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Do I have to go to Church?

by Mark Horne

copyright © 1999

Imagine driving up to Canada and stopping at a restaurant to get a bite to eat. While you’re sitting at the table, an enthusiastic young man comes over to you and says in an excited voice, "Are you an American?"

You reply, "Yes, I am."

"Wonderful! I have so little fellowship up here with fellow Americans."

"Have you lived in Canada a long time?" you ask.

"Oh yes, all my life. I was born here."

"Oh… So your parents were Americans?"

"No, sadly my parents remained Canadian all their lives."

"Then how did you become an American?"

"Well, one day I found a tract that told me about American ideas. I was transfixed by their power and adopted them as my own. I was born again, you might say. From that day on I have believed in Americanism. I have memorized all of the Declaration of Independence and portions of the Constitution, and I subscribe to the Congressional Register."

Now, of course, that would never happen. America is not an ism–a mere set of ideas like Marxism or Confucianism. We all know that nations are objective social realities, involving citizenship and governmental authority and borders and rights and privileges and duties. Of course, not all nations are geographically particular. The Jews have existed for centuries as a distinct nation without a particular land or civil government. The Gypsies, the Kurds, and the Basques are similar. Nevertheless, whether you are a Jew, Gypsy, Kurd, or Basque does not simply depend on whether or not you believe certain things in your heart. That’s part of the picture, but not all of it.

Misunderstanding God

In both the West and the East, people commonly think of the being they call "God" as some sort of vague ghostly force which cannot be approached except through some sort of vague, internal–often called "spiritual"–contemplation. At best, this "God" is considered personal, and the "spiritual" exercise involves verbal communication–prayer. Nevertheless, as important as prayer is, it is hardly an adequate way, by itself, to relate to a real person. Believing in such a God too often resembles a child’s imaginary friend.

In contrast to this popular view, the God presented in the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures is a real person who has real relationships with human beings. More than that, He is a great king over the whole universe (which He made in the first place). People who are rightly related to Him are said to be members of His kingdom, citizens of His commonwealth. In the words of Saint Peter, writing to such persons: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9 & 10). Saint Peter is quoting the words of Moses which God gave him to say to the nation of Israel: If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5 & 6). Whether a national society as at the time of Moses or an international society as at the time of Saint Peter and even today, God has always been someone who had real relationships with human beings. Because he is a king, the society formed by these relationships can only be a kingdom.

But there is more. God is not only a real person, but has also revealed himself as three persons. This is extremely mysterious, and completely alien to the conceptions of God posited by all other religions, but it is inescapable from the way God has worked in history. God sent Jesus to us and in so doing sent himself-God with a human face. Jesus claimed and proved himself to be God. Furthermore, he revealed God as "Father" and spoke with him as another person. Finally, he promised "the Spirit," and made it clear that the Spirit was a person and was just as much God as himself and the Father. Thus, the Christian tradition has developed the term Trinity to emphasize the "threeness" of God as Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit.

Now the Trinity is, as I said, very mysterious, but its implications are breathtaking, because it means that God is a society. From before time began, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have enjoyed a relationship of love. By initiating a relationship with human beings, God draws them into the eternal relationship of love which exists among the persons of the Trinity. Jesus put it this way when he was praying to God for his disciples: The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you have loved me (John 17:22 & 23).

Notice here that Jesus speaks of the glorious unity which his disciples should have is not some internal state of affairs, but a visible unity which no one around can possibly deny. Jesus wants his followers to form an objective society in order to demonstrate that God is a society–a community of love between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit into which we have been brought as members.

So, because God is a real person with kingly authority, his followers cannot help but be formed into a real kingdom, just like Canada or any other nation. And because God is a community, his followers cannot help but be formed into a real community. That God is a real person and persons means that we can have a real relationship with him. This network of relationships, this society, kingdom, or community is known as the Church.

Alienation & Reconciliation

Not everyone is a member of the Church. This is rather odd. After all, God is the God of everyone since he made everyone. Why would not everyone belong to his kingdom and community?

