Probably the most famous elementary school science project in the world is the bean sprout experiment. That’s where you place a Lima bean on a damp paper towel, lay another one on top, put the whole thing in sunlight, and forty-eight hours later, the bean sprouts. No third-grader wowed by this tiny miracle ever concludes, “Hey, now we can do away with all those farms! Who needs them anyway, since we can grow beans in our houses?”
That would be grossly naïve, even for someone who still watches the cartoon network and has to be in bed before 8:30.
But follow this similar line of reasoning often spoken by adults: I can read my Bible at home. I can pray by myself. If I have problems, I can call an old mentor who lives out-of-state. If I need to get preached up, I have pod-casts or YouTube videos. If I’m in the mood for worship, I have tons of Chris Tomlin downloads I can sing along with. So…I don’t really need the church.
When people make this kind of case, they’re actually minimizing how difficult it is to be a real Christian—as though all you need is an internet connection and some good intentions. But to have a buoyant, flourishing faith, obey Jesus, and be ready for His return takes more than private, do-it-yourself efforts.
You actually need the church. Set aside the obvious groups we’re not talking about—cults, abusive organizations, liberal outfits that reinterpret Jesus and diminish the authority of the Bible. On the other hand, keep all those confessing and holding the faith, doing their best, complete with quirks, extremes, and mistakes. Even with its associated headaches, you need that church. God intended it to preserve and stimulate spiritual life. As surely as He gave us the Bible and the Holy Spirit, He also gave us each other.
Preachers like to quote Hebrews 10:25 as scriptural proof that we should regularly attend church—“Do not neglect to meet together.” But that is not a standalone verse, as though we were happily reading along in our Bibles, and then out of the blue, this verse shows up, breaking the sad news that, yes, we have to attend church.
Notice that verse 25, the famous “Go to church” verse, begins in the middle of a sentence, meaning there are thoughts ahead of it already in motion:
25 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.
If you go back a few verses earlier and start reading, you’ll naturally come to verse 25, where the readers are expected to conclude that they actually need the church, not that they had better drag themselves to one while gritting their teeth.
Note the highlighted terms:
21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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.
All of these points form a composite, describing the healthy inward state of a Christian. But notice how right along with it, the idea of church is interspersed throughout—“the house of God” in verse 21, “one another” in verse 24, “one another” in verse 25, and “meet together,” also in verse 25.
The church and positive Christian spirituality have a symbiotic relationship. They’re supposed to benefit and support each other. What happens when believers neglect the church? Some of us would say, “Nothing.” Both experience and observation say that’s not true.
Without the church, the inner life described in Hebrews 10 will tend to flatten out and lose its fizz like a can of flat soda. Go back through the list of positive features and replace each with their antonyms. That’s where faith goes when there’s no accountability or morale.
We need the church. This is not a well understood concept, nor is it even believed.
Way back in an era when I could eat anything I wanted and not gain weight, I worked college ministry. Every school year brought an influx of clueless freshmen. We’d have big events, kids would come, they’d sign up as being interested in fellowship, and then disappear for the rest of the semester. I was on the follow-up team, which meant I had to go find them. This was before emails, and also before stalking was a crime.
It was like a big game. I’d go to the dorm and push the buzzer and the kid I was looking for would pretend he wasn’t there. One day I noticed a dorm window slightly open. I crawled through it, went down the hallway, and knocked on the door of the person I was looking for. He answered it, even though he had “not been there.”
Once Billy recognized me, all the color drained out of his face. It was like he’d seen Bigfoot. But as we reconnected, things warmed up and he felt inspired enough to say he definitely wanted to come for Friday pizza and Bible study.
We didn’t see him that Friday. Or any other.
But then parents’ weekend rolled around, when parents converged on campus to visit their kids. The Christian ones would want to know what church Junior had found to attend while he was away at school. Some kids claimed our church. Billy was one of them. That Sunday morning, he walked through our door, with his mom and dad on either side of him. He wanted to show them the church he was—ahem—going to.
After the service, dad approached me with Billy in tow. He shook my hand, saying, “I really appreciate what you’re doing here. I’m so happy ‘Big Bill’ has been able to find good Christian fellowship.” Billy just stood there with a look on his face like, Please Pastor Bigfoot, play along with this charade. I was kind. Later, the parents got in the car and went back to Akron, and Billy went back into hiding.
It left me confused. Though I was fairly sure Billy was a believer, the church was not a blessing to him, or even a need, but a pressure to be escaped. I was only a couple of years older than the students I was trying to help, but by then I had already discovered the opposite—that church was a non-negotiable for the Christian life.
It had been wisdom hard-won. All my backsliding episodes had occurred while I was distant from other believers. This included stubborn bouts of depression (I was single and lonely), susceptibility to temptations (I had a wild streak), and breaking the law several times (I had a stupid streak, too).
All of these monkey shines happened after I had been saved and figured I could live without church. Trial and error showed me that following Christ minus the Body of Christ yielded poor results. Not only so, but I noticed that when others tried the same solo act, they’d get similar results—a diluted version of Christian life that was hardly more interesting than an insurance seminar.
Admittedly, church doesn’t function very well as life support for passive Christians. An hour’s worth of IV drips and respirator tubes every Sunday couldn’t possibly be fun for long. The church/spiritual health dynamic delivers best when it’s based on interacting with the faith of others.
That means involvement. People time. Companions. Gathering with Christians on a regular basis. No, you won’t fit in for a while. None of us did at first. But if you persist, you’ll begin to find the good stuff of Hebrews 10.
Recently, a Christian poster in an internet forum complained that all of this sounded boring. That’s a great tragedy, because out of his ignorance, he’s predicting eternity will be boring for him, too. In New Testament fellowship, a foretaste of the coming age is exactly what we’re finding today.
It’s not a casual thing, nor a momentary thing, nor a pointless thing. When the great multitude of the redeemed appears at last with Jesus in glory (Rev. 7:9-12), no one in that scene would rather be doing anything else.