Question: Why is it necessary for Christians to attend church? Can’t I be just as good a Christian without going to church? Do I have to be in church to connect with God? How will I feel more connected to God if I come to church?
Frank answers: Sometimes it’s just a chore to get up on Sunday morning and go to church. The weather is never right. It’s too cold or snowy or rainy or it’s just too nice and it’s an opportunity to get out and enjoy God’s world and take care of shopping or other things we have to do because our daily lives are so full of other responsibilities. But it’s also the Lord’s Day and so, whether it’s a nice day or a crummy day, the day belongs to the Lord. And the Lord wants us to join in his celebration of it as the sign of a new creation. It was on Sunday that our Lord rose from the dead, appeared among the apostles, and sent his Holy Spirit and created…the church.
Let’s make sure we agree on what “church” is. When we use the word “church” we can mean an institution, a denomination, a parish, or a building. But none of these is how the Bible thinks of church. In Hebrew “church” is qahal Yahweh, “the assembly of the Lord.” In Greek “church” is ekklesia, “an assembly” of believers. The Latin translation of qahal or ekklesia would be congregatio. Congregating suggests a coming together for some purpose.
There are many kinds and sizes of church to attend from a small emerging church to a medium size church to a cathedral church to an evangelical megachurch. What they all have in common is assembling or congregating—coming together. And the purpose of the coming together is to worship God, to hear God’s Word, to pray for the world, to celebrate the sacraments instituted by Christ, to organize for mission.
In the act of worship we proclaim God’s Name before the world. In the Word we hear God’s will and promise for us and for the world. In common prayer we exercise the priestly role of mediating between God and the world. In the sacraments we are brought into communion with God in Christ and with one another in the body of Christ. In organizing for mission we figure out how best to work for justice and reconciliation and take care of the needs of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
The whole history of salvation is the story of God calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying a people to be his own. This is the story from the patriarchs in Genesis, who generate biologically the people of Israel, through the gathering of the saints into the kingdom of Christ in the Book of Revelation.
Individuals are called by God to special service. But that service always entails a task related to the life of God’s people, whether it’s Abraham becoming the father of a nation, Moses delivering that nation from bondage in Egypt and receiving God’s Law, David being anointed as king over all the tribes of Israel, the prophets being given a special word of the Lord to deliver to the people in particular circumstances, or Paul taking the gospel of the crucified and risen Jewish Messiah Jesus to the gentiles. We are all baptized into the life of God’s people. Someone had to bring us to the font.
As individuals, we are sent out from the assembly to witness to God’s love in our daily lives and to care for Christ’s brothers and sisters in need. Yes, Christians should also be connected with God apart from the assembly, in their own daily prayer. But even in the prayer of the closet, the prayer our Lord taught us to say is still addressed to “Our Father, who art in heaven.” And someone had to teach us to say it.
One becomes a Christian by being baptized. Baptism is both an immersion into the death and resurrection of Christ and a rite of initiation into the Christian community. That’s why some pastors are reluctant to baptize people for whom we cannot see a continuing relationship with the community of faith in Christ Jesus crucified and risen. The faith in which we are baptized is learned in the community. There’s no way to be a Christian apart from the community of faith, apart from hearing the Word of God and participating in the sacramental meal our Lord left for the church to celebrate for his remembrance. Many churches count as active members those who receive communion as well as make some kind a contribution because both are indications of invested participation in the life of the church.
As to whether you can connect with God without attending church…well, God will get ahold of you if he needs to. He connected to Moses through a burning bush and to Saul the Pharisee who later became Paul the Apostle by a lightning bolt on the highway to Damascus. But we have no guarantee of encountering God in a bush or on the highway. But the eternal Word of God (God’s self-communication) became flesh in Jesus the Christ. And the risen and ascended Christ promises to be present wherever two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:20).
If you want to connect with God, God is reliably present in Christ. And Christ is reliable present in the assembly and in the word proclaimed and the sacraments administered. In other words, you will feel more connected with God in Christ when you attend church because that’s where Christ promised to be present.
Frank Senn is a retired Lutheran pastor. He was in parish ministry for forty years and taught at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for three years. He was an adjunct professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Since his retirement in 2013 he also taught courses at Trinity Theological College in Singapore, Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia, and Carey Theological College in Vancouver. He has a Ph.D. in theology (liturgical studies) from the University of Notre Dame.
This above article was first posted on Pr. Senn’s page entitled “Frank Answers.” You can access the original page here.