According to the Bible, there was a time when all humanity was part of God’s community. In fact, they were God’s family. According to the Gospel of Luke, Adam, the first human being, was God’s son. That doesn’t mean that Adam was of the same nature as God. The Bible is very clear that Adam (and afterwards, his wife Eve) was created by God, not spawned from him in some way. Nevertheless, God made Adam and Eve, according to the Bible, "in the image of God," and adopted them as part of his family. So at that time, the entire human race did belong to God’s kingdom and community, just like you would expect.

But Adam and Eve rebelled against God by disbelieving and then disobeying him. As a result, the whole human race became alienated and orphaned from God. Adam and Eve were exiled from God’s presence and cast out of his kingdom. Because God is the source of all life, they and their children were left under the power of death.

Yet God did not leave the human race in its misery. Rather, he began immediately to promise and work towards reconciliation with the human race. Noah, Abraham, David, and many others in the Bible were restored to fellowship with God. Their disobedience was forgiven and they were reconciled as part of God’s new community. Indeed, from beginning to end the Bible is mostly about the history of God’s second society for humanity. He called people and used them to form a network of new restored relationships with himself. Within this new society, he promised the forgiveness of all disobedience and the resurrection of the body so that the curse of death would be undone.

I have already mentioned that the nation of Israel under Moses was called a "kingdom of priests," the same term which was later given to the international Church. But Israel was not only considered God’s priestly kingdom, but also his family. Moses told the Israelites, You are the children of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 14:1), and God said through Moses: Israel is my son, my firstborn. Obviously, in reconciling them to himself, God made Israel part of his family. Since, the human race had, in a sense, "run away from home," those of the human race restored to God’s kingdom were restored to their status as God’s children-they were restored to God’s family.

How did God accomplish this reconciliation? How did he provide adoption and forgiveness of offenses for these runaway children? The answer lies in Jesus of Nazareth. Saint Paul wrote: When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman . . . that we might receive the adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4 & 5). God the Son became and remains a true human being so that we alienated human beings might become sons and daughters of God. He suffered death in our place. Moreover, Jesus was raised from the dead and given new life from God, so that we too might receive new life. That life from God is given by His Spirit. The Spirit makes us a part of Jesus and Jesus a part of us so that all Jesus did counts toward us. Those incorporated into Jesus by the Spirit are given a right relationship to God because they share in Jesus’ relationship with his Father. In Jesus we have reconciliation.

And that means that in the Church we have reconciliation. The Church, after all, is considered to be, in a mysterious but very real sense, the body of Jesus. As Saint Paul wrote: God delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. . . . He is also head of the body, the Church (Colossians 1:13, 14, 18a).

Entering & Remaining in the Kingdom

The Church as an international society manifested in local congregations is the people of God. It is both the object and the means of reconciliation–the restoration to friendship with God through Jesus in the Spirit.

Do you have to go to Church? It depends on what you want. Do you want to remain alienated from God or do you want to be reconciled with Him?

Ultimately, it all comes down to trust. The Church doesn’t look like much in our day. Scandals involving the clergy are reported almost weekly. Many sermons are often useless, if not outright harmful. Furthermore, becoming a member of a local congregation and regularly attending worship involves a real cramp on most lifestyles. Many can think of places where they’d rather be on Sunday morning than at Church. And joining a local church almost always involves giving up a degree of personal autonomy, which we Americans tend to prize so much.

But, if you trust God–if you believe not only that he exists but that he keeps his promises in the Bible–then no sacrifice could be too great. God promises to save his people, to forgive their sins and raise them from the dead to a glorious new existence. He has give us a guarantee of this promise through raising Jesus from the dead by his Spirit. That same Spirit draws people into the Church which Jesus founded through the Apostles. Nothing the world has to offer can compare to such great things. Joining a church and regularly worshiping there is simply a demonstration of faith in Jesus–of trust that God is reconciling the world to himself and that you need that reconciliation.

Of course, this faith must include a trust in Jesus as the one who suffered for us, and rose again as our representative. We should pray to him privately and read his Word in the Bible. But God calls his people into community, to be part of his family and kingdom, to publicly and corporately worship him, and to interact with one another as brothers and sisters and as fellow-citizens.

