Is being part of a Church important?
Now more than ever, Christians are turning to the internet to fulfill the role of a spiritual community. Modern believers are increasingly growing accustomed to connection with churches or other believers via virtual “communities.” After working in ministry for over a decade, I have met dozens of believers that attend churches and worship online that honestly feel connected to and part of these communities.
Sadly, they do not realize how deeply flawed this behavior is.
Being committed to weekly meeting with a face-to-face, in-person church or community is not optional. Church is a vital part of our walk of faith. Let’s take a few minutes to understand why.
Community is Commanded
From the first time God gave written commands to His people He commanded them to gather. In Leviticus 23 God tells Israel they are to gather every Sabbath:
“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy gathering. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.” Leviticus 23:3
Both Sabbath rest and gathering are commanded. And not just for Israel as they wandered in the desert. Paul reminds the church in Rome that as Christians we are all part of one body and that each member has a unique purpose and contribution to the greater community. These God-given gifts were distributed with the intention of being used, and they can only be shared with others when we are in a physical community with other committed believers.
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:4–8 ESV
“I Attend Online”
A common feature of many mainstream churches is streaming the service online for members who are sick, incapacitated or otherwise unable to meet in person for worship that week. Our family has met dozens of individuals through online services when families are remotely located, far from a preferred community or oftentimes when they cannot find a church they agree with. But many, the vast majority I’d say, could have found a local church. They might not have agreed 100% with the pastor or theology, maybe the denomination wasn’t a perfect fit, or they didn’t like the worship.
For whatever reason we reject physical communities, once we make ourselves the center of our quest to “find” a church, we will find flaws in the churches in our local communities. Why? Because we are sinful humans with rebellious hearts. We can’t see beyond our own self-centered preferences to the glorious realization that each one of us are deeply needed in our local communities.
Across the street from our house, we have an elderly neighbor who is handicapped. She has no car because she cannot drive. She cannot get her own groceries. She has doctors and physical therapists come to her house oftentimes because it is very difficult for her to leave her house. But in the five years since we bought our home, we have never seen her miss a week of church. Community is central to her life, and likely has only become more important to her as she has aged.
If this poor woman has every physical barrier blocking her way to church and yet makes no excuse to miss out on face-to-face community, what excuses might you and I have?
One wonderful woman from my neighbor’s church truly embodies Christian charity and devotion to her community. She drives my neighbor to doctor’s visits or to the grocery store to help her shop, she runs her errands and faithfully drives our neighbor to church every single weekend. I pray we all are blessed to serve as this woman serves. But not every believer who is in situations like my neighbor have a faithful Christian brother or sister to help them. We believe that if an individual is incapable of being in the church regularly because of health reasons then we should commit to serving them in person, by physically going to them (as we are instructed to in Matt. 25:36 and James 5:14) reading the Word, worshipping and praying with them and perhaps most importantly, to encourage, strengthen and uplift them.
But to turn on a camera and stream service online in order to serve individuals who otherwise would be in a building of worship is to rob the local community of real communion with its members. It undermines the work of the Church. When believers choose to regularly meet online as opposed to in person community, they are unwittingly setting themselves up for a dysfunctional understanding of what the Bible teaches, and like a virtual marriage they are in a simulation of what God intended for us.
What’s in it for me? or What’s in me for others?
Christian community happens when personal relationships are built on the foundation of a common faith in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is different from the community we find in our coworkers, neighbors or our unbelieving friends and family. When we are rooted in a community, we are deeply invested in the lives of the people there with us. We aren’t strangers with other believers. We are members of an eternal holy family and fellow heirs alongside the greatest and the least among us.
It is no small blessing to freely congregate with men and women who love Christ with all their heart. Being surrounded by people who are eager to faithfully devote themselves and their time to God is spiritually encouraging in ways that online services could never replace.
A member of the church I attend has a saying, that, “community happens from the coffee pot to your seat.” In other words, some of the most impactful moments within a community might be when someone pulls you aside during service and asks you to pray for them. Or after service when someone confides in you that they’re struggling, or someone needs help, or praise that they’ve been blessed. Community happens when we build relationships with brothers and sisters of the same Heavenly Father that we share. And we cannot faithfully do that behind a keyboard.
