“You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” I’ve heard a lot of people tell me this before. I’ve stopped arguing with them about it because I have realized it really comes down to another issue.
It depends on what you mean by going to church.
If by going to church you mean that you go there solely for you to give your praise and worship to God and tell Him how awesome He is (think of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Oh, God you are so very big! We’re all very impressed down here!) – you’re probably right.
If by going to church you mean that you go there to learn some information about God or to get some advice and tips on how to live – you’re probably right.
You can do those sorts of things in other places and in other ways. You can tell God how awesome He is when you’re riding your bike or swinging a golf club or sitting on a beach. You can get all kinds of information about God and the bible from the TV, radio, and internet. You don’t need to go to church for that.
But that is not what going to church is about at all. It is not about you doing anything. It’s not just about downloading information into your brain or receiving tips and tricks on how to live your life. It is about Jesus doing something for you. It is about an actual encounter with Jesus – not just information about Jesus. It is about receiving the gifts Jesus has to give. When I learned that it turned everything that I thought I knew upside down. At the same time it made everything make sense.
Jesus said “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus instituted His Church so that we might abide in Him and He in us. He does this through His Word and Sacraments. Your pastor is the delivery man. So you go to church not to do something for God or even to learn some data or facts – you go to church to be with Jesus and to receive His gifts. Your pastor delivers to you the gifts of Jesus through preaching, absolving, baptizing, and feeding you Holy Communion.
“Yeah – but isn’t Jesus everywhere? Can’t I be with Jesus wherever I am?” No, not really. Jesus has not promised to be everywhere with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. He has only promised to be present with His gifts in His holy Word, holy Baptism, holy Absolution, and holy Communion – and these are found only within His Church. People will at times object and say “That is putting God in a box!” Well, thankfully God has boxed Himself in a very specific place so I know where to find Him! Otherwise I wouldn’t know where to look and I wouldn’t know if I had ever found Him. Instead, He makes clear promises – you will find me in my Word and Sacraments in my Church.
So when people say “I can worship God on the golf course” that may be true – but Jesus is not on the golf course with His gifts. When people say “I can read the Bible and online articles and learn all kinds of things about God and His Word” that may be true – but Jesus does not give you His Body and Blood online. You encounter Jesus in Divine Service in a way that you cannot anywhere else. He has not promised to be anywhere else with His gifts but in His Word and Sacraments in His Church.
You remain connected to Jesus, you abide in Jesus, when you receive His gifts that He gives through His Church. If you do not remain connected to Jesus you run the very real risk of becoming like a tree branch that gets cut off from a tree. It lays on the ground not receiving any nutrients from the trunk of the tree and eventually it starves to death. You stay connected to Jesus, He abides in you, when you continue to receive His gifts that He gives in Divine Service.
Going to church is about being cared for and loved by Jesus. It is about being forgiven by Jesus. It is about being strengthened in your faith by Jesus. It is about being put to death and being raised to new life by Jesus.
Going to church is nothing less than abiding in Jesus. So, let’s phrase the original question a little differently: “You don’t have to abide in Jesus to be a Christian?”
Agree or disagree?