What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.—Ecclesiastes 1:9

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.—Hebrews 10:24,25

I heard it again this week:

“You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”

People say this all the time, often as if they have discovered a revolutionary new idea.  But as the above passage from Hebrews shows us, people were making excuses to stop meeting with other believers within a few years after Christ ascended into heaven.  There is nothing new under the sun.

As is usually the case, this was spoken by someone in a public setting where there was no opportunity for good conversation. People aren’t usually looking for a real conversation when they say something like this, they’re just firing off a warning shot that they feel defensive about their lack of church attendance, and you’d better not put any pressure on them.  Which is funny because, as is also usually the case, he brought it up.  I don’t ever bring up church attendance with people, because it’s truly not on my mind.  I just want to talk to them person to person.  But people often assume the first thing pastors think about when we see them is how many Sundays they’ve missed lately.

In this case, this statement was made by someone who doesn’t ever attend church, and who had already told me he doesn’t really have time to pay attention to spiritual things.  It’s funny how people who don’t attend church think they know more about church than the people who are actually there.

Of course, he was right.  You don’t have to attend church to be a Christian.  Just like you don’t have to quit smoking when you join the basketball team.  You don’t have to get a job just because you’re a husband and father with a family depending on you.  If your standards are low enough and you’re okay with doing something poorly, you have all sorts of options.

When someone tells you that corporate worship is optional for believers, there are a couple of things they’re missing.  First, they’re missing the concept of growth.  Being a follower of Christ is not a static thing.  We are either getting closer to God or getting further away, either growing to be more like Him or more like the world.  Some people seem to think that those who attend church regularly just do so out of obligation, believing that God is somehow pleased if we give up an hour and a half of our time once a week.  Maybe some people do approach church attendance that way, but most of us understand that the experiences of worship, fellowship, and Bible teaching are shaping us, making us more like Jesus and drawing us nearer to Him.

The goal is not just to be a Christian, treading water until we get to heaven.  The goal is to be a growing Christian, and the bottom line is that believers who don’t worship regularly with other believers are more likely to be just as immature in their faith today as they were five years ago.

But there is something much bigger than that at stake.  Another thing the attendance-is-optional people are missing is the fact that church is not for us.  Let me repeat that:  church is not, or at least not primarily, for us.  I know this is a foreign concept in our me-centered culture, but the primary reason God’s people gather for worship is to give Him the praise He deserves.  It has nothing to do with whether or not we are in the mood, or how much we get out it.  We go to church because we are worshipers of God, and God deserves to be worshiped by His people.  In all the descriptions of worship in the Old Testament, God never mentions to Israel how much better they’ll feel after they offer Him sacrifices.  They don’t do it for themselves, they do it for Him, because He is their God.

And there’s more.  Not only do we attend corporate worship because we want to offer praise to God, we also do it because of what we have to offer other people.  We go to serve each other, to encourage each other, and to share our gifts with each other.   The church is richer, and other people’s spiritual lives are richer, because of what we contribute by our presence among God’s worshiping people.  

In other words, the statement “you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” is equivalent to saying, “My understanding of church is that it’s all about me, and I’ve decided I don’t need it.”  Wrong and wrong.  You need the church, and the church needs you.   But more importantly, God is worthy of being worshiped by His people, and the more people, and the more Christlike those people are, the better.

So what is your goal?  To tread water until you get to heaven?  Or is it to grow more and more like Jesus, to bless others in the name of Jesus, and to show as much love as you can to Jesus?  Are you thinking in terms of how much you get from church, or how much you have to offer God and others?  This Sunday, I look forward to gathering with God’s people, to be blessed and to be a blessing.  I hope to see you there.

Praise the Lord. 

Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.—Psalm 150:1,2

In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”—Revelation 5:12,13

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