“Don’t go to church; be the church,” urged an influential Christian leader I respect.
I understood his call to action. If you must choose between attending a weekly service or demonstrating Christ through service, please call the body of Christ to perform, please opt for the latter. Sacrificially loving your Christian brothers and sisters is preferential to attending Sunday morning service out of obligation. It’s better to joyfully steward our God-given gifts than slide in and out of the back row every Sunday. Caring for the orphan, the widow, and the jobless outweighs downing an (admittedly delicious) church donut and cup of coffee.
Let me offer a quick caveat: When we talk about “going to church,” we aren’t talking about going to a building. The body of Christ is the people of God, not a structure. The early church met in the temple and in homes. But neither the temple nor homes were the church; the people were the church. So it is with us. Whether we gather in homes, a church building, or somewhere else, we the people are the church.
But God doesn’t ask us to choose between going and being. In fact, choosing to be the church without going to church robs us of the power Christ offers as he calls us outward to serve.
A false divide
“Don’t go to church; be the church” is a false dichotomy. This admonition demands we head west or east at the fork in the road. But God intends for us to hit the accelerator on the unbroken highway north.
In the book of Acts, we see the believers regularly gathered for worship, prayer, and teaching. The glimpses we get of this vibrant community show the energy they received from the indwelling Holy Spirit as they both gathered and served. It’s as though they’re a tennis ball, propelled out by the racquet of their gatherings to serve and share the good news in their communities, only to be propelled back to their worship meetings by the racquet of service. Back and forth they go, with each racquet energizing them back in the other direction. Or, consider a yo-yo, with the coiled energy of the string in the palm of the yo-yoer that is propelled downward until completely uncoiled, and then, with that same energy, spun back up into its coiled position only to be spun back out.
Luke gives us a glimpse of this propelling and impelling energy at work in the community:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, CSB)
The early church didn’t feel the need to either “go to church” or “be the church.” This passage testifies that they did both. The early believers met regularly, pressing into worship, prayer, and the Word of God. These corporate gatherings were the energizing force for their spiritual health and spiritual service.
A better way
We misunderstand the role of the gathered people of God in our lives if we think we can forego “going to church” and merely opt for “being the church.” We need the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we need to sit under the teaching of the Word, receive the body and blood of Christ together, raise our voices and sing praises to our Redeemer, and hear encouragement from one another.
When the author of Hebrews chastises some for pulling away from the gathered community, we see these spiritual necessities at the heart of his admonition. He urges, “And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching,” (Hebrews 10:24-25, CSB). The author sandwiches his exhortation to not stop gathering together between two admonitions. First, he calls them to provoke one another to love and good works. And second, he invites them to encourage one another.
We need to gather because we need to be spurred on and encouraged as aliens in this world. We need to experience the presence of God manifested in His people. In essence, we need the body of Christ.
But our culture continues to disengage from formal religion. Today, fewer than half of Americans report belonging to a church or other religious institution. Church attendance has been declining precipitously for years. The pandemic allowed us to have the ease of accessing content online. Still, we shouldn’t confuse watching a sermon (a great thing to do!) with participating in the gathered community—exhorting and encouraging one another. In His mercy, God doesn’t just leave us with His words (as vital as they are). He also gives us His Spirit and His people.
Let’s not put a fork in the road where God has made a highway. On my own, I will flounder. On my own, I will make faith something I consume, not contribute to. Friends, let’s be the church and go to church.