Do We Have to Go to Church?

Each year, as the holidays roll around, churches large and small prepare for the dramatic spike in attendance the Christmas season begets.

With this year's ongoing pandemic, it is difficult to anticipate what exactly Christmas will look like. Historically, the wave of holiday worshipers has been a predictable annual event and it’s very likely that we will experience something of the sort this year as well.
What’s curious about this phenomenon is that, even though we sing the same songs, listen to the same message, and exit through the same doors, half of the occupants of the crowded sanctuary won't be seen again until Easter. This pattern of church attendance is such a regular part of church culture that it has become largely unremarkable. The question is, why?

It occurs to me that both groups attend the Christmas services for many of the same reasons, each desiring to celebrate the birth of Christ and testify to His ministry. What we observe, however, is that for some churchgoers these inferred values translate to consistent, weekly attendance, while for others they amount to only one or two services a year.

Whether we can fully investigate the “why” is uncertain, but what we can do is direct our energy towards a more pressing matter: is church optional?

How to Use
Our hope in Children and Families Ministries is to provide resources that support families as you follow God's call to teach, care for, and disciple your children. One of the ways we aim to do this is by offering strategically formulated content that addresses perceived needs and speaks to issues relevant to you and your family.

Our encouragement to parents is to set aside a couple of mealtimes this month to read over portions of this post with your family, following each reading with reflection and discussion.

  • Why We Gather
    • Example and Command
      • The Old Testament
      • The New Testament
    • The Blessings of Fellowship
  • Answering the Question
  • Gospel Impact
  • Family Application
    • Discussion Questions
    • Family Prayer

Why We Gather
There are many reasons people go to church. Some attend because they think they must, or in search of friends or connections, and perhaps others remain unsure of for whom or what they show up. In any case, what we want to consider are the biblical motivations for church attendance.

In the Bible, assembling for what we call "the worship service," or "church," is supported in a number of ways. Both testaments provide relevant examples, explicit commands, and helpful descriptions of the blessings that participation in the local church provides.

Note: The “local church” is a term that refers to the community of believers in a particular congregation, or a group of such congregations, as opposed to the Church in general which is all Christians everywhere.

The Old Testament
Example and Command
The assembling of God’s people is not new to us or even to recent history. In fact, the basic idea of church is as old as the Old Testament. A passing investigation of the Bible’s first thirty-nine books reveals that the regular gathering of God’s people was a normative practice. Like our own services, these gatherings took place for the purposes of worshiping the Lord and the reading of His Word, both of which we find commanded in the text (Deut. 12:5-12; 31:11-12).

We should mention that, unique to the Old Testament was the system of ceremonial offerings and sacrifices, something you and I probably don’t see on an average Sunday.

Further examples and exhortations for congregational worship are provided in the Psalms. Therein, the authors detail how godly men and women delighted in worship, eager to recognize the Lord as worthy of praise. This worship was not confined to the privacy of one’s room. Rather, the Psalms speak of God’s people praising God “in the midst of the congregation” and “in the assembly” (Ps. 22:22-23; 107:31-32; 149:1). Therefore, honoring the Lord was more than a personal matter, but an opportunity to testify to the nations of the glory of God (1 Chron. 16:24).  

We even see the New Testament Church movement prophesied in the Old Testament. Isaiah foretells of a time when those who are foreign to God will be numbered among His people, undoubtedly pointing to the inclusion of the Gentiles among God’s chosen people. The prophet goes on to describe how all who love the Lord—those who are His servants—will worship Him joyfully in His “house of prayer” (Is. 56:6-8).  

In the Old Testament, like today, each week had one day that was set aside especially for worship. This idea was originally called “keeping the Sabbath,” which was God’s holy day. During the Old Testament, the Sabbath fell on the final day of the week (Is. 58:13; Deut. 5:14).

The teachings and practices of the Old Testament show us that group (or “corporate”) worship was an obligation God’s people took seriously and were commanded to participate in.

The New Testament
Example and Command
The New Testament is most commonly identified with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He steals the show and for good reason. It is fitting, then, that in Mark’s gospel we learn Jesus is called “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:28), which is why we find the Sabbath identified elsewhere as “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). Interestingly, in the New Testament, the Sabbath is shifted from the last day of the week to the first (like it is today!) (1 Cor. 16:2).

But if insight into the early church is what we seek, we must turn to the book of Acts. Therein, Luke describes the various evolutions and practices of the fledgling Christian movement including its earliest meetings. These initial meetings were at first daily (Acts 2:46), and then weekly (Acts 20:7).