Online service is not community because it cannot replace moments in life like these where you are physically required to be present in order to serve.
What’s at Stake?
The internet provides hundreds of options for Christians to engage in services, in every denomination, with all kinds of music options, preaching styles, and theological perspectives. It is available on-demand, with sermons from this weekend or 40+ years ago, from mega-pastors and mega-churches to tiny gatherings of small groups.
For all the benefits online churches offer, they lack critical components needed for the Body of Christ to operate in the unbelieving world. For example, I recently received an email from a man who was unable to find a church that he agreed with theologically. He was replacing teachers with videos on YouTube and community with people in a social media group. This man contacted me because he had been led in so many different directions that his theology now had major problems and unanswered questions, and for counsel he sought me– a stranger on the internet!
This man did not need theological clarification as much as he desperately needed a community. 1 Peter 5 explicitly charges church leadership with the care and fostering growth in their local church body. In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul describes how alongside Timothy they dealt with the church members in Thessalonica as a father deals with his children. No online church body can come close to the family-style relationships that Scripture describes repeatedly for believers in community together.
God has appointed leadership to perform this function within his Church, our pastors and elders should be the ones who help us understand the Word. This man’s spiritual guidance should be rooted in the family of the elders, church leadership and the brotherhood of other believers in his local church. Instead, he traded the solid foundation of a community for misguided self-led chaos because he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) agree with a single church leader that he went to.
When staying home to watch services online from the comfort of your own home and behind a keyboard that you control becomes preferrable to the real-life experience of community, then both comfort and control have become your idols. You have chosen them over God’s command for you and worse, if you have a family, you are teaching others to follow your sinful behavior. Twice in scripture the apostle Paul says he has given believers over to Satan. How is a person given over to Satan you might ask? By being excommunicated from the community. Let that sink in for a second. Not being a part of a community is equivalent to the punishment of being given over to Satan. (1Cor. 5:5, 1Tim 1:20)
What is the function of a Believing Community?
It is tragic that some of our Christian brothers and sisters can’t see how needed they are in churches and believing groups in their communities. So many of them have been conditioned by years of seeing a church service as a simple hour-long formula of a handful of songs, followed by a prayer and then a teaching that may or may not be biblically based, concluded with perhaps another prayer or song before everyone dismisses until next week. If that’s all you’ve been fed, I can see why you’d think the internet was a solid alternative to the shallow routine of lifeless churchgoing.
But being rooted in a believing faith community is profoundly deeper than just the surface level actions of weekend worship attendance. Regular devotion to our faith undoubtedly changes us. How could it not? If you are a committed believer then you should be changing as the Holy Spirit sanctifies us.
In the years that we have been leading a community, we’ve learned two solid truths:
Number one: it is hard to be in community. Each week, without fail, we get to the end service and walk through our front door utterly exhausted. Sure, running a community is a ton of work, but the real reason it is so difficult is because communities require one absolute ingredient: People. And all those people are just like us; happy, sad, cordial, rude, pleasant, imperfect, accommodating, taxing. Some are thrilled to be there. Some are begrudgingly attending. Like them or not, they are all sinners just like us whom we have been called to serve. And we are commanded to love them, no matter how hard that can be.
Number two: When you faithfully attend a community because you earnestly desire to obey the Lord, you will spiritually grow. This isn’t half the time, or some of the time, or nearly all the time. 100% without fail, you will grow. Spiritual growth is unique because it occurs in ways that we as humans can’t always measure. But the proof of it is in the fruit that grows in the life of the faithfully attending believer. By submitting to God’s commands and submitting yourself to spiritual authority of leadership within a community, and faithfully submitting yourself as a servant within a God-fearing community, you are empowered to live as you were meant to: as a humbled creation in communion with your creator.
Without attendance in a physical community, you rob yourself of these opportunities. Do not underestimate your responsibility and your right as a Christian to engage in fellowship with one another.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:23–25 ESV