I’ve seen this posted on Facebook and tweeted one too many times: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
This saying gets a lot of mileage (“kilometerage” as my mom encourages us to say in Metricland) in North American evangelical Christian circles where it’s okay for one’s faith to be private and individualistic: Faith is between you and God. Period. This mentality fits well into a larger culture that pushes us to do whatever we like (so long as we’re not not hurting anyone): You want to be a Christian? Go for it, if that’s what powers your warp drive. Just do it on your own time and don’t let it interfere with the rest of us.” And off one goes to explore one’s personal spirituality.
Doesn’t it occur to anyone how preposterous this is? How anti-biblical this is?
Nowhere in the New Testament will you find a churchless Christianity. Consider the example of the apostle Paul in Acts 20-21: Here we find the trailblazing missionary “in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost” (20:16). Paul badly wants to meet and worship with the elders and other people of Jerusalem. You’d think that after years in the church-planting and church-discipling business, Paul would appreciate some time alone at a private retreat somewhere secluded along the Mediterranean. Had you suggested it to him, he probably would have looked at you with a look of complete incomprehension.
As Monica and I read a while ago in our devotions,
Paul knew the strength of his ministry depended on his coming together with the disciples. It was in coming together for worship and the common meal (Eucharist) that the disciples gathered strength and courage to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to a hostile world.
When we are in Christ, we are part of something that’s much bigger than what (Who!) is in our heart. Whether we realize it or not, we’re connected with sisters and brothers who span all time and space. This is the “invisible church.”
Yet the invisible church is never sufficient. How do we connect with invisible people? How are we discipled, encouraged, helped, challenged, cared for by “something out there somewhere?” Jesus’ intention is to place us in the “visible church.” Among fellow flesh-and-blood, fallen yet imagebearing people of God, we are the words and hands and feet of Jesus for others as others are for us, which in turn trains us to be the words and hands and feet of Jesus for people who don’t know Him yet.
Understanding what the apostle Paul knew, John Stott gets it right when he writes:
The Lord … didn’t add [people] to the church without saving them, and he didn’t save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership went together; they still do. (John Stott, The Living Church, p. 32)