“Are you going to church on Sunday?”
If this question were asked of New Testament Christians, they would not know how to respond. That’s because the word for “church” in New Testament Greek, ekklesia, means “called out and gathered together.” Church was not a place or a building but the people who were followers of Jesus Christ. Those who accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior were members of his body, the church. There was no such thing as a follower of Christ who did not regularly gather together with others to worship the God and Father of Jesus.
“I don’t need to go to church. I’m a good Christian. I pray by myself. I give to charities. I serve the community when I can. What really matters is my relationship to God. Church has nothing to do with that. Besides, I tried going to church in the past and all I saw was hypocrisy and squabbling. I prefer to live out my faith on my own. I experience God when I’m gazing at the sunset or walking in the park.”
With minor variations, I’ve heard the above stated many times in my life. How should we respond to this “church is unnecessary” mentality so rampant in our culture?
I start with Jesus himself. No one was more spiritual than he was. Yet the New Testament makes clear that Jesus regularly participated in synagogue worship on the sabbath. The Gospel of Luke states, “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16).
If Jesus is our example for the way we should conduct our life, then his decision to participate regularly in worship informs us that we must do the same. In fact, how much more do we sinful humans need to attend corporate worship! Some may respond with the objection that Jesus went to synagogue services, sure, but the churches today are filled with duplicitous, insincere people. But that was also the case in Jesus’s day. He regularly encountered hypocritical and disagreeable persons in worship. At the end of his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, the assembly drove him not only out of their religious gathering but out of the town and attempted to throw him off a cliff. This hostile, scary experience did not deter Jesus from continuing his usual practice of worshiping with others. He didn’t say, “Well, if that’s the way they’re going to treat me, I’ll go and worship God alone.” In his humble human form, Jesus customarily sought communion with sinful human beings. He understood that drawing closer to others through prayer and worship allowed him to draw closer to God. Those who think that they can worship God alone in a satisfactory way are fooling themselves.
A regular staple of our worship service on Sunday morning is the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Does it make a difference if we recite the Lord’s Prayer alone or with a body of believers in worship? I think it does. And I think Jesus is telling us this truth in the form of this prayer. Let me quote several key phrases of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven,” “Give us this day our daily bread,” “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Do you notice something in common in all of these phrases? The prayer as taught by Jesus was to be offered by a group of believers, not by a lone individual. He did not teach the prayer in the following way: “My Father, who art in heaven,” “Give me this day my daily bread,” “forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me,” “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.” No, Jesus did not teach the prayer in that individualistic way.
Another significant spiritual component to corporate worship is the celebration of Holy Communion. Many don’t seem to notice that word communion. Holy Communion is just that, “communion,” the body of Christ in collective worship. Those who belong to the body of Christ who do not faithfully attend worship services actually cause dysfunction to the church. Do they realize that? If they are not there in worship, something is missing in Christ’s body that cannot be replaced. Jesus intended for his holy meal to be shared by all believers assembled together. Everyone is invited and everyone needs to be there at the gracious request of Christ who is the host of the supper.
In the Old Testament, the communal memory and celebration of God’s redemptive events for the nation of Israel helped draw its people together, unite them, and define them. Likewise, in the New Testament, the church was called upon to gather together on the first day of the week to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For almost 2000 years, this practice has been upheld by Christ’s followers.
By affiliating with a church, including participating in communal worship on Sundays, believers in Christ help each other on a shared journey toward God’s kingdom. We learn to cast off ungodly ways and to embrace righteous ways. We encourage, admonish, and nourish one another. Coming together as a church, we visibly testify to our being God’s children, seeking to be one with God and with one another.
We must never forget that the most important aspect of “going to church” is to worship God. Worship is ultimately for God’s sake. At the same time, it cannot be overestimated how important worshiping God with fellow believers can be to our own personal spiritual life. We cannot find that kind of spiritual nourishment anywhere else. No, not even “gazing at the sunset or walking in the park.”
The Rev. Gary Shahinian is pastor of Park Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, located in Davis Chapel of First Baptist Church in Worcester