Q: Do I need to be part of a church and go every Sunday?

This is the third question in our series on apologetics called Redemptive Windows, where Campus Ministers answer faith-challenging questions sent in by CC readers.

Brian Bork responds:

Yes! Why? Let me dispense with the cheeky answer first: the Bible refers to the church as Jesus’ “bride,” right? Now, imagine your life is a party. You’d really like Jesus to come — he’s a spellbinding raconteur, he has a charismatic, magnetic presence and if he’s there, you’ll never have to worry about your wine cellar running dry. So you send him an invitation, but on the invite you write “your wife can’t come.” You think Jesus would show up?

Maybe you don’t find that little analogy as compelling as I do. In fact, I bet you could come up with all sorts of decent reasons why you’d like to keep some daylight between you and the church. Churches are crammed full of judgy hypocrites. They’re too conservative, or they’re too liberal. Preachers can’t figure out how to be relevant to our day-to-day lives, or sometimes they try too hard to be too relevant. The music is often too fast and too loud, or it’s too ponderous and old-fashioned. Your church doesn’t serve wine at communion, or they don’t serve grape juice…

Or maybe your complaint isn’t that heavy at all, and you just recognize that Sunday morning is a lovely time to curl up with the New York Times, while at the foot of your bed your cat yawns and stretches in the shafts of sunlight coming through the blinds.

I do wonder sometimes if the Protestant way of doing things has unwittingly encouraged a less than enthusiastic approach to church life. Protestants are big on a personal faith; we place a high importance on reading the scriptures for ourselves, we deploy phrases like “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” with a creedal solemnity and when we’ve found significant disagreements among each other, we’ve split and gone our own way. I can’t help but think that this may have encouraged an individualist, DIY kind of Christianity. A Christianity where having the right ideas is what matters, even more than the practice of doing life together.

God with us

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to be said for individual conscience, a personal relationship with Jesus, and that DIY mentality. But those things can bring you to a really lonely place, too. We’re all prone to doubt, prone to misunderstand, prone to stumble along the way. Faith is hard work, and it’s incredibly risky to think we can go it alone. I think this is one of the earliest insights we get from the Bible, from all the way back in Genesis where God says it’s not good for Adam to be by himself. So along comes Eve. And the rest of the communal nature of our existence blooms out from there. God establishes his covenant with Abraham — not just Abraham, mind, but with Abraham’s people, his descendants, his heirs. Those people — the nation of Israel —  are gathered to be a light to the rest of the nations, and out of that people comes Jesus, God in the flesh, in our midst, Immanuel, God with us.

And a particularly potent way that Jesus is Immanuel is through the church. Of course, Jesus is present to us in all sorts of ways, but the church is a particularly intimate way. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul calls the church Jesus’ body. That body specializes in the potent practices that make Jesus’ presence known: the preaching of the word, the sharing of bread and wine, and the baptism of new members, to name just a few. All of those things are inherently communal; preaching requires a speaker and listeners, the Lord’s table requires a host and guests, and baptism . . . well, that’s obviously communal. The thought of baptizing yourself is just weird.

Built up

Maybe you’re not all that sacramental, so that strikes you as a bunch of mystical-sounding woo. That’s ok — Jesus’ presence in his church is manifest in so many ordinary, everyday ways, too. I honestly can’t articulate all the ways my faith is built up by folks who are good listeners, who offer words of encouragement, who believe when I doubt, who offered financial assistance when I needed help paying for school. And on, and on and on. And yes, I know that can sound like a rather rosy impression of church folks; not everyone listens, encourages, or opens their wallet. Those judgy hypocrites are there too. Maybe that’s why the most profound moment in the liturgy for me is when I turn to them and say four simple words: “peace be with you.” That’s often the moment when the Gospel becomes more than an idea, and becomes true to me in a deeply formative way (and that truth cuts even deeper when I recognize that I’m the one who was the judgy hypocrite that week, and that my neighbour has shown Christ to me by passing me his peace).

C.S. Lewis said that the church exists to make people into “little Christs.” I’ve found that to be true; in spite of its messiness, the church it has been a deeply formative place for me, and for untold generations of Christians. And it has been formative because of the mystery of the sacraments and the preaching of the word, but also because it surrounds me with people who love Jesus and want to share that love with me. They’re like a little tuft on that great cloud of witnesses. I bet you could be one of them! If you love Jesus, and your life bears the fruit of his Spirit, then your presence among us can be like a little Gospel. And in this broken down and busted up world (and church), Lord knows we need to hear it.

Author

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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