“Why do I need to belong to a church? Why shouldn’t I just believe in Jesus and live a good life? Church can be a real pain, you know.”
Yes, church can be a real pain. All human relationships can be. Jesus’ command that we “love one another” (John 13:34-35) would not be much of a command if there were no good reasons not to love another. When we love one another in spite of how unlovable we are at times, we are loving others the way Jesus loves us. He loves us even though we are sinners, even though we betray his love.
We want the church to be close to perfect, even though the church is made up of people just like ourselves—quite imperfect. No church is exactly the way “it ought to be.” Every church has problems. Despite that, there are good reasons to belong to a church, and we will look at some of them.
Participation in Christ
Jesus said that his followers would be known by their love for one another. We demonstrate our love for one another in the context of a committed fellowship. If we avoid such a commitment, we are shunning our personal participation in the very love Jesus wants us to experience.
We are called into the fellowship of the saints. Paul wrote, “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). In what way has God called us into fellowship with his Son? One way is into a personal and direct friendship with Christ.
But there is also another way. In Romans 12:5, Paul wrote, “In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” All Christians are called into the one “body of Christ,” and therefore we all have fellowship with one another because we are all in union with Christ.
Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 4:16: “From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Jesus expects each of us to do our part to build up his body in love. It is meaningless to say that Jesus is our friend, or that we love him, if we refuse to have anything to do with the others he calls his friends.
Americans tend to be individualistic. We think we can do things on our own, and we don’t like to feel dependent on others. But the body of Christ, the church, is far bigger than any one of us. To be part of Christ’s body is to belong to the fellowship of the saints. And the fellowship of the saints is the fellowship we all share with Jesus Christ, in whom we are made one with God as God’s own children.
My, or your, local church is probably not ideal, but at some level it is a collection of believers—each with his or her unique set of baggage, problems, quirks and sins. Despite our inadequacies, however, because we are believers, each of our local churches forms a visible sign in the world of the invisible reality of the kingdom of God. In its weakness, every local Christian church is a declaration that God has sent his Son to save sinners—like you and me.
Freedom for action
Although we are sometimes a sorry sight, because of what God has done through Jesus Christ, we have been delivered from the slavery of sin to the freedom of God’s children. That means we are free to be more than we are—more because we are never alone. We stand together in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are free together, as one family, one body in Christ, to take active part in the life of the kingdom of God, a life that no longer has to remain in bondage to destructive patterns of thought and behavior. The church is where we can practice our new life, learning to forgive others as we have been forgiven, and learning to love others as Christ loved us and gave himself for us (Ephesians 4:32).
Working together, each local church can make a strong, positive difference in its community, in the lives of hurting men, women and children. It is often a ministry (a group of concerned and motivated members) of a local church that feeds hungry people, provides clothing for those who are poor, offers after-school homework help for underprivileged neighborhood kids, organizes addiction-recovery groups or provides training in finding and keeping a job. Churches become the arms and hands of Jesus in the world in countless ways, as he gives them opportunity, occasion and the love to do it.
Despite our weaknesses and sins, God has given us a new heart of love, a heart motivated not only to trust him for forgiveness, not only to work on overcoming our destructive habits, but also to extend ourselves for the good of others. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Armed with his love, we are equipped to love him in the ways he said his followers would—when we meet him in the poor, the disenfranchised and the sick (Matthew 25:37-40).
Yes, church can be a pain. But church is also where we participate in Communion, the body and blood of our Savior. In Communion, we take part in the unity of the household of faith, the unity we have with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read about the invisible spiritual assembly to which each Christian has been called:
You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
In the church, something greater is going on than meets the eye. When the church gathers, it is more than a collection of sweet old ladies, Sunday school teachers, men’s groups, grumps, watchdogs, gossips, kids and hypocrites. It is a group of redeemed people, made new in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, and the whole creation is resounding in joyful celebration of the amazing revelation of God’s redeeming power and grace displayed in this otherwise motley crew. To us, it may seem like just another boring day at church. To the cosmos, it is a pulsating symphony of God’s creative and redemptive glory.
Variety in unity
There are small churches, midsize churches and big churches. There are Bible study groups, Sunday school groups and prayer groups. There are big denominations, little denominations and independent churches. There are mainline churches, evangelical churches and fundamentalist churches. There are Calvinists and Arminians. There are Pentecostals, charismatics, semi-charismatics and cessationists. There are premillenialists, postmillenialists and amillenialists.
The list of permutations goes on and on. The unity of the body of Christ does not lie in such things. Rather, the unity of the body of Christ lies in Christ himself. Only in Christ are we brought into the fellowship of the saints.
When we take part in an assembly of believers in Christ for the purpose of offering praise, thanksgiving and worship to God, we are, in Christ, participating as redeemed members of the fellowship of all saints. Regardless of the puniness of our local church, our often off-key songs are made one, in perfect harmony, with the joyful assembly of “thousands upon thousands of angels” and the “church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.”
Whether you are looking for a church or whether you have found one, your church attendance is always more than meets the eye. It may feel like mere duty, a chore or a burden. But it is one of those otherwise mundane activities that our merciful Savior has chosen to enlist into his service so that we might, as individual members of his own Body, learn to experience the richness of vital union, renewal, peace and power with him in the midst of our mutual trials, challenges, pains, fears and joys.
So why not give church, and yourself, another chance? Maybe this time you could expect things not to be perfect. Maybe this time you could feel the freedom just to take your rightful place in our mutual journey of grace.
J. Michael Feazell