I knew a young man who was around 17-years-old. He was asked by a group of churchgoers about his church involvement. He responded, “I believe more in a personal relationship with Christ than a church relationship with him.” It was a spiritual way of saying, “I don’t go to church.” It was also honest. The young believed that he could relate to God apart from the church.
That was about 31 years ago. I now believe that the young man who said those words was incredibly foolish. You may think that sounds harsh but there is one thing very important to understand. The 17-year-old in that conversation was I.
I now have a very different perspective, but I fear that the one that I had back then is gaining prevalence among professing Christians. Some researchers claim that the number of unaffiliated religiously is growing in the United States. They are not becoming agnostics or atheists either. Rather, they are creating a personal spirituality. At least some of these unaffiliated are former churchgoers who for their own reasons have chosen to blaze their own spiritual trail apart from any church.
Many express objections to organized religion as if organization is opposed to a personal relationship with God. Conveniently, to some of those who make this statement, churches can be classed as organized religion. There are several reasons this excuse fails as a reason for a believer and follower of Jesus not to be in church.
One is logical. When people come together for a task, they naturally organize themselves. If a group of people believe it to be their mission to tell others the gospel of Jesus both near and far, make people into committed followers of Jesus alleviate human suffering, stand against injustice, and any number of other things we associate with what a church does, some level of organization is necessary. Those who have the gifts and abilities to lead such endeavors will rise up and lead. Plans will be made. Goals will be set. Results will be measured to decide if the group is doing the right thing.
A church is by nature an organized entity. The Bible presents it as such and speaks of a church having leaders and different people in the church having different responsibilities. Look at the passages about elders and deacons in the Pastoral Epistles. Read how the church developed and organized in Acts. Also read Ephesians 4:11-16. Each passage reveals some level of organization.
Another reason is biblical imagery for believers. A common doctrine used to argue for an individualistic Christianity is the priesthood of the believer. The idea is that we need no mediator between Jesus and us. To that extent alone, I would agree. However, it is not a call for for not being a part of the church. In 1 Peter 2:9, individualism is not emphasized. Community is. The individual priests are part of “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…”
Verses 1-8 describe believers individually as living stones, but they are stones that come together to form one building of which Jesus is the cornerstone. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, individual believers are like parts of the body, but they must come together as one body with Christ as the head. Individually, believers are siblings, brothers and sisters, but still one family. A believer outside of community has severally limited his or her possibilities of becoming all that God desires.
The Bible clearly teaches that Christians need community, and in the New Testament that community is the church. A Christian cannot live out a biblically spiritual life apart from the church.