What a question. It’s one I’ve heard a lot over the years in different ways. “Do I need to go to church in order to be a Christian?” “Do I need to go to church to be saved?” “If I can read the Bible for myself, and catch up with other Christian throughout my week for coffee and Jesus chats, why do I need to go to church on a Sunday?” Great questions and they’re honest questions I’ve asked my self as well. I think that a part of the problem with these sorts of questions presupposed a certain kind of modern church that isn’t healthy or biblical. This might stir up some controversy so strap yourselves in for a ride.
In short, yes one does need to attend a local church in order to be a healthy Christian. Why? A Christian not attending a local church but expecting to have a healthy Faith is like a bodybuilder not going to a gym and not lifting weights but expecting to win first prize in their next comp. It’s like a writer never actually writing anything at all but expecting a book to still be published, or a coffee connoisseur only ever drinking Nescafe Blend 43 (God forbid). I think you get my point, it just doesn’t work. Ok, sure. A person who drinks bad coffee might still consider themselves an expert on coffee. They might have read every book on it, joined every Facebook group and listened to every podcast (important for any coffee enthusiast), but that can never replace sitting down in the actual shop, drinking the actual cup of coffee and enjoying, savouring and experiencing every moment of the sweet velvety nectar that flows from the throne room of God Himself (I’m obviously drinking a very nice cup while a write this).
Fundamentally, I believe, what often lies behind this question is discontentment with the state of our local churches. Fair enough. Take my context, for example, the Sunshine Coast. The Coast is absolutely flooded with churches. Almost everywhere you look there’s a “city life community good point” named church that gathers people to do life together, to encourage and build up. The problem, however, is that that’s where it stops. (Get ready for the trigger) The vast majority of churches on the Sunshine Coast (not all) pitch to their congregations that loving one another, that living out your destiny or purpose, that living the “good life” in this slice of heaven called the Sunshine Coast is the Good News that Jesus offers us. That is not all the Gospel is. Let me be clear, the Gospel includes – certainly in the age to come – the good life, a life free from suffering, pain, financial hardship, no sickness or death. The Gospel includes the mandate to love one another as ourselves in order to image God. However, the Gospel starts with Jesus as King (Luke 1:26-33) who offers forgiveness of and freedom from sin (Romans 3:23-26), victory over Satan and the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:14-15), a new heart, mind and soul (Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10), and (among many other things) union with God Himself (1 Corinthians 6:17).
Most of the people I find asking these sorts of questions are in churches that have an emphasis on living the “good life” instead of first God, Jesus and the Gospel. Rarely do I ever hear the question asked in healthy Gospel-centered churches. Why? Because when the entire Gospel is presented, not just part of it, the sheep are fed and are fueled to live the good life, to love neighbours and get involved in social justice out of a gospel-centred motivation.
For the sake of the article, let me again be clear: The good life, loving your neighbours and wanting what is best for yourself now is a part of the Good News (God wants this for people), but, it starts with Jesus, sin and darkness and then leads to those things (if not in this life – remember Jesus promises hardship and trials – then certainly in the age to come). It is my desire and prayer that the Coast would experience a sort of reformation where we go back to the ancient ways of preaching Gospel-centered messages to feed our sheep, where we pray, seek and save the lost, and see Christians being deeply moved by every facet of the Gospel, not just the physical benefits (which are great).