Christ’s sacrifice dissolved the need for the previously commanded sacrificial requirements. Though the sacrificial system had been fulfilled, the corporate gatherings detected in the Old Testament continued. As such, God’s people progressed from the repeated offering of animals to the recurrent praising of God for the one-time sacrifice Jesus made on their behalf. The author of Hebrews calls this a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15).

Nevertheless, the gatherings of the New Testament were very similar to the Old. Praises were sung (Heb. 13:15; 1 Pt. 2:9; Eph. 5:19), prayers were prayed (1 Tim. 2:8; Cf. Acts 4:24; 13:1-3), and God’s Word was read and taught (1 Tim. 4:13; Col. 4:16; Acts 20:7-9). However, the administration of the sacraments, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, was new. More specifically the latter, which believers partook of with regularity (Acts 2:42). None of these practices—the singing of praises, the reading of God’s word, nor the sacraments—were inventions of the Church. Rather, God commanded them of believers everywhere, including you and I (Eph. 5:19; Ro. 15:6; Jn. 6:53; 1 Cor. 10:17; 11:24-26). Even the gathering itself, as Hebrews 10:24-25 indicates, was commanded: “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…”

As we should expect, just as the Old Testament provides both examples and commands for worship, so does the New.

We take time to describe a number of the biblical elements of worship as a reminder that God has prescribed specific practices for worship. As Bible-believing Christians, we are obligated to worship God as He desires to be worshiped, always appealing to the New Testament as our standard and guide.

The Blessings of Fellowship
As Christians, part of our spiritual worship is our being conformed to God’s will. To this end, Paul calls us to present ourselves as living sacrifices, seeking to do what is pleasing in God’s eyes (Ro. 12:1-2). This is an especially important reality for the worship service. Our obedience in gathering is an acknowledgment of both the authority and majesty of Christ; we worship and obey Him as King. At the same time, God’s love, mercy, and grace—all expressions of His goodness—are imparted to us as a result of our participation in the worship service. The service is for God, but this does not prevent us from recognizing the benefits received through the means of grace and the general goodwill He imparts to us through the Christian life.

...But, what are the means of grace?

The means of grace are special avenues of God’s blessing. They are spiritual nourishments, as Paul says, describing them as “spiritual food” (1 Cor. 10:3). Just as our bodies need food to live, so our spirit requires nourishment or it will grow weak.

Historically, protestants have recognized the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments as means of grace. Prayer, however, is oftentimes included as well. In any case, all three items are integral components of the church service and our discipleship. As much as each can be practiced individually, they cannot be experienced privately in the same way as when we are gathered together under the shepherding of the elders.

Of additional benefit to us, is our weekly experience of the intimate familial connections fostered in the local church. Autumn Gardner, director of Children and Family Ministries, highlights this important experience while commenting on the subject:

One reason we gather—in small groups and on Sundays—is to interact, as embodied persons who look at each other's faces and appreciate each other's physical presence—because of the familial bond we share. This bond is a stated reality in Scripture. When we accept Christ's atoning gift and repent of sin, we are adopted into his family. We are not given the choice to accept Jesus and reject his body. I Corinthians 12:26 states "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." Gathering on Sundays is an acknowledgment of this familial reality, and enables the growth of relationship within the body of Christ so that the unity described in I Corinthians and Ephesians can be experienced.

Simply put, the fellowship of believers in worship, a fellowship that is uniquely Christian and rooted in our adoption, is an experience of family that cannot be replicated. We are all connected, something that is most evident when we are shoulder-to-shoulder, glorifying God together in agreement.

In this same way, gathering provides us with a glimpse of what heaven will be like. There, we will sing with one voice, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come! …[and] to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 4:8b and Rev. 5:13). The local church, in all of its intimacy and purity, is but an imperfect snapshot of the perfect family, and experience of God’s glory, that awaits us in eternity.

What all this means is, though church is intended to focus us on knowing and glorifying God, we are also privileged to enjoy the spiritual benefits God has thereby provided us according to His deep and steadfast love (1 Cor. 10:16). Because of these blessings, the mature Christian cherishes the freedom and ability to gather and experience the means of grace when he is able, and grieves when he is hindered (as during a pandemic).

Answering the Question
At the beginning we asked, “is church optional?” And maybe we’ve come this far and you’re still scratching your head.

When asking, “do we have to go to church?,” what does “have to” really mean? To be frank, there are very few things that we as Christians have to do, per se. The one thing that is truly required of us is conversion, which includes both the placing of faith in Jesus Christ and the repentance of sin. Like a teacher who does not teach or a singer who does not sing, a Christian without conversion is not a Christian.

