Do we really need to go to church every Sunday?
People are like pendulums. The nature of man is to react against the extremes of the past. We have this historic tendency to swing from one extreme to another.
For generation after generation, church was a legalistic, ritualistic expectation. It was what you did on Sunday morning. The dominant motivation for spiritual activity—be it reading the Bible, praying or going to church—was obligation or duty. We did what we did because we thought that’s what we were supposed to do.
For a long time, we didn’t really question it. That changed. We started asking questions. We realized that anything we did out of obligation or duty ended up feeling pretty empty.
For so long the Church developed this idea that in order to have a relationship with God you had to come to church regularly.
Some places even gave out perfect-attendance pins for people who made it to church every week of the year. Really. My mom has several.
The error of the Christian leaders was drawing a parallel between our relationship with God and our church attendance. We said or implied by our expectations that if you didn’t go to church every week, you couldn’t really know or love God.
The Pendulum Swing
What is happening in society today is the pendulum swing against that.
The idea that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian is flooding our culture, and it’s doing so because for years many churches relied on the wrong motivation to get the right response.
Think of church attendance like doing good works. If our motivation for doing the good works is to try and earn our salvation or prove ourselves worthy of God, then those works are self-righteous and worthless. If our motivation for those good works is to demonstrate our love for God in response to His grace and mercy, then they are the fruits of our faith.
The motivation changes everything. Good works are not tools to earn our salvation, they are our natural response to salvation.
Church attendance works in the same way. When we make it about what we are supposed to do, then it becomes an empty religious practice. When we invest ourselves in the Church because we recognize it’s an opportunity to grow closer to God through relationships with His people and our motivation is to have more of God in our lives, then that same action shifts from being a chore to a joy.
The question is: Do we really need to go to church? The best place to look for an answer is in what the Bible has to say.
Turning to Scripture
Let’s start with Acts 2:42. Acts 2 gives us a picture of the Church before the sinfulness and selfishness of modern man corrupted it. We are told that the Church was devoted to the fellowship of believers. It’s one of the four primary things the early Church prioritized.
The essential text to answer this question comes from Hebrews 10:24-25:
“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).
So, we have a Biblical command that says not to neglect meeting together. It’s not ambiguous. Hebrews clearly tells us that we need to make the community of God a priority in our lives.
Add that to what Jesus says in John 14:15: “if you love me, keep my commands” and what you have is a pretty strong imperative to engage in Godly community. It gets better.
In the second century, community was a lifestyle.
Community was a daily thing (see Acts 2:46). To the original audience of the letter of Hebrews, only meeting once a week would have been “to neglect meeting together.”
Society changes. Culture changes. As such, so can the application of a certain text. However, the principle of the message here is clear: The people of God should be invested in and treat the community of God as a priority.
I understand the objections. The concerns. The Church is full of broken, messed-up people. The Church can be challenging. It can be frustrating. It’s full of hypocrites. There are two things we need to understand about that.
Those things are true of us as well.
The person who doesn’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites is just as much a hypocrite as the people they are objecting to. Those outside of the Church claiming to be Christians are just as messed up and broken as those inside it. The difference is, they are reducing the opportunities to grow and heal from that brokenness.
Church to Be a Christian?
I know a lot of people who use the argument that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.
In fairness, they are right.
Just a like a fish doesn’t have to be in water to be a fish. What happens to that fish when you take it out of the water for too long? In my whole life, I’ve never met a mature, God-loving Christian who had a deep relationship with God and an understanding of His Word who didn’t go to church.
Anyone who truly connects with God, who grows in relationship with Him will be drawn to invest in Godly community. Those who know and love God, obey His instructions. God tells us to be engaged in the community of His church. The argument that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian is an argument of immaturity.
How can the Church improve if the people who recognize the problem don’t stay and fight for it?
Imagine a world where all the doctors stopped going to hospitals because they realized how sick people were. Who would treat those sick people? Who would help them get better? If the people who recognize the problems avoid them, how will problems ever get fixed?
I love the Church. I know it’s not everything it should be. I have experienced many of the nasty things that Christians do to each other. It’s definitely not perfect.
Yet in its imperfection it has been the source of more refinement and growth in my life than any other relationship I’ve had. Just like Proverbs 27 tells us that “as iron sharpens iron, one person sharpens another.”
There are those who will say you can engage in godly relationships and grow in godly relationships outside the Church.
For all the arguments I’ve heard, they’ve never been anything more than excuses. I’ve never seen people outside of the Church genuinely engage in godly community, discipline each other, challenge each other and grow each other to a deeper relationship with Christ.
We can justify anything. We can convince ourselves of anything. We can make excuses, give reasons and make a strong case for why we should devote ourselves to the godly community of the Church. I had a friend in college who used to say: “If you have to justify something, it’s probably because you already know it’s wrong.”
I understand that life is busy. In fact, the world seems busier and faster paced than it has ever been before. There will always be hundreds of things demanding our time and attention. There will often be things that sound more exciting and more fun than engaging in godly community.
The funny thing about people is that we always manage to find time for our priorities.
No matter how busy life gets, I find time for my wife because I make sure that’s a priority. The question of church attendance is less about if we have to go and more about why we don’t want to.
What is it that keeps people from seeing godly community as a priority that is worth sacrificing for? While church isn’t perfect, it is the theater in which God chooses to display His awesome power.
The more we invest in it, the more we see the power of God at work through it.
[A version of this article originally ran in 2017]