I recently read a report showing that less than 20 percent of the people in this country attend church on a regular basis. Not a shocking revelation, obviously. It’s said that America is a “Christian nation,” but the empty pews have long been calling that claim into question.
Yet not everyone sees dwindling church attendance as a problem. Not even every church leader agrees. For instance, my wife alerted me to a blog post she noticed popping up on her newsfeed here and there. It’s written by a self-identified pastor from North Carolina named John Pavlovitz, and titled, “Relax Christians, You Don’t Have To Go To Church.”
Of course, a pastor telling Christians not to go to church is like a dentist warning his patients not to brush their teeth. It’s absurd and self-defeating, to put it mildly. But I don’t want to pick on this Pavlovitz guy, mainly because I fear drawing too much attention, and thus giving a platform, to yet another heretical “pastor.” What I’d like to do is use him as a jumping off point to tackle the common anti-church talking points you always hear from the unchurched crowd.
First of all, when inspecting those talking points, you’ll notice that they never seem to answer the most basic question: Why not go? OK, you don’t think the Bible mentions going to church (it does, and we’ll get to that in a minute), but why not go regardless? The Bible never specifically requires us to say grace before dinner or pray with our children before bed, but why wouldn’t you do it anyway? I understand we might skip prayers some nights because we’re lazy or think we’re “too busy” or whatever, but to boycott them in principle because the Bible never says, “Pray with your children each night”? Does that seem like the right approach? Does abandoning church seem like the right approach?
Seriously, what reason do we really have? After all, if we’re throwing out something that Christians have considered crucial to their faith for 2,000 years, the burden of proof is on us. We Christians in America are always demanding that someone explain to us why we ought to do the kinds of things Christians have always done. But nobody ever tosses the question back at us: Why shouldn’t you?
The other day I told my daughter to clean the playroom. She became somewhat indignant at the idea. “Why should I clean it?” Sure, I could have provided her with practical reasons. I could have given her the old “Because I said so,” and that certainly would have been a fine and definitive answer. But instead I tried out the Socratic method.
“Why shouldn’t you clean it?”
“Um. Uh. Well…”
“Exactly. Now get to work.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
I won’t make that the end of this conversation, though.
So let’s start here: Historically speaking, Christians have always met for corporate worship and prayer. Sure, as anti-church Christians point out with extreme satisfaction, the Apostles didn’t build cathedrals or use words like “pew” or “usher.” Reliable sources inform me that the ancients didn’t have brunch in the fellowship hall following service, either. According to my research, most churches back in the old days didn’t even hold annual ice cream socials. Clearly this means our entire notion of joining together in worship and sacrifice on Sunday — the day the Lord rose from the dead (Matthew 28:1), the day he appeared to the Apostles (John 20:26), the day he sat at table with His disciples and broke bread with them (Luke 24:25), the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1) — is completely arbitrary.
Or maybe not. The early Christians may not have had beautiful buildings or raffle drawings at the church bazaar, but they did meet in homes and caves and anywhere else they could manage. Acts tells us the first believers still convened for a while in synagogues to pray (Acts 2:46). As they became increasingly unwelcome in the temples, they were forced to meet in secret. But still they met.
I’m sure they would have liked to construct their own temples, but any house of worship they built would have been burned to the ground immediately. That’s why they didn’t have buildings. For the same reason Christians in Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq today do not have buildings. To ask why Christians under Roman persecution didn’t meet in church buildings is like going to Falujah, noticing that all of the churches are empty or demolished, and concluding that Iraqi Christians must have a relaxed attitude about church attendance.
Indeed, for hundreds of years, Christians across the known world risked torture and execution in order to come together and worship. But still they gathered, whether in tunnels or houses or wherever, enduring considerable danger and discomfort just so that they could celebrate their faith as one community. St. Justin, born just a few decades after St. Peter was martyred, revealed under interrogation by Roman authorities that he met with his brothers and sisters in faith at his own residence. There they preached, prayed, baptized, and had communion. Shortly after that admission, Justin and his co-defendents were tortured and beheaded.
Most historians believe one of the first “official” churches was the Dura-Europas in Syria, built about 100 years after St. Justin. Evidently, Christians all the way back then — still in the infancy of the faith — felt it necessary to have dedicated buildings for worship, even if they risked their lives in meeting there. But it wasn’t until the Roman Empire declared religious tolerance in 313 that Christians could feasibly erect the sort of church structures that we would recognize today.
Yet, clearly, they didn’t wait until the fourth century to worship together. That is something they always did. It has always been a defining feature of the Christian life. If you travel in a time machine to any point in history up until recently, you will see Christians in communion — maybe in caverns, maybe in cathedrals, maybe in houses — but no matter what you will find them in communion. That is the essential point.
So what about us? What makes us special? What’s our excuse? Do we actually have an excuse that the Christians under Roman persecution or communist persecution or Japanese persecution or Mexican persecution or Islamic persecution didn’t have? Do we have a credible and compelling reason to not do the thing that our brothers and sisters risked their lives to do? Even if we see church as “just” a tradition, shouldn’t we have a reason to chuck it to the side after all this time?
Oh, I suppose we do have our reasons. We’re tired. It’s a hassle. It’s boring. The seats are uncomfortable. We have too much Facebook perusing to do. Aside from the people who are physically unable to attend because of infirmity or some other extreme circumstance, the primary excuses for skipping sound pretty lame when you say them out loud.
