My Musings About Going to Church
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, a popular slogan was coined which said, “Jesus ‘Yes,’ the Church, ‘No.'” This statement spoke of what some saw as the irrelevancy of the church. Some people were relating to what they learned of Jesus, but they were turned off by what was referred to as the “institutional church.” For some, the church conjured up images of monotonous rituals with no relevancy to daily life, cold, unfeeling, and hypocrital people, lavish buildings, and money-hungry preachers. There was much in this negative portrayal of the church that had a basis in reality, and certainly needed to be addressed. While some have sought to address these and other issues facing the church, new issues continue to arise and some continue to reject the church or the need for going to church.
What Do We Mean By “Going to Church?”
The statement “going to church” is, in certain ways, a misnomer. It is an expression that has developed over the centuries meaning the building where people meet. Of course, biblically, it refers to the body of believers for whom Christ died–those who are “called out” and saved by the blood of Christ. While many Christians understand this difference, our use of the phrase “going to church” waters down the true meaning of “church.” I wonder if Christians revived the biblical meaning of church if we would be as quick to dispense with the church. When I determine that, “I’m not going to church anymore,” it can have a very impersonal ring to it. By it I may mean, “I don’t need an institution or building to worship God in,” which is true enough. But if I understand “church” to mean “the family of God,” “the people for whom Christ died,” “the body of Christ,” etc., then my statement takes on a different meaning. Is it true that I don’t need the family of God, or that it’s alright for me to separate myself from fellow believers for whom Christ died? It’s much easier to disassociate myself from a building or institution, but do I have the right to disassociate myself from worshipping with fellow believers?
God’s People Have Always Worshipped as a Community
From the day of Pentecost onward, believers in Jesus have gathered together to worship. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, NKJV). The early believers did this quite naturally because it was their heritage as the people of God to meet together to worship God. Whether meeting at the tabernacle, the temple, or later in synagogues, the people of God had always gathered together to worship, celebrate, fellowship, and learn of God. While the Scripture focuses on individuals who displayed great faith in God in their own personal lives, the context of their story is always the community of God’s people. In other words, the Bible never entertains a solitary believer who is not a part of the community of God’s people. My point here is not to denigrate home bible studies; after all, the early church usually met in homes. But I do have a concern with those who intentionally isolate (and insulate) themselves from the church body by “doing church” at home in the form of listening to Cds, or the radio or TV (I am not speaking of the elderly or those who are physically incapable). My concern is also with “drive-in” churches or similar arrangements where it is not necessary to fellowship or interact with the body of Christ.
Our Western World, and this is especially true of America, has promoted the value of Individualism. Americans are especially proud of “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps,” or singing “I Did It My Way.” However, this focus on the individual alone is contrary to biblical values which, not only focus on the significance of community, but the interdependence of God’s people on one another. Try reading Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11-14 with an individualistic mindset. Statements such as, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:20); “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:26-27), become nonsensical. Our individualistic spirit might consider the writer of Hebrews exhortation “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another and so much the more as you see the Day approaching,” (Heb. 10:24-25) as being a bit melodramatic. “C’mon, I can do this Christian thing on my own. I don’t need others to stir me up to love and good works. I don’t need others to encourage my walk with the Lord. I don’t need others to help me keep a correct perspective on doctrine and belief.” Seriously? I doubt any one would word it this way, but in practice this is what it boils down to. Not only does “forsaking the assembly” of believers rob me of many good things that God intends for me, it also prevents God from using my gifts for the benefit of the body.
Going to Church: The Example of Elkanah (1 Samuel 1-2)
While the New Testament is filled with good reasons for “going to church,” my inspiration for faithfulness in worshipping God with His people comes from an unusual place. It’s through the example of Elkanah (Samuel’s father) in 1 Samuel 1-2, that God spoke to me the most clearly about “going to church.” While Elkanah is far from a perfect man, one of the things stressed in 1 Samuel 1-2 is his commitment to worship God with his family at the place where God had commanded. Elkanah’s commitment to worship God at Shiloh (where the tabernacle was in those days) is emphasized 4 times in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 1:3, 7, 21; 2:19-20). This may not seem remarkable at first glance, but the writer notes a number of obstacles that Elkanah faces which makes his commitment all the more remarkable. The first obstacle is the corrupt priesthood of Eli and his sons. The first statement of Elkanah’s commitment to worship God is found in 1 Samuel 1:3, which also notes that the sons of Eli are the priests at Shiloh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 reveals the wickedness of these men and how they steal the sacrificial offerings of the people. Next we learn that there is rivalry and bitterness between Elkanah’s two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. We are specifically told that this rivalry rears its ugly head each year when the family is making its pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship the Lord (1 Sam. 1:6-7). Corrupt leadership alone would seem a good enough reason for Elkanah to dispense with the yearly visits to Shiloh. Add to that the dysfunction of his own family, and Elkanah has multiple reasons not to make the yearly trek to Shiloh. The devil has always been good at discouraging people from worshipping God due to our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of others. He whispers, “Why do you want to go church? There’s no one there but a bunch of hypocrites!” Or, “Who do you think you are to take your family to church when it is in such a mess?” Or, “Look at the problems that develop everytime you try to go to church. It’s too much trouble, why don’t you just stay home?” These ploys have proven very effective over the centuries and the devil has, apparently, seen no need to change his strategy.
Elkanah and Micah: Going to Church vs. Homemade Religion
Elkanah’s example is particularly powerful when contrasted with a story found in Judges 17. In fact, I believe Elkanah is deliberately contrasted with Micah and the Levite in Judges 17. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of Judges immediately preceeds the Books of Samuel (Ruth is found among “the Writings” in the Hebrew division of the Bible). Both stories begin with the story of certain men who are living in “the mountains of Ephraim” (Judg. 17:1; 1 Sam. 1). Both stories deal with corrupt priests and corrupt worship (Judg. 17:4-13; 1 Sam. 2:12-17). Finally, both stories include levites. Judges 17 clearly speaks about a Levite who comes to dwell with Micah in the mountains of Ephraim (Judg. 17:6-10). The author of 1 Samuel never tells us that Elkanah is a Levite. However, this may have been obvious to the readers of his day based on the genealogy given in 1 Samuel 1:1 (Elkanah is also called “an Ephrathite,” but levites lived throughout the tribes of Israel). The writer of Chronicles clarifies Elkanah’s lineage as being from the levitical family known as the Kohathites (1 Chron. 6:33-35). The point of the contrast between Micah and Elkanah suggests that, even though Elkanah may seem to have many “legitimate” reasons to start his own homemade religion, he refuses to do what Micah and the Levite had done. In spite of all the obstacles, Elkanah remains faithful to the command to worship God in the place God had chosen (Deut. 12:5-8). Elkanah’s example of faithfulness in worship, in spite of many difficult obstacles, stands as a testimony to modern believers who often forsake “going to church” (i.e., worshipping God with fellow believers) for less trivial reasons (I got my feelings hurt; I don’t like the pastor; I don’t like the music; etc.). In fact, Micah’s homemade religion suggests the dangers inherent in forsaking the worship of God with His people in favor of a “I’ll do what is right in my own eyes, thank you very much” spirituality.
Does the modern Church have problems? Do I really need to answer that? The Church, and the people of God of all ages, have always had problems. That’s precisely why we need the Lord and each other! God knows that and so He has created a community, a family, which He has purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). We forsake that blood-bought community at our own peril. No, the Church is not perfect, and as has often been said, if it were and we attended it, we would ruin its perfection! However, it is God’s gift to us, and we honor God and the sacrifice of Christ when we participate in it and assemble together to worship our God and Savior.
This article was inspired by the research in my book–Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Please check it out at westbowpress.com or at Amazon USA / UK. Available in hardback, softcover, or e-book.