A few of my hometown friends decided to stop going to church while I was in college. They had been on mission trips with our college group, attended faithfully for years and seemed to love our pastor. But, for various reasons, they decided to start staying home. They didn’t leave behind their friends or change the way they lived at first. One of them even had a short-lived Bible study at her house. Their arguments were familiar in that day—“The church has flaws”; “The older people don’t get it”; “The music stinks,” and so on. Since that time I’ve seen others who faded away after being faithful for years.
But I’ve never seen someone grow spiritually by himself. Believers who neglect assembling with other believers slide morally, doctrinally and spiritually until they are not easily distinguished from “decent” pagans. Externally, I’ve seen their slide rear its head first in doctrine. “Did God say?” becomes “What I think is …” followed by something that is not at all what the Bible says. Bloggers and celebrities and scholars who “feel” what the Bible says or who contradict the witness of the ages are very easy to find. It’s hard to avoid ending up in error because a church, the assembled body of Christ, is the repository for things that are essential for our spiritual development.
Church is the place where we discern God’s will. Individuals can talk to God without a human intermediary. We can also read the Bible for ourselves. But corporate discernment is too important to ignore. Look at the last bit of Acts 1, where the disciples are seeking a replacement for Judas. “They” put forward two men, “They” prayed, “They” cast lots, and God showed them Matthias. About 200 years later, leaders in churches across Asia and Mediterranean Europe came to the same conclusions as they sought God’s will about the makeup of the canon—which books belonged in the Bible. God did not just speak to a man and a group of Christians did not just vote. He showed church leaders in different places the same thing; the canon was recognized by churches and by the church.
Church is the place where we learn doctrine. Acts 15 gives us an example of corporate deliberation of a doctrinal matter. The apostles and elders gathered to consider the ministry to Gentiles. Verse 7 says there was “much debate.” Again, God could have just told one man all he wanted to say and given that man the authority to make it stick. He did not. Granted, this was not a church, but neither was the answer given in solitude. Titus 1:9 says that a pastor should “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” This is done in the context of the assembled body, often in the preaching ministry of the pastor. It is not effectively done via television or livestreaming. Those experiences are less personal, less pastoral.
Church is the place where our behavior is reproved. In his second pastoral letter to Timothy, Paul describes the Bible as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Who is it who knows you and trains you in righteousness? If you can answer that question, it is likely someone at your church—maybe your pastor. Who corrects you when you have no pastor or church? No one does. Yet the Bible says we need it. In 1 Corinthians 5 we learn that a person in that church had fallen into deep immorality. Paul says that the goal of the discipline was “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Then in verse 13 he says to “purge” or “cast out” the immoral brother. He tells them to do it—the church—the ones who know him and his sin.
The church is God’s temple, the dwelling place of the Spirit. Ephesians 2:22 echoes the idea of 1 Corinthians 3:16 when it says that we (the church) “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Both verses call to mind the temple by which God dwelt in the midst of his people. The Spirit dwells within individual believers, but he also dwells within us corporately. This is crucial as we consider discernment, doctrine and teaching in righteousness. We are rejecting a significant portion of the Spirit’s work in our lives when we reject, even passively, the church for which Christ died.
A Pew Forum report puts the number of professing evangelicals who attend church “more than rarely” at about 58 percent. Of that 58 percent, fewer still are actually involved in any kind of ministry or personal relationships in a church. These absentee, or near absentee, folks are less happy in the Lord, assuming they are in the Lord to begin with. They do not spend significant time each week in prayer, Bible reading or talking about spiritual things with others. Is this you?
Assuming you are not physically unable to meet with your brothers and sisters and sit under the ministry of the Word, it is God’s will that you do so. You will grow in spiritual maturity as you never will apart from a Bible-believing church. Your community could benefit from the salt and light you become. Your loved ones will know your happiness and love in a new way. And your church, that imperfect thing that you scorned for a while, will be less imperfect because you are once again in your place.