This question comes to us in different forms, whether from our own questions, doubts or frustrations, or when it is posed to us by others. It may come framed in questions like, “Do you have to go to church to be saved?” It may come in comments like, “I am spiritual but not religious,” “I don’t really like organized religion,” or “I love Jesus, but I don’t like the church.” In each case, some question is raised about whether it is essential or necessary for us to be a part of this thing we call “church” or whether our faith can be a personal or private matter.
In This Article:
Do Christians Have To Go to Church?
The simplest, most superficial way to answer this question is to ask, “What is the basis of our salvation or of being a Christian, and does it include church attendance?” Let us recall Paul’s well-known declaration in Ephesians 2:8–9 that we are “saved by grace through faith” and not “by works.” In other words, the basis of our being Christian or being saved is the grace of God received through faith. It is not based on any work such as church attendance.
However, there is another way to consider this question, which reveals that the question as it is commonly phrased likely misses the point. The question assumes that church is a place where I go or an event I attend. Biblically speaking, church is who you are. It is the people. That is, if you are a Christian or “saved,” you are the church. It is an identity and a membership. What we call “going to church” is better understood in the language of Hebrews 10:25 as “the gathering together” of the church.
The New Testament writers illustrated this principle using two metaphors: the body and the temple.
The Church Is a Body, and You Are a Member
In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of the body to correct the Corinthians’ tendency to see their expression of faith as their own (particularly in the exercise of spiritual gifts). He says, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ,” (v. 12, NIV). He goes on to describe the absurdity of different body parts declaring that they have no need of the others — for example, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” (v. 21). He concludes, “Now, you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (v. 27). If this is true, then our question about whether we need to go to church misses the point. We are the church, and as individual members of it, it would be absurd for us to say to the rest, “I don’t need you!”
The Church Is the Temple, and You Are a Brick
In 1 Peter 2:4–10, the Apostle Peter uses the metaphor of a “spiritual house” or the temple. He says that Jesus is “the living stone” whose followers are “living stones…being built into a spiritual house,” (v. 5). Peter sees the church as the people, and these people exist to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (v. 9).
Thus, our question misses the point — once again — by assuming: “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Look inside and see all the people.” More accurately, we should say, “See all the people? There is the church. There is the steeple.” We are the church, and as bricks, we miss the point if we say that we are greater on our own than together. There is something God is doing with his people, and we are meant to be a part of that project — not existing all alone.
What Do I Get Out of Church?
There are many benefits of going to church. Even if we shift our thinking from church as “a place I go” to church as “something I am,” we may still need convincing. We may still lack motivation because, for all the high-minded metaphors, our experiences of church may have been underwhelming or even harmful. For many, church may have felt boring or irrelevant. For many others, it has been a dysfunctional and harmful experience.
It is OK, I think, to ask what it is that we get out of church. First, Hebrews 10:24 says that we are spurred along to love and good deeds. In almost every sphere of our lives, we do better in community than alone. For example, we are more likely to achieve fitness or health goals in likeminded community. For another, those in addiction recovery are more likely to stay clean and sober in likeminded community. Business leaders gather in likeminded groups to stay focused on their goals. So it is with our spiritual growth, which also happens best in likeminded community. When we may not feel we have the strength to persevere on our own, that is when we need encouragement from others who give us strength.
In addition to the encouragement we receive in community, we also gain a sense of place and purpose. We live in a hyper-individualistic culture that has largely rejected any notion that real purpose exists in the world. If the Bible is true, then in the church we belong and have something to offer.
Belonging and purpose are two fundamental human needs, and in the church, we are members with unique gifts to offer. In Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor, he says that we are members and that the existence and the health of any member is essential to the health of the whole. In Peter’s use of the “temple” metaphor, he says that we are parts who play essential roles in the mission or purpose of the whole.
What Do I Contribute to Church?
The question about whether we need to go to church may still loom because our experience of church has not measured up to these ideals. We may not have found it to be a place of encouragement, belonging or purpose. Acknowledging that some congregations are so toxic that it may be necessary to withdraw from them, most of us must realize that this question is not just about what we get out of it — but rather what we are meant to contribute.
Our question tends to focus on what the church does for us. The point, however, is that we have an important contribution to make or role to play. The “I have no need of you!” goes both ways. That is, we need others, and others need us. When we opt out of church, we rob the church of our gifts. Many of our congregations may be suffering from anemia because so few see themselves as members with a gift to offer. It is easy for us to look to the pastors and assume that they do the ministry. Biblically speaking, Paul tells us that their job is nothing less than to train all of us to do ministry and to work for the building up of the body of Christ: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11–12, NIV).
Do we need to go to church to be a Christian? Do we need to go to church to be saved? We are saved by grace through faith. However, the question misunderstands who we are and what the church is. The church is not the building. It is not the event. The church is the people, and if we are Christians, then we are members of that people. Our faith depends on our active participation with these people. For better or worse, these are the people with whom we are meant to belong, be encouraged and find purpose. In this sense, yes — we need to gather with the church.
Approved by the director of the Barnabas program for the College of Theology on July 17, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.