You might think that the title of this post is heretical. Maybe it sounds like professional suicide for a pastor to say “you should not go to church.” But bear with me. I want to ask you to consider some of the ways that we think and talk about the church and compare that to what we find in the New Testament.
How do we use the word “church”? Here are some of the most common phrases:
“Go to church”
What does it mean to “go to church”? We talk about going to the store, school, or work. Usually it refers to going to a location or a building. So it should not be surprising that the most common understanding of the word “church” in our society is a building where certain things take place. Even our weekly announcements often talk about certain meetings taking place “at church.”
The implication of thinking of “church” as a building is that there is something special about the church building, and that other buildings are more ordinary. We may even think about meeting with God at “his house” on Sundays and then returning to our “regular” lives. We’ll come back to visit God again the following Sunday. But the Bible never once says that we should “go to church.”
Two Christians in a conversation might ask each other which church they “attend.” What does that mean? We attend things like concerts, football games, and parties. We attend events. When we attend an event, we are usually in the role the audience or spectators.
If we “attend church,” then “church” is seen as an event. We are spectators and the pastors and other leaders are performers. Many church buildings are set up like an auditorium with a stage and theater style seats. The design of the room confirms our view that we are there to watch someone put on a show. So it’s not surprising that large churches hire professional musicians and install high quality sound and lighting systems. If you put on a better show, you will attract more “customers.”
The implication of looking at church as an event is that our participation is optional. We only attend social events if it is convenient for us, and if we have nothing better to do. The Bible does not say anything about the need to “attend church.”
“Join a church”
A third way that we often talk about church is in the phrase “join a church.” After we “attend” for a while we might want to consider becoming “members.” What does this mean? We join the gym, or a club, or a civic organization. Usually there is some cost involved (membership dues), and we receive some benefits as a member of the club. If you pay the annual fee to be a member of AAA, you receive free maps and towing.
When we talk about joining a church, we view the church as a civic organization. That means that the church exists primarily for the benefit of its members. We reinforce this perspective when we take surveys of church members about whether or not their needs are being met. It is seen as the job of the leaders to meet the needs of the members. Otherwise the members might leave and join another club. The primary goal of the leaders becomes attracting new members and retaining current ones by providing the services that they desire, and providing a better deal than the club down the street.
All of these ways of viewing the church is incredibly different from the way Jesus and the Apostles viewed the church. That will be the focus of the next post (Read it here). Meanwhile, please share your thoughts in the comments below.
I recently shared a sermon on this topic. You can listen to it here.