A friend of mine asked me recently whether actually going to church was important, or if just watching a taped sermon was enough. It’s a common question, and a common choice. Going out for church is an ordeal, on a day when we would most like our rest and time. Before television and the Internet, we had to leave our homes to hear a sermon, but it seems ridiculous to invest so much time to go to a brick-and-mortar church in a modern age.
However, it seems that we are forgetting what church actually is. The sermon, while important, is not the point. Teaching can happen both in and out of church, to an individual and to a group. This is not something new – people have had the option of simply staying home and reading the Bible and commentaries for hundreds of years.
No, the point is the people. In the early church, Christians did not gather together because someone wanted to speak; rather, teaching occurred because they were together. In Acts 20, we are given an account of a Church meeting, and are told that “on the first day of the week, when [the Christians] were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them,” not that the Christians gathered together to hear Paul preach and then decided they might as well eat while they were there.
For those men and women, being together was important, regardless of what happened when they met. Eating, teaching, working – all were made holy by the God whom they served and the people they served alongside. For them, “church” did not refer to a sermon or building, but to a group of people devoted to Christ. The idea of having church by oneself in one’s home would have been oxymoronic to them, no matter who was speaking on the television. Church was not a solitary affair.
Private prayer and devotionals have their place – indeed, they are crucial to a Christian life. But they are not, and never will be, a replacement for gathering with the Church. We are parts of the body of Christ, the Bible says, and no matter how strong my arm may be, it is ludicrous to cut it off from my body and expect it to survive. This is clear to us, yet still a noose is often tied around the arm and tightened harder and harder, stopping the life-giving blood from flowing. To relegate the Church first to Sunday, then to a building, then to a single sermon, is to do exactly this. It is none of these things. It is a living organism, the body of Christ every minute of every day, and to not live in harmony with it is to risk spiritual gangrene.
Of all people, I understand the desire for this noose, for separation from the body. I am not always comfortable surrounded by people whose faith blazes clearly, who can enter into worship and praise whole-heartedly. That is not my gift. If I am deficient in anything, it is faith and an ability to surrender myself up completely. Some dark part of me resents seeing people do that which gives me such difficulty, and I constantly find cynical and malicious thoughts rising to the surface, determined to find fault in others rather than confess my own weakness. For me, church is often as much a battleground as it is a place of refuge.
But the solution is not amputation. In the body I find healing, and any pain that I feel is of the healthiest sort, the sort that comes as a wound is being cured. And that happens on Sunday and Monday alike, no matter what building I am in or if a sermon is preached or not, so long as I am with fellow members of the body. In the Church, it is those God-given and Spirit-blessed relationships from which healing flows; all the rest is mere mechanics.