Granted, sometimes we have justifications that feel more righteous. Maybe we went to church a while ago and something happened there that offended us. Maybe we’ve tried out the churches close by and found something distasteful about all of them. Someone once told me she stopped going to church because there were “rude people” and “hypocrites” at the last one she attended. Apparently she’s looking for a church where the congregants are as flawless as her. Perhaps next she’ll search for a doctor’s office where all of the patients are in perfect health before they arrive for their appointments.
In the blog post I mentioned, Pavlovitz says it’s OK to skip if you feel “damaged” or “shaken” or “weary.” But we are all damaged and shaken and weary, and that’s exactly why we should go to church. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says in Matthew. Pavlovitz suggests that instead of church you might “snuggle in bed” and “giggle” (I’m not kidding), or you might go for a stroll or have breakfast with a friend or tend to your garden. That’s not coming to Jesus. That’s doing what you want to do with your time and demanding that He to come to you.
Someone emailed me last week and said he “had church” with his family the previous Sunday when he took the gang down to the beach for a swim. It was “fun” and they “enjoyed each other.” It was “sacred in its own way,” he said.
That may be true, but we have 168 hours in a week to do all the “sacred” snuggling and giggling and swimming we want. We really can’t set aside a small fraction of that allotted 168 for communal worship? Call me crazy but something tells me it isn’t a sincere desire to draw closer to God that explains our decision to sleep in or sunbathe rather than attend services.
Church isn’t a fun thing to do when it happens to strike our fancy. It’s not a bowling alley, for goodness sake. It’s not recreation at all; it’s adoration. It is, as much as we like to pretend otherwise, an actual necessity and obligation of Christian life, and that brings us finally to why all of those Christians throughout history have given up so much to do the thing that we have stopped doing for no reason.
The New Testament tells us about the Apostles traveling far and wide to convert the unbelievers and establish churches. They didn’t come with blueprints for basilicas, but the churches they formed weren’t vague and shapeless blobs. They created communities. And there were rituals and rules and laws that those communities followed. The communities were lead and administered. Acts 14:23 tells us about Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in each church they formed — a completely unnecessary step if these churches were not meant to be functioning organizations. If being Christian simply means thinking nice thoughts as you snuggle with your dog, it seems the Apostles wasted a lot of time on extraneous details.
But if we can agree that the men personally appointed by Jesus Christ were more reliable authorities on these matters than Christian bloggers like myself or our friend Pavlovitz, it should be noted that they did not see our faith as an individual exercise. That is why we are commanded in Hebrews to “meet together.” In his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells us to come together for teaching, admonishment, and song. He didn’t say “in a building called a church” — largely because such buildings, as we covered, could not have existed at that time — but noticeably he also didn’t say, “at home in bed by yourself” or “at the beach while you sip a daiquiri.”
Pavlovitz insists that, at the Last Supper, Jesus only commanded us to “remember him.” As the logic goes, we could just as easily remember him while go for a leisurely bike ride, so there’s no need for church. But as is common with modern Christians, Pavlovitz seems to have conveniently glossed over the first part of Christ’s statement: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this.
Now, there are two parts to “do this” that warrant further inspection. First, do. To “do” means to perform an action. The second, this. “This” is a word used to call attention to a certain thing or activity that is currently taking place. Put together, we have Christ instructing us to do what He was doing, and to do it together in His name. Acts tells us that the Apostles proceeded to follow that instruction on the first day of each week (Acts 20:7), as they met to break bread and pray. Were those instructions only intended for the Apostles? Was the Sermon on the Mount only directed at the crowd physically present to hear it?
Paul makes it more clear: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). Notice the words we and participate.
The New Testament knows nothing of the individualized Christianity of the Christian who thinks he doesn’t need church. In Scripture, we are referred to as a flock, a collective “bride” of Christ. We are all limbs and organs in the body of Christ, and we are told that we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of the body. We are “baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13) and must participate in it.
So if the fingers and hands and arms are gathering in prayer and devotion to Christ, how can the right leg stay back and mow the lawn? Has he not separated himself from the body? Has he not refused his calling to participate?
God seems to think it important to engage in active and corporate thanksgiving to Him. Scripture seems to bear that out. Paul seemed to be clear. Peter and the other Apostles seemed to agree. Two thousand years of Christian history seems to concur. Are our excuses convincing enough to invalidate all of this?
Do they invalidate Christ’s own example?
Indeed, Christians who scoff at the notion of “going to some building” to pray and worship must be more enlightened than Jesus, because the New Testament frequently depicts Our Lord in the temple (Mark 1:21, Luke 2:41, etc). Jesus was so protective of “some building” that he physically drove the money changers out of it, incensed that they had comprised the integrity of “a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:12).
Christ believed so strongly in having a literal house of prayer — an actual building where people gathered to worship and praise God — that He resorted to violence to protect it. If Jesus shared the same attitude as the modern unchurched Christian, he would have been home on his couch watching Netflix (or the first century equivalent, a Blockbuster VHS tape) and those money changers would have been spared the unpleasantness of being publicly flogged by the Son of God.
Jesus, noticeably, did not share their attitude. Neither did the Apostles. Neither did the early Christians. Neither did the not-so-early Christians. The “we don’t need no stinkin’ church” folks are on their own, which, I guess, is how they prefer it. But there’s no such thing as “on your own” Christianity. Our faith is a gift that God gave the entire world, and we are meant to share it. We are meant to experience it as a flock, as a body. And yes, as a church — in a church.
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