A recent survey showed that the percentage of those in the U.S. who identify as Christians declined sharply by 8% from 2007 to 2014, with millennials leading the exodus. Roughly 36% of millennials now consider themselves to have no religious affiliation (“nones”). Along with these statistics, we see an ever-increasing availability of digitally archived information (online books, sermons, teaching, etc.) and live-streamed church services. Consequently, one of the major historic motivations for attending church (acquiring the knowledge of the faith system) can be conveniently satisfied without a person ever setting foot in an actual church service. Many are asking one simple question that must be answered if the statistical trend is to be reversed or even slowed: Why go to church?
It is apparent that as people are becoming less and less comfortable with traditional public expressions of Christian faith, they are preferring more of a private faith that has minimal public expression. In part due to hyper-traditionalization, which builds over time, dominates church assembly, and clutters the mission beyond recognition, this shift is not entirely bad. It provides an opportunity for us to address the question with Biblical simplicity and no-frills clarity. Why go to church? The Bible itself provides compelling answers that can motivate believers of all ages to recommit to being active and public participants in their local churches.
Why go to church?
Church-going is not the central tenet of Biblical Christianity, but believers are told that they should not forsake assembling together. Instead they should be “encouraging one another…as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24). It is worth noting that the assembling together is not without purpose, nor is it simply a regulation or ceremony to be observed. It is identified as serving the purpose of believers’ encouraging one another, based on a forward-looking perspective.
The word church in the New Testament is translated from the Greek ekklesia, which simply means assembly. It is a significant truth that the church is not a building for centralized assembling, but is actually the people themselves. Believers in Jesus make up what is referred to as the body of Christ, and each believer is considered to be a member of that body (1 Cor 12:27). Just as every member of a human body is important to the body’s overall function, so every believer is a vital part of the body of Christ. The members of the body must function together (1 Cor 12:14-18), and they must care for one another (1 Cor 12:25-26). Because of positional unity that all believers have as members of one body, they must be actively diligent to preserve that bond of unity, and they do that by showing tolerance to one another in love (Eph 4:2-3).
Further, God has provided gifts to the church in the form of apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers, and good-news proclaimers who serve “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12). In order for Christ’s body to be built up, its members must be active in service, and in order for that to happen, each person needs to be properly equipped. While it is the word of God itself that does the equipping (2 Tim 3:16-17), God intended that the gift-roles would be utilized as part of that process. In short, the process of equipping is not intended to take place only in isolation, and that process is to result in active service. While believers are told to do good to all people, there is an order of priority in doing good “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:9-10).
God has also provided gifts to the individual members (1 Pet 4:10-11). Whether those gifts involve speaking or doing, they are stewardships of God’s grace, and those gifts are to be employed in the service of others, for His glory. Christians are told, based on ensuring that the word of Christ is dwelling richly in them, to teach and admonish each other (Col 3:16) with tools including song.
Finally, believers are encouraged to have a fellowship with one another (1 Jn 1:3, 7; 2:9-11) that reflects love for their brothers, and they are to pray together (Rom 12:12, Col 4:2, 1 Tim 2:8).
While there could be a number of other things added to the list, in the most basic contexts discussing church identity and function, the Bible describes at least these twelve activities that should characterize the church as a whole and its members interacting collectively. It is important to realize that not one of these can be accomplished fully when a person is isolated from the rest of the body:
- Encouraging one another
- Functioning together
- Caring for one another
- Preserving in practice the bond of unity that already exists in position
- Showing tolerance to one another in love
- Being equipped by the word of God together
- Doing the work of service
- Doing good to all people, and especially to believers
- Employing gifts in service of others,
- Teaching and admonishing each other
- Fellowshipping with one another
- Praying together
In light of these characteristics, churches and church leaders should assess the effectiveness of the local church in meeting these functions. Does our current assembling reflect the purposes and processes described by the Bible? Or are we deriving our function from some other source? If our assembling together is not Biblically authentic, it should come as no surprise to us when people decide to skip the church service in favor of some activity they deem more worthwhile and significant.
Likewise, individual believers ought to examine what we value and prioritize in our own lives, in order to align our personal priorities with His design for us. If fulfilling these functions together is not important to us, then it might be useful for us to consider the inconsistency of proclaiming our love for Christ while not caring properly for those He loves (e.g., Eph 5:25-27, 1 Jn 2:6). Current trends provide an urgent reminder of the need for us to refocus on Biblical patterns and design. Who better to shape our understanding of the body of Christ, than Christ Himself?