The 19th century theologian Dwight L. Moody once described church attendance as a practice “as vital to a disciple as a transfusion of rich, healthy blood to a sick man.” But an increasing percentage of Christians are seemingly conflicted on the need for church, believing they could stay faithful to God by themselves.
In fact, a newly released survey conducted by LifeWay Research found most Christians hold very contradictory views of the importance of community. Three-in-four Protestant churchgoers — or 75 percent — said they need other believers around them in order to grow in their faith. However, 65 percent claimed they could remain true to their Christian faith without a community around them.
Kenneth Priest, interim director of the Center for Church Revitalization at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which commissioned the LifeWay study, said such a contradiction in answers reveals a need for greater discipleship in the church.
“I believe this is primarily a discipleship issue,” Priest said. Part of the problem, which he described as “spiritual apathy,” is due to “the lack of pastors and spiritual leaders equipped to effectively preach and teach a text-driven life application of God’s Word.”
The Bible is clear about the importance of gathering together as believers in Jesus Christ. All throughout the New Testament, corporate language is used to refer to Christians.
In Ephesians 2:19-21, the apostle Paul said Gentiles — those to whom salvation was extended — “are no longer strangers and foreigners.” He went on to say they are now “members of God’s family.”
“Together,” the apostle continued, “we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.”
Over and over again, the authors of the New Testament described Christians as “the body.” In 1 Corinthians 12:27, Paul said every believer is a part of “Christ’s body.” Earlier, in Romans 12:4-5, he wrote, “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.”
Jesus himself, in Matthew 16:18, spoke fiercely about the importance of the church. He declared, “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”
The church has been given a clear task. In the Great Commission, Jesus explained its purpose: to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples and baptizing them and teaching them all Christ has commanded. The church — the “body of Christ” — is the Gospel made flesh and bones to the rest of the world. We are serving as Jesus’ ambassadors.
God also understands our propensity toward sin and our desire to wander. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” The Christian community is a family of believers who hold one another to account.
Christ’s church is also a place where broken people come to share each others’ burdens and rejoice in one another’s victories. It is, as the Apostle’s Creed describes it, a “communion of saints.”
But because the church is one body made up of flawed people, the Christian community doesn’t always live up to the safe place outlined for us in Scripture. Without Jesus and the guiding of the Holy Spirit, we fall short time and again.
That brokenness — and the lack of reconciliation — is, at least in some cases, perhaps the reason Christians are so deeply conflicted on the necessity of church.
“The ‘needing, yet not needing’ responses demonstrate an internal turmoil of individuals desiring community, but not seeing the church as the place to have those needs met,” Priest explained. “Solo Christianity is an inward desire to seek after spiritual matters without the realization biblical community is what will fulfill the desire they are seeking.”
The church was never meant to be a display case for the perfect. It’s a triage center for the broken, the hurting, and the distressed. It should be a safe haven for the perplexed and the downtrodden as well as a space fit for celebrating those who have found victory in the Gospel.
Scripture commands Christians to gather together because, just like a branch needs a tree in order to flourish, a believer needs to remain connected to the body of Christ if she or he wants to grow.