Probably the most famous elementary school science project is the bean sprout experiment. That’s when you place a Lima bean on a damp paper towel, lay another towel on top, put the whole thing in sunlight, and forty-eight hours later, the bean sprouts. Remarkable, yet 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 only watches the cartoon network.
But follow a 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 it takes more than private, do-it-yourself efforts to have a buoyant, flourishing faith, obey Jesus, and be ready for His return.
You actually need the church. Let’s 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. But 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 thought, 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. This famous “Go to church” verse, begins in the middle of a sentence, meaning there are thoughts ahead of it already in motion.
Back up and note those previous highlights,
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 the emboldened points form a composite that describe the healthy inward state of a Christian, and the idea of church is intertwined with them—“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.” This passage disagrees.
Without the church, the inner life described in Hebrews 10 leads toward losing its fizz, like a can of soda going flat. I’ve heard a lot of passionate, articulate positions against the importance of regular church-going—myopic leadership, squabbling members, unbiblical structures, misapplied verses, and sub-spiritual understandings of the church itself. Yet, in thirty-five years, I’ve never personally known anyone who championed those arguments, seeming to live on a biblical upswing of truth, hope, encouragement, love, good works, and stirring up.
This is not to say regular attenders are always spirituaI either, only that they stand a better chance of getting there by faith community immersion, as opposed to dabbling, or isolation. Nor does church attendance “pay off” each and every time, like a vending machine. Our regular gathering with the whole church is more akin to a spiritual discipline, a habit of life whose rewards are discovered over time.
We need the church, but judging from the amount of passive-aggressive resistance to it, the concept is not well understood.
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. Our church would 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 moms and dads converged on campus to visit their kids. The Christians among them would want to know what church Junior had found to attend while he was away at school. Some of those 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, wanting 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, so I was in their boat, age-wise. The difference was I had discovered that church was a non-negotiable for the Christian life.
And for me It had been wisdom hard-won. All my backsliding episodes had occurred while I was distant from other believers, including 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).
These monkey shines happened after I had been saved, after I decided 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. You see, in New Testament fellowship, we find today a foretaste of the coming age.
Rev. 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
When the great multitude of the redeemed appears at last with Jesus in glory, no one in that scene would rather be doing anything else.