But if faith and repentance are all we must do, then what should we make of the numerous commandments in the Bible? What about honoring our parents, loving our neighbors, or gathering for worship? Don’t Christians have to do these things as well? In one sense, yes; but in another sense, it’s a bit more complicated. In order to explain, we must understand that scriptural imperatives (or instructions) are not only things we are commanded to do, but also things we will do—by virtue of our conversion.

What I mean is, the Bible teaches us that following Jesus involves a transformation of the follower (2 Cor. 5:17). This transformation, which is known as “regeneration,” involves a redemption of our affections. We begin to sincerely desire the things God desires. This doesn’t happen perfectly all at once, but little-by-little as we mature. This process is known as sanctification, a growing in holiness that God works in us through His Spirit (Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:3-5).

Can you see how the biblical teachings of sanctification and regeneration impact our question? Because God has changed us, His instructions are more appetizing to us. The things we once rebelled against in God’s law we now love. Attending church, then, becomes something we are increasingly motivated to do as our wills are aligned with God’s.

For clarity, attending church is not something Christians must do to be saved. Neither is it something Christians must do to keep their salvation, that’s legalism. Instead, once we have placed our trust in Christ, God promises that we will naturally begin to love His law and practice obedience to it. Jesus even says that If we love Him, we will keep His commandments (Jn. 14:15). This is a straightforward exhortation connecting our obedience to the truth of our love for Christ, a love that is only possible when God has changed us from the inside out.

None of this means that we’ll never feel like skipping church, ignoring our Bibles, or neglecting our prayer life. None of us are perfect. What it does mean, though, is that we cannot abstain from such things for long. Think of it like this: We may be able to skip a meal or two without consequence, but we will inevitably become hungry and make our way to the refrigerator. As humans, it’s only natural that we need to eat. Similarly, we may put off attending Church, skipping a few Sundays here and there, but we will eventually grow hungry for the spiritual food it provides. As Christians, it’s only natural that we seek God through the means He has graciously established for us.

The other side is this: If you do find yourself continually disinterested in the church and other elements of the Christian life, the apostle Paul instructs you to, “Examine yourself! to see whether you are in the faith.:" Paul is basically telling us to take a careful look at ourselves—at our hearts—and see what’s going on. Again, no one lives perfectly, but an increasing lack of desire for the good gifts that God has given us is a serious cause for concern. In response, self-examination under the guidance of parents and elders can help us understand, “am I simply experiencing a season of backsliding, or have I yet to truly follow Christ?” The urgency of Paul’s instruction alerts us to the seriousness of the matter. In all our lives, nothing is more pressing than the answer to the question are we in the faith.

Gospel Impact
When Jesus went willingly to the cross, God’s love and grace were revealed in a way in which the universe will never see again. To make His glory known, God set in motion events that would ensure the salvation of a people, His Church. Part of the way we continue to participate in the graces of the gospel is through the blessings of the worship service. God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, and our Christian fellowship all reinforce our union with Christ in death and resurrection, and the unique familial community we experience as a result.

Family Application
Discussion Questions
  1. Why do we gather for church every week?
  2. If being transformed by the Spirit means we will naturally begin to do the things God wants us to do, do we even need to try to obey?
  3. What should we do if church attendance feels like a chore?
  4. Is church optional?

  1. Because we love God and want to obey Him, worship Him, and enjoy the blessings we receive as a result. // (Jn. 14:15; Heb. 10:24-25)
  2. The Bible does not leave us the option of complacency. Even though the Spirit empowers us to love God’s law and to obey it, we are also commanded to strive in obedience and to run the race of faith. Graciously, God helps us to do these things and promises to always, until the very end. // (2 Pt. 2:10; Heb. 12:1-3; Phil 1:6)
  3. If we feel this way, perhaps we don’t have a full understanding of why church is so important. Church should be a joyful experience. Understanding the holiness of God, His mercy and love, and how we are built-up through worshiping Him, all contribute to that. 
  4. After reading this article, what do you think? 

Family Prayer
This month, consider praying with your family about the importance of church and worshiping together with the body.
Here is a simple prayer to get you started.

We know that you have not only saved us to something future but that day-by-day your gifts of grace nourish and sustain us.
The opportunity to gather with your people and to enjoy you in a special way is part of those gifts. Help us to recognize and appreciate our access to these things.
Lastly, we understand that your law provides perfect freedom, so teach us to receive your gifts with faithfulness, walking in obedience to your Word, and love for your Son.
We love you Lord,

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