I’ve heard it many times. “Well, you don’t have to attend church to be a Christian.” “Attending church doesn’t make you a Christian!” “I don’t need the church; I worship God in my own way.”
In each case, someone attempts to provide a barrier to further conversation about the gospel and its effects upon the whole of a person’s life. In the discomforting moment of confrontation (gently or firmly) concerning sin, Christ’s death and resurrection, the call to repentance and faith, and the ongoing call of Christian discipleship, that person wants to push away and still feel satisfied about his position with God.
So, can he/she still be a Christian without going to church? If one means, does church attendance save anyone, we have to agree that it does not. Jesus Christ saves. Certainly, a lack of church attendance likely inhibits one coming to faith in Christ by not being under the proclamation of the gospel. But the question is really not about whether attending church saves anyone—that’s only a ruse to steer the conversation away from the pointed realities of the gospel. Instead, what happens once a person is united to Jesus Christ through faith in Him? Can that person, despite his/her profession of Christ, maintain a go-it-alone approach to Christianity and be legitimate as a true believer?
Let’s consider a few things that we find in the Scripture, since Scripture alone is the foundation for our faith and practice. Our opinions and even our family traditions (some don’t attend church yet profess to be Christian just like their parents have done) do not matter at this point.
Jesus established community with His first followers (e.g. Matt 4:18–5:2). He called a group of men to Himself who spent three years with Him discussing biblical truth, listening to His teaching, praying together, serving together, fellowshipping together, learning to live in relationship with one another, and preparing to lead the multiplying communities of believers in the first century. We know that it was not only men that followed but also women who became stalwarts in the early church (Luke 8:1–3; 23:49). The only time that Jesus did not include a true believer into the community that followed Him was with the man that Jesus delivered and made a new creation, that we call the Garasene demoniac. He wanted to follow with Jesus and His community but Jesus sent him on mission to his homeland of Decapolis, where he proclaimed “what great things Jesus had done for him” (Mark 5:1–20).
Prior to His ascension, Jesus charged His followers to make disciples, baptize them, and then to go on teaching them to faithfully observe (obey, put into practice, live in) all that He had taught them (Matt 28:19–20). The Great Commission directed gospel work to be done within the ongoing framework of Christian community. The continual teaching and shepherding toward faithful observance of Christ’s teachings is not done in isolation. Nor is the accountability necessary to hold our spiritual feet to the fire of obedience done alone. We need the body of Christ if we would follow Jesus. Jesus prescribed it Himself.
I realize that some quickly revert to how they can watch Christian teaching on the Internet or television or listen to audio messages. That’s a wonderful supplement and a great help when one is homebound but it does nothing toward application in the context of community. So many of the commands in the New Testament are relational. “Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Col 3:12–13). Those are not commands for solitary confinement in one’s home. They are community commands—learning to apply the gospel and its power and beauty in the context of the relationships within the local church. In that way the gospel shines through the church’s life together. To further reinforce that interpretation, Paul’s balance in that paragraph in Colossians three points directly toward “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:14–17). Again, these are actions that take place with reference to the local church. They are not for spiritual segregationalists who think that they are either too good to gather with others or that they don’t need anyone else to live like a Christian or that no one can add to their superior way of thinking.
One reads the scenes in heaven and it’s never, never about being an isolationist! Those scenes around the throne are always with the masses of people redeemed by the blood of Christ, who share the joys of His presence together forever (e.g. Rev 5:11–14; 7:9–17).
Can you be a Christian without going to church? Better asked, how can anyone who professes to be redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ think of not gathering with His body each week? (Hebrews 10:25) While attending church doesn’t save anyone, we find no shred of biblical evidence that true Christians didn’t seek to gather with one another. On the contrary, the weight of evidence in the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation is that Christ saves us to unite us to His body, which Paul declares is the church (Eph 1:22–23). Through the centuries, Christians have literally sacrificed their lives to gather with Christ’s body—the church. Thank God, they are still doing it today.
To declare that one doesn’t need to attend church to be a Christian is to expose a betrayal in thought and practice of the effectiveness and power of the gospel. True Christians and local congregations go together.