Should I Go to Church?
Should I go to church?
This is Steve Schlissel, pastor of Messiah’s Congregation, attempting to answer your good question. I hope you are true to your name, for an answer to your question requires “consider-able” work along at least three axes: You need to consider, first, why you are “considering” church; second, just which church you are “considering;” and third, what the Lord of the church has to say on the subject.
Taking the last first, in view of God’s thoughts about your church attendance, I’d say He’s said enough about the topic to encourage you to continue thoughtfully along this path. But before saying more, let us make a distinction: My answer to you assumes you are not a Christian and do not pretend to be one. Why? Because if you were this is a matter which God has already, preemptively decided for you. “Do not forsake the assembling of the saints.” Hebrews 10.
The New Testament uniformly describes the behavior of those who had become Christian as propelled toward the fellowship of believers. In one place conversion is described as getting “added to the church.” A Christian who is not a member of a local covenant community is, minimally, an aberration, maximally an abomination. In any case, the profession of his mouth to be a follower of Jesus is put to the lie by his feet. Perhaps he mumbled words he thought would serve as fire insurance. Who knows? But those who live autonomous (self-lawed) lives may love themselves, but they surely do not love Jesus. He said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.”
If you are troubled, not knowing where in the Bible to find Jesus’ expectation and instructions concerning the normativity of believers’ gatherings, write separately about it. In the meantime, we’d all do well to recall the Lord’s words, “Not everyone who says to Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom.” For many will be told at the Judgment, “Depart from me, evildoers. I never knew you.” Those who belong to Jesus want to please Him, to do what He wishes. So on this matter, if you are a Christian you have no choice. He has made it.
Before leaving this axis, let me add, multitudes today deceive themselves about their relationship with God. They often give themselves away by their mouths, which bloviate about what they want or what they need, or about what satisfies them. Missing from their thoughts—because missing from their hearts and lives—is God Almighty. After all, Jesus taught us the whole Word of God may be boiled down to a summary commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Despite what some may think about their religious condition, failure to reference what God wants is a pretty reliable indicator that they are in love with themselves—alone. Jesus said expressly, “God seeks true worshippers,” which He explained as meaning those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. (See John 4)
We may now work along the second axis indicated above. Remember, we have assumed you are not a Christian because a Christian shouldn’t need to ask what you did. This assumption helps us move with you to the next axis. Our concern will be to help you select the sort of church you should consider attending/joining.
But our first business must again be to get free of some of the idiotic sentiments bandied about so freely today about churches. What I mean is, if, upon discovering that an offering is collected during the service, you knee-jerk into a mental tirade about how all these Christians are money hungry phonies, etc., then our job just got easier. If, upon the discovery of imperfect people in a church you visit, you feel yourself ready to shout, “Just as I thought! There’s nothing but hypocrites in churches,” well, again, answering your question is a breeze. Absolutely do not bother going to any church.
However, if the above excuses reasons are sincere, then be sure to bring the same standard to your place of employment. If you are in manufacturing, work only for companies that give their products away. And don’t expect your boss must pay you, either. Ahh, but you’ll say, “That’s different! We expect money to be a concern in the world. But the church is spiritual and its mind must be confined to that spiritual character.” Yeah, but apart from the heretical Manicheanism which undergirds that objection, just where would the spiritual church be that you are considering visiting? If they occupy a space., i.e., real property, just how are they to pay for it? Or the salaries of those the community of faith engages to be their ministers and helpers? Moreover, Jesus spoke more about money and our attitudes toward it than you seem to realize. St. Paul, too. Understand, I agree you’d be right to be suspicious of any church which overemphasizes money matters, or is focused on little else. But the modest scheduling of a brief interval where God’s people may freely, without external compulsion, give money as a sincere offering to their Lord (and to the poor through His church-related servants and ministries), clearly as an act of worship—such is not only acceptable, it is desirable. Condemning that is to make oneself holier than God; such a one would not be comfortable in any honest church. And—lastly on these cursory items—if the discovery of a hypocrite or two puts you off, don’t fret. There is always room for one more—and you should be quite comfortable.
Beyond these generic concerns, matters which could help shrink your list indicating safe destinations to visit:
- A church should be able to tell you how it differs from the world. This is more important than might be realized, since the first movement God made toward forming a community of redeemed folks was to place an antithesis between the two groups: those who live to please God and those who live to please themselves. It is important also because today, many churches fall all over themselves to give the appearance of being so cool and in step with the world and its concerns, so egalitarian, so environmental, so tolerant. All of which means, so ignorant, so blind, so lost. Let the dead bury their dead. And if the pastor is female, let the women welcome the women, for that is all who will gather there, regardless of XY considerations.