What are you waiting for?

copyright © 1999


  1. Dear Sir,
    It is easy to unconsciously merge the typical form of ‘church’ today (sit in rows, look to the front, let some one else “do” church to you), with the Biblical injunctions to community. The two have little to do with each other. Chuch in the NT is a ‘for one another’ activity. Most ‘church’ today, inasmuch as it is a weekly meeting, is more pagan in form than Christian; derived from the influence of the statist ‘church’ of Constantine than the NT church of gathered believers. Why would a Christian go to a non-church, and have their faith presented like a spectacle to an audience, when the Spirit calls us to live serving each other. Who do I serve sitting in a pew looking at someone tell me things that have absolutely nothing to do with my life, my concerns or joys or my need for God? The church today is more a ‘lecture club’ than the body of the risen Christ.

    Comment by Clive — October 3, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  2. I feel compelled to respond to Clive’s facile comments regarding church. First, the concept of a Post-Constantine “statist church” is ahistorical, having more in common with “The Davinci Code” than reality. Any honest ecclesiastical historian (of which I am one) knows that the church had crystallized most of its worship and structural patterns by the end of the first century (when the last book–the Revelation of John–was most likely written). In the early second century, two centuries before Constantine lived, we have somewhat detailed descriptions of a Sunday pattern of liturgical worship based on the synagogue, the Temple, and the eucharistic meal. Of course, Christian life was not limited to the Sunday gathering, but extended to daily life in communion with fellow Christians; and even today when church membership becomes a Sunday-only commitment, it is a deviation from the authentic life in Christ. But this does not preclude the necessity of attendance. Paul, on several occasions, stresses “coming together in one place” and Hebrews 10:25 warns against those who “forsake” coming together.

    That being said, the early church was also not a “spectacle” in the way that many American parishes have become. I’m sure many may disagree with me, but the modern concept of either an entertainment-based service (like the mega-churches) or a “lecture club” with almost entirely preaching, is not rooted in Biblical or historical truth. The temple and the synagogue were liturgical worship settings, and there are multiple clues in the New Testament that their community was as well (in the Greek the words “liturgy” and “liturgizer” are used in Acts and by Paul). This is the ancient pattern of a two part service: the liturgy of the word, climaxing in the Bible readings and sermon; and the liturgy of the eucharist, climaxing in Holy Communion. Both parts are strung together with prayer and the singing of Psalms and hymns which the people participate in.

    In conclusion, it is not church attendance that is wrong, but rather some modern interpretations of it that are modeled on secular meetings. But this does not justify shunning church altogether. This attitude, I fear, may have more to do with American individualism and anti-establishment tendencies than with any real theological or Biblical understanding.

    Comment by Joseph Lucas — December 11, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

  3. I need an answer to this question. I have recently been away from the church because my pastors are domineering and cultish. Their message is usually one of control and fear if you don’t give a certain amount of money. These messages are so powerful that even years later, I hear the admonishing of a pastor (spiritual) who tells me “I’m gonna hit you so hard if you don’t come to church.” This man had a reputation of asking for fifty dollars for sacrifice offerings, then another offering, and still another. He held sessions in his basement for weary congregationists who needed “his help.” He charged $35 for that visit and additional money “for the help.” This was usually a candle of some sort or incense. He would break chairs, yell into your face asking “do you need a reading.” He was crazy. I finally broke away but his voice still reverberates in my head. Redeemed Asembly in South Richmond, and Trinity in Washington

    The other pastor who is from New Orleans preaches tithing above your means. He also is forceful and morphs into various characters during his sermons. He is sort of a humming bird after his sermons. He tried to harass me on a physical level. Metropolitan in north west Washington

    The final pastor would shake his fist, stomp in the pulpit, preach hell fire and damnation, ask for my whole paycheck, and have his members stalk me and touch me as well. I left there threatening them. Good Shepherd on Churchhill in Richmond

    This experience in the black church has left me cold and fearful of the spirit and its watchful eye. Since this “programming” ad nauseam, I think I need theraphy just because of the control and brainwashing strategies of my former black ministers.

    If you know of a contact who could help me with this, please let me know.

    Comment by jb — February 15, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  4. I love going to Church, spending time with my Savior and no one else. He died for me why can’t I give Him back 1 hour a week of my life. If I have time for everything why don’t I have time for Him.
    I’m there for Him and I am not bother about who’s there what the preacher wants, etc I am there to spend time with my God my powerful God. Missy

    Comment by Missy — March 27, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

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