Taken at face value this statement is absolutely true. You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. Actually, there is nothing that you can do that will make you a Christian. Your status as a child of God isn’t determined by how much money you drop in an offering plate, or how good a person you are throughout the week, or even how many times you attend a church service over the course of a lifetime. Your identity as a child of God is all on God. It is dependent upon what Jesus has done for you through His life, death on the cross and His resurrection. It’s a free gift.
But when someone says, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” I don’t think that’s what most people are really getting at. They aren’t talking about how we are freely justified before God apart from works. At least not in my experience.
Most of the time when I’ve heard Christians say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” they are really just trying to justify a decision they’ve made to not gather each week with other believers.
I think if more people understood what is really going on in worship, no Christian would ever try to justify missing worship by saying, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”
Many people mistakenly treat worship as if it were a passive experience. They think of “church” as something done by someone else: the pastor, the musicians, the choir, maybe the ushers. Sure, you might sing some hymns or drop a check in the offering plate (if you’re still writing checks), but for the most part church is something you watch as it is done by other people. With that line of thought, why go to church when you can watch it from the comfort of your own home? Besides the location, what’s the difference?
The picture of worship given in the Bible is very different. The gathered people of God are a congregation, not an audience. You are as active a participant in what happens when believers gather together as the choir, or pastor, or others leading the service. And what’s more, God Himself is active among us. After all, Jesus promised that wherever two or three are gathered in His name He is there with us (Matthew 18:20). Worship is not monologue, but a dialogue. Throughout we are speaking to one another and to God. We call to God in the invocation to be present among us as He has promised. Then we confess our sins before God and each other. We hear God speak His promise of forgiveness through the absolution. And we are reminded that we are to forgive others as freely as God has forgiven us. When a person is baptized, God is the One active in washing away that individual’s sin. When we celebrate communion, we recognize that Jesus is really present with the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. We pray to God knowing that He has promised to hear and answer those prayers.
But more than that, “church” isn’t really defined as a specific place. When most people think of the word “church” they envision four walls, a vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, a cross up front, an altar, and a large space filled with pews. But “church” isn’t so much a place as it is the people of God who gather in a place. Collectively we are the church. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 2: “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19b-22)
God doesn’t live in temples or buildings made with human hands. (Acts 17:24) He dwells in His people through baptism. The church isn’t confined to one particular place. The church is wherever believers gather together for worship in His name.
If anyone didn’t need to “go to church” it was Jesus. After all, He is the perfect Son of God. According to Luke 4:16, Jesus could be found each week in the synagogue or at the temple with other believers. Luke tells us that, “[Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as was His custom, He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and He stood up to read.” (Luke 4:16)
“As was His custom.” Those four words speak volumes. Every week when the Sabbath rolled around Jesus made a habit of gathering with other people of God. And we do the same.
It’s true – you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. We gather together each week because, by God’s grace, we are Christian.
***A note about why Christians gather together once a week***
The frequency of our gathering isn’t arbitrary. It’s not like people were sitting around and thought once a month was too infrequent and every day was too often. We gather together at least once a week for worship because that is the pattern God set up. At the time of the Exodus, as God was giving Israel His instructions on what it would look like to be His people, He said that they should, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11) From the very beginning God’s people were gathering together for rest and worship once a week as a reflection and reminder of God’s work at creation. After Jesus, God’s people changed the day we celebrated weekly from Saturday to Sunday, because Sunday was the day that Jesus rose from the grave. So every week we gather for worship, we are reminding ourselves of God’s work at creation and also God’s work of restoration through Jesus’ death and resurrection.