- A self-respecting church must hold to the “undoubted Christian faith” as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, but they should also be able and happy to tell you where their community fits in to the rather complicated family tree of churches which has grown over the centuries. Much will be gained from a careful reading of their doctrinal formulations, which could be in the form of Confessions, or Catechisms, or Church Councils, or Doctrinal Summaries. Any or all are fine. What is not fine is a church that doesn’t know its beliefs, from whence they arose, or how they differ from other genuine Christian communities.
- A church should be a place where families are comfortable, i.e., family as the primary social institution must be given more than lip service. Sure, singles are always welcome, but most should be inclined toward marriage if God permits. That means the importance of family will be unapologetically evident in the church’s organization, structure and programming. In the heat of today’s unrestrained, socialistic assault on all things family, a church showing no awareness of or sensitivity toward this crisis is definitely part of the problem, not part of the solution. And awareness of the crisis shows itself in honoring the male headship which the Almighty Lord God built into all social structures over which He would be honored as ultimate Head. No reserved place for men today = no place for God, which means it ain’t no church at all. That should make things easier on this axis.
We arrive at the first line of “consider-ation,” the one I know least about, for it is all about good old anonymous you. Still, the material derived from our work along the other two axes does equip us to make certain observations which we may justly expect to be helpful.
What I mean is, your query was, should you go to church. A grasp of what we’ve learned from the other axes seems to warrant at least these conclusions:
To be a good individual candidate to “go to church,” you ought to
- be humble. If you are all hunky dory, then what would you want church for? It has nothing for you. But your unchristian status says you sure do need instruction—minimally, in how to “put off the old self” with its sin, corruption, shame and error. Simultaneously you need to be encouraged and taught to put on the new self, designed to restore in you the image of God which had gotten mangled (by the stuff you’ll be putting off). This process is similar to the rescue of a man nearly drowned: it is a case of 1) out goes the bad air, 2) in goes the good. And a man being thus rescued is not at his prettiest. Right? But who cares about that when life and death are on the line.
- Along with humility, you should measure your capacity for being honest with yourself. “Know thyself,” for us is not a Socratic rubric, but a safety precaution for any who would dare “take up their cross to follow Him.” This is particularly important for a man in your position (or, if you are a woman, a woman). Why? Because the Lord Jesus, the Head and Cornerstone of the church, has set a high bar for those who would follow Him. Yes, you’d be quite right if you said, “You’d never know it from what you see and hear in churches today.” So many seem clearly to have embraced a corporate (rather than a covenantal) model of church. You walk in and are made immediately to feel that you have a mark on your forehead which says “Potential customer.” But no church leader was taught such commercialism by His professed Lord. He greeted His very first inquirers with a “What do you want?” He is no snake-oil salesman, believe me. His predecessor said to those who gathered before him, “What are you doing here? Did somebody warn you to flee from the wrath at your heels?” In other places, Jesus essentially tells potential followers: “Go away. I don’t have what you’re looking for. And you are not what I’m looking for.”
- Learn to count, instruction I submit as fit for completing the thought of #2, above. You ask if you should go to church. Well, at the end of all the things so far considered, we’ve arrived at the challenge of Jesus. He originally put it before those “considering” not just visiting a church, but becoming part of one, people considering owning the name “Christian.” They presented themselves as ready to take a place with His other servants. Did they realize they’d be thenceforth looking to the Lord Jesus as the eyes of a slave look to the hands of their Master, a position of dependence, not independence. To become a Christian, to join the church, to be joined to Messiah by faith—in a world such as ours which detests Him more daily—is not a promotion but a demotion. Look where you’re heading! Count the steps! And see the direction those steps are leading: away from the world, toward God. So take the Lord’s words seriously, as if they were addressed to you personally. Before you “go to church,” count the cost! Are you ready to deny the demands of everyone beside, including yourself, and live by every word proceeding from Him? If you count this cost to be too high, then surely you lack the determination needed to finish the course. In that case you have your answer: have the good sense not to put your game-piece on the board. But if, once counting the cost, you know that were it ten times more, it would still be within the means of your determination—then you have found your answer. And you won’t be dissuaded, even by the fear that your funds may diminish for you know from Whom you may turn for more. You will turn to where the axes converge, converge upon “Yes.”