Do I Have To Go to Church?
If you google “do I have to go to” it will auto-predict the most popular questions. The first two are “do I have to go to college” and “do I have to go to church?” It seems my life is essentially one, long exercise in answering one of these two questions. Having temporarily hung up my academic gown for the broader church (see my new podcast!), I’ll attempt to answer the latter.
I’m not really into selling people something they don’t want, which I can be accused of doing in both the case of college and the church. But in this case, before I offer any positive evidence for church attendance, I’ll ask, “Why don’t you want to go?” If someone is not a Christian, that’s a different ballgame (but as worthy as any conversation). If they are a Christian, I’d prefer to ask them why they don’t want to go. And there are, frankly, a lot of good answers. The one I find the most compelling: brunch and sleep. Everyone's a little happier on a sun-drenched patio at 10:30 am with fruit, eggs, coffee and a good night’s sleep. And if what is being offered at church can’t compete? I suppose it depends on what we are hungry for, and what we are expecting to receive.
Why Church Attendance is “mandatory”
“Do I have to go to church?” is not a question that the New Testament can really answer - it would be a foreign question to them. In the New Testament, church is neither a building, nor was it simply “the individual” in the modern, individualistic sense. The church was, and continues to be, composed of those who have been redeemed and carry that message of reconciliation to others. It exists as an institution of sinners, for sinners, proclaiming the glorious news of the Gospel of Christ. The “church” is neither your mega-complex nor is it you alone with your own private devotions. It’s a group of redeemed sinners, reminding each other that, “yeah, the news is that good!”
And that’s why, as a Christian, you can no more “not go to church” than choose “not to be carbon-based.” The church is who you are, and it is the people that you are with. You could make that primarily the people at the Boulangerie and coffee shop. But however stimulating the conversation in those places, everyone who only eats that food will be hungry again. There is only one who offers us Manna from heaven in His body and blood. And the water that springs to eternal life (John 4:14)
“It still feels tedious”
I know. Kind of like “service” in the sense of us doing the serving. What if, what happened on Sunday was not “service” in the sense of us doing our thing for God, but rather “service” in a very different sense?
Before the Reformation, church activity with the congregation was called more commonly “Mass.” When Luther adapted the old Roman Rite for Protestants, he first called it the Deutsche Messe, or the “German Mass.” It was later Lutherans that began to call it, Gottesdienst, or Divine Service to emphasize the fact that it was here that Christ was serving us, we were not re-sacrificing Him at a Mass. Eventually, it was shortened to “service” and picked up a connotation very different than the original sense intended, which unfortunately often involves harried, Sunday school teachers, summer camps, and short term mission trips complete with matching t-shirts.
What is being served?
The Prophet Isaiah described the people of God as those invited to a banquet with aged wine and choice pieces of bone marrow (Is 25:6). The Psalmist proclaims that even in the midst of our enemies, we will have time to sit and enjoy the banquet prepared for us (Ps. 23:5). This language of celebration and feasting makes its way into the New Testament when we see Jesus concerned that the wedding at Cana be celebrated with the finest wine. We see the “breaking of the bread” as symbolic but we also remember that the food Jesus gave us to eat and drink is as real and physical as it can get. And while no one will mistake a wafer and sip of wine with a banquet, we receive the body and blood of Jesus as a foretaste of the feast to come. All has been prepared and we are bid to come and commune with the body and blood of Christ for the full forgiveness of sins.
Why do we prefer brunch? Or wonder if we “have to go?” Because sometimes church doesn’t feel like a banquet, and because sometimes it isn’t. This is not a call to protest and leave your current church body, but rather a conversation starter: does your church offer a banquet of such rich forgiveness and acceptance that it dwarfs any community and sustenance a single Sunday brunch could offer? We should also understand this such that we don’t judge those who might not have a regular church to attend as “heathens” or the “back-sliding,” but rather dear brothers and sisters that are not being fed. They deserve our compassion and it behooves us to start this conversation in the church.
Through His people, God creates an alternative community of grace in contrast to anything the world has to offer. As the people are the church, the church involves being born, our rites of passage, our eating, drinking, living, crying, growing and dying. And all of this centered on the narrative of the God who sacrificed himself for us while we were still his enemies. As the church, we get to tell the story of canceled debt and breaking the chains of guilt. It’s the story of a divine service: from God, through Christ, to us.
“I believe in the Holy Catholic/Universal Church” or some variant is recited by millions every Sunday where the Apostles’ Creed is part of the church service, and is an article of faith. Sometimes we don’t see the church acting very Holy or Universal. But we were promised that the church, the people of God gathered to be served by Him, will never disappear (Matt. 6:15-20). The Crystal Cathedral might crumble, and Megachurch complexes might become wastelands, but God’s promise to be with the faithful when they gather, to feed them with His Grace, is a primary article of faith, confessed by the Saints since the earliest “church” convened.
The author of the Hebrews wasn’t offering a proof-text for church membership FAQs when he wrote that we shouldn’t ditch the idea of getting together (Heb. 10:25). The whole book, even the title, presuppose that we are the people of God, called out (ekklesia- the word we translate “church” means “those called out”), and bound by our common belief in Christ, our Savior. Do I have to go to church? Maybe we should rephrase that question, “do I have to go to that building at the appointed times, usually on Sundays?” to which my reply is “I suppose it depends, what’s being served?”