confidence, “Absolutely.”
It is no secret that college is a challenging time for the development of your ecclesiology, your thoughts about the church. It is a challenging time to develop your thinking about church because at this time your experience of the church undergoes some radical changes. It is often not easy to find a church, and it is even harder to stay committed to it. That being said, the effort is worth the result. The habits developed in these formative years plant seeds for a lifetime of ecclesial harvest.
So, yes, you have to go to church.
I have a great Bible study with friends. Isn’t that sufficient?
Some imagine a Bible study might meet the requirements for Hebrews 10:25. In such a setting, students are gathering together with other believers. They are studying God’s Word and probably praying for one another. Isn’t that what the early church did?
To be fair, I cannot think of a student during my time of teaching who has presented this question to me. At least, not so blatantly. Much more often my students acknowledge that they need to go to church and so ask instead about the best way to decide which one to attend. Maybe, however, this is a question that lurks in the back of their minds, a question they are embarrassed to ask a Bible professor who also works at a church. This seems likely to me because it is a question I frequently asked myself in seminary.
I went to college close to home, so I did not face the culture shock of finding a new church until I moved halfway across the country to attend seminary. My husband and I ended up at a historic church early in our first semester because he was hired as the music director. We had several good months, but soon the pastor moved and the church entered into a time of a pastoral search and interim pastors. The community around the church was also in transition; demographics were changing from one dominant ethnic group to a mix of many different ethnic communities. The interim pastors were great; the congregation was wonderful to us and was seeking to understand its place in a changing world, but it was simply a tough time.
At the same time, some of our neighbors in seminary housing started a small group. Four couples met regularly for meals, prayer, and study. We had deep conversations, we had fun, we were there for each other. I never asked anyone directly, but I wondered it frequently: If small group felt like church, why did I need to keep going on Sundays? I would not have been able to articulate a full answer to this question at that point, but here is what I would now say to my twenty-three-year-old self: fellowship with fellow students is a great thing, but it is not a replacement for church.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Some commands of Jesus are not fulfilled in small groups, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Small groups of believers should be telling others about abundant life with God and inviting them to learn more, but if an individual decided to join the group, it would be an odd thing to baptize that friend in the bathtub of the dorm room. It would also be an odd thing for the group of friends to decide to bless bread and wine or juice and practice the Lord’s Supper together. These rituals—throughout history—are typically practiced in a church. So, if someone only attends a Bible study, that person would not experience these practices, and Jesus did command them. He told his disciples to baptize those they evangelized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). At his last meal with his followers, he told them to share the meal in remembrance of him (Lk 22:19), and Paul shows that early congregations were doing just that (1 Cor 11:20-34).
An argument from historical tendency may not be sufficient. Why couldn’t a group of friends share the Lord’s meal or baptize a new member? There is no proof text from Scripture against such a practice. Another reason against it arises from a second thing a church has that a small group does not.
A view from the outside
The majority of Christians believe that the practices of baptism and Eucharist should be done by someone who has a position of authority that connects all the way back to Jesus. This position of authority could be passed down from the apostles through the process of ordination, or it could lie in the movement of the Spirit of Christ (not that these are mutually exclusive!). Even if it is only the latter, the movement of the Spirit needs to be detected by a group of believers over a period of time, not just a small group of friends on a whim.
Churches typically have some built-in accountability, either to an external authority, like a larger group of believers (sister congregations) or a spiritual authority (bishop/diocese). There is someone to act as a check and balance on new ideas or to adjudicate a disagreement. Independent Bible studies and small groups have no such safety net. If there is a debate that turns acrimonious, no one with an external perspective can help bring reconciliation. Even more dangerous, if there is total agreement on an idea that is actually heretical, no one with another body of experience and knowledge can perceive the departure from the truth. That is not to say that churches don’t go off the rails, but the propensity for the development of a cult is much greater with a small group of believers.
Many members, one body. It isn’t just numbers that protect against heresy; it is the diversity of perspectives within those numbers. This is the third thing a church offers that a small group usually does not—a varied demographic in membership. A church allows space to learn wisdom from others’ life experiences and to learn patience to deal with others’ limitations.
It is this enfleshed reality — in all its messiness and beauty — that makes church church. It is quite easy to watch church online and listen to great sermons, which is great for the occasion when you cannot get to church or want more learning. But if this is all someone does, they are no longer functioning along the model of Christianity itself, which is incarnational. Being with others in the flesh is a chance to serve them and depend on them. This is how we practice what Jesus wanted for his followers when he prayed that we would all be one (Jn 17:22).
I may not have thought through all of those things when I was in seminary, but my husband and I did keep going to our church even as we continued to enjoy time with our small group. Maybe some weeks it was because the church was my husband’s place of employment, but I don’t think that was the only thing. That wouldn’t explain why I went each week. I had some nascent sense that attending was an act of obedience to which I should be faithful. I cannot deny that some weeks it was harder to obey than others, but more often than not I enacted Spirit-facilitated obedience.
Now that I look back with more than a decade of hindsight at our experiences at this church, I can see so many ways that God was blessing our obedience. It was there at church that we learned lessons we’ve utilized over and over again: how to do a search for an open position, how to have conversations about diversity, how to honor tradition and also how to try new things. It was also there that we began to discover some of our gifts: for music, for research, for preaching, for leadership. Importantly, we didn’t discover these gifts but the precious members of that congregation who recognized things in us that we could not yet see. Neither the seminary classroom nor the living room meetings of the small group could ever offer the same lab for that kind of discovery. We came to realize that church attendance was not only a command we needed to obey but a gift God provided for our edification.