When going to church actually makes you a Christian

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.”

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Oh really?

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)

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5 thoughts on “When going to church actually makes you a Christian

  1. Corey Geertsma says:

    I’d actually like to challenge you on this point Pastor Stan.

    I agree 100% with your post that going to church is important even essential to Christianity. I fully believe that without the loving guidance of fellow believers, the devil will have an easier time persuading us to give in to our human desires and therefore fall away from the faith.

    I’m not sure this is what the bumper sticker is trying to get at though. I believe this bumper sticker challenges those people who could perhaps be considered “pew sitters.” Those people who say “Yes I am a Christian… I go to church every Sunday!” Really? Is that what makes you a Christian? If we believe that our attending church every Sunday is what makes us a Christian, I think we may be a little off base. I am not saved by my attendance record at church.

    Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

    That is what saves me. Paul makes it pretty clear, even blunt that nothing I can ever do will save me. My belief that I was once a sinner but God in his grace sent his Son to die for me so that I may have eternal life is what allows me to call myself a Christian.

    If I do not believe this fundamental truth, I could go to church every Sunday – twice, and I won’t be headed to heaven. If you want to bring it back to the bumper sticker, I think it’s God’s grace that allows me to become the car in the garage not just some guy standing in the garage thinking he is a car.

    Once again I must reiterate that I am not disagreeing with the point you are making in your post, (the fact that attendance at church is important) but I simply have a different interpretation of the meaning of the bumper sticker.

    Let me know what you think.

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  2. SjG says:

    Thank you for your thought-full response, Corey. I did not read the bumper sticker the way you read it; I read it to mean that you don’t have to bother with “going to church” since Jesus (not church) saves you. That, of course, is true, but Jesus saves us and simultaneously places us in a community.

    You bring up a good point: I wonder how many people figure that by logging enough time “in church” (i.e. gathering for worship) they’ll be able to coast into life eternal. Does anybody really think that? If somebody were to say to me, “God has let me into heaven because of my great church attendance record,” I’d have to ask if they actually listen to anything they hear (i.e. the Gospel!) every Sunday morning!

    (I put “going to church” in quotes thinking about how we don’t go to church because we already ARE the church!)

    Peace,
    Stan

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  3. Terri says:

    I enjoyed reading this discussion. I agree with Corey’s reading of the of the bumper sticker. I think that most people who post it are trying (in a strange way) to encourage people to make a personal commitment to Christ. I agree with Stan’s enthusiastic reminder to not forsake the assembling together as some are in the habit of doing. Thanks for sharing. I find these discussions refreshing and inspiring.

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  4. Connie says:

    This is a great discussion! Thanks for sharing.

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  5. C H says:

    I was looking for an image of this statement via Google and I was directed here. I find your take on the bumper sticker interesting. I have only ever seen it when used by other non-church folk who are using it, as someone stated above, to point out that attending church does not make you a Christian. I wanted it to remind someone that claiming you are a Christian means *living* as a Christian, not just going to church on Sunday and doing whatever you want the rest of the week. Your take is interesting and I can certainly see your points as quite valid. I hope it had the effect for your followers as you intended.

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