Monday, September 19, 2022

Can I be a Christian but NOT be Part of a Church?

 


What does “church local” mean?

It’s trendy to shop local. And eat local. And buy local. It’s good for your community, and in turn it’s good for your family.

But is there merit to worshipping local? To “church local?” When we Christians use the word “church” we mean one of two things. The “big C” church is the universal church, the sum total of all Christians everywhere. The “little c” church is each and every individual local church.

Here’s a question I’ve asked myself many times. Why do I attend church every Sunday? I’ve been going to church since I was a pre-teen. Every Sunday. I attend one particular church, I give money to that one church, I get involved in that one church, and I’ve even become a member of that one church. But sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Why do I need to be affiliated with a particular local church?

I really like worship services at my church. I think our worship band does a good job. But with my phone or TV, I can crank up YouTube and see some of the best worship bands in the world perform. I can participate in worship with Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, or Bethel Worship from the comfort of my own living room.

I really like my pastor’s sermons. I think he’s a really good preacher and he forces me to think and act on my faith. But I could go online right now and listen to recent footage from the best preachers in the world. Andy Stanley, Tony Evans, John Tyson – you name an excellent communicator and I can pull up all their material within my podcast app.

I like the groups ministry at my church. There’s some good teachers who rotate through the classes. But honestly, I own dozens of books that deal with the stuff they teach in there. No matter what they teach on any given Sunday, I probably own two or three books written by the smartest and brightest Ph.D.’s on that topic.

I even like the donuts that the Welcome Team sets out every week. But truth be told, I could drive to Duck Donuts right now and have a fresh, warm one for $1.50. That’s about the same price as the gas it takes to get to the church building.

What I’m saying is, it seems from the surface as though I can “church” without being part of one particular local church. I can have a personal relationship with God all on my own. I read or listen to the Bible almost every morning. I pray every day, sometimes throughout the day. I even feel that God impresses things on my mind throughout the week. I can serve my community, love people, give to organizations, and worship God apart from a local church. All by myself.

So why do I need to formalize my relationship with God? Why do I need to affiliate myself with a particular church? Why do I need to join one church and be all in at said church? In essence, I’m asking if it’s possible for me to live out my faith in isolation.

Even if I want to have the local church experience, why can’t I attend one church this Sunday, a different church another Sunday, join a men’s group from another church, send my kids to a children’s program somewhere else, and so forth? Why do I need to become linked with the same group of people, long term? Why do I need to be committed to one church?

Have you ever asked yourself these questions? Maybe you have young kids in the house. And just getting worship on Sunday morning is like herding cats. And you wonder “Why don’t we just do a little church service in our living room? Isn’t ‘house church’ a thing?”

Maybe you’re a real reflective person. All the people and the noise of being at a church service is more distracting than it is worshipful. Meeting in some group environment has too many interpersonal dimensions. You think you’d be better off spending Sunday morning floating down the river, meditating on God’s creation, all by yourself.

Maybe you’re an action guy or gal, and the formality of church makes you think these things. You find yourself saying “There’s people out there dying in their sins. We gotta get the gospel out, we gotta turn this community around, and we gotta help people. But here I am, sitting in my slacks, shaking hands with people and listening to this pastor gab for half an hour? Man, let’s go!”

Maybe you’re a student or a teenager, and this just seems like a waste of time. With technology, the world is at our fingertips. Why be a part of a church when I can listen to famous theologians on my phone and interact with Christians all over the world with my iPad?

What’s the point of churching local?

While it is definitely possible to have a strong faith in Jesus, and live a life of worship apart from a local church, you are missing something significant if you do so. In this article, I want to share three reasons for churching local. We’ll look at Philippians 2:1-5 written by a church planter and apostle named Paul of Tarsus.
  1. Churching local makes your faith complete
  2. Churching local makes your faith real
  3. Churching local is the only legitimate way to “church”

Churching local makes your faith complete

Can I have a robust, healthy, personal relationship with God and not a personal relationship with one particular church? Can I say “Yes” to Jesus and “No” to his bride? Can I have God as my father, without having the church as my mother? Can I have a relationship with Jesus, walk through life with him, listen to sermons, ready my bible regularly, confess my sins to him, worship him, and so on, without fully committing to this particular church? Can’t I live out my allegiance to Jesus in isolation?

The answer to that question is Yes, you can! You can absolutely live out your faith in isolation. However, there is something you really need to consider. If you are going to take Jesus seriously, and if you are going to take his New Covenant seriously, you cannot ignore this text…

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:1–5 (NIV)

A Puzzle with a Missing Piece

These five verses made me think of some puzzles my kids used to play with. One of their puzzles really annoyed me. It was only a three-piece puzzle, but one of the pieces is missing. You can only complete 2/3 of the puzzle!

That puzzle illustrates my point: You can absolutely be in relationship with Jesus without being in relationship at a particular church. However, your faith is like that puzzle with a missing piece. Your faith is incomplete if you choose that path.

Let’s jump back into those verses in Philippians and see how the writer words this.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…

You probably noticed that there are four “if” phrases here. Now these “if’s” are meant to be ironic. We are supposed to read these and think “Well, of course that’s true.” Having a relationship with Jesus is encouraging. Knowing that I can pray and talk to my Lord and God at any second of the day, knowing that God is watching me, knowing that He is in absolute control of my life even when my life is chaotic; does that bring encouragement? Does having the Holy Spirit empower me and forge me into a better person make my relationship with God a better partnership? Of course it does!

All these “If’s” force us to look out for the “then”. If all of that is true, then make my joy complete…

Isolated faith is incomplete faith

Now he’s going to tell us how to complete his joy, but first we need to sit in this. His joy is not complete based on those first four “if’s.” Paul of Tarsus was their pastor, the one who established the church of Philippi, the one who is primarily responsible for everyone in the church of Philippi who made the plunge to believe in and follow Jesus. And we’ve already seen in his letter that he wants them to progress in their faith, wants them to grow in maturity, and wants them to find joy and satisfaction in their relationship with God. But these first four “if’s” do not fulfill that.

He’s about to make the point that following Jesus alongside “others” on the same journey is what completes your relationship with God. Isolated faith is incomplete faith.

If I know the Bible really well, and read lots of theology books, and pray everyday, and memorize scripture, and practice spiritual disciplines, and fast and meditate regularly, but I am not part of a local church, then my relationship with God will be incomplete. If my faith is practiced in isolation, it is incomplete. If my walk with God is all vertical and doesn’t go horizontal, it is incomplete. If my faith is a personal thing for me, it’s my business and not yours, it is incomplete.
 

Churching local makes your faith real

Churching local makes your faith complete. It also makes your faith real.

I’ve noticed a phenomenon that happens to people who think they are strong believers but do not maintain a connection with Christian community. If I do not have a local church, then I am in danger of two pitfalls:

First, I become a Spiritual Tourist. While I’m sitting on a mountain, all by myself, reading my bible, I can easily miss that the whole book is infused with people. If living in community wasn’t important, there would be no Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, because Jesus wouldn’t have a small community around him to record anything. Were there no local churches in the first century, there would be no letters of the New Testament. Were it not for organized religion, there would be no prophets to read. Were it not for people working together and living their faith alongside one another, there would be no Bible. Period.

If I try living out my faith in isolation, I become a tourist. I’m walking around the book of Philippians, snapping photos with people for my Instagram feed, and then going home. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a tourist! I don’t want to read about Jesus, and the disciples, and the apostles – I want to DO what they did. I don’t want to read about the church of Philippi, chopping out verses that make me feel good about myself along the way. (“Alright! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”) I want to BE the church of Philippi! I can’t write the next chapter of what God is doing if I’m the only character in the story!

Second, I become a Spiritual Giant in my own mind. I read my Bible today, and it was so encouraging. I prayed today, and it was so genuine, I poured my heart out to him. I feel so close with God right now. I’m on a mountain in my walk with God right now. Oh, I’m so stinking godly right now!

But the only reason I feel so godly is because nobody is sitting in my living room with me. Nobody is around to point out my blind spots. Nobody is around to ask for my advice or help. Nobody is around to ask me the tough questions about faith. Nobody is around to challenge me to take next steps. It’s real easy to feel like a giant when I’m the only one in the room!

So the obvious question now is How do I complete my faith? If living out my faith in isolation is incomplete faith, if reading and praying and worshipping without a consistent Christian community is a pipe dream, how do I complete my faith? How do I avoid these dangers of becoming a spiritual tourist or a spiritual giant?

Others

Look at how he continues in verse 2:
…make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

In essence, here’s what completes my faith: other people. Faith within community is complete faith. I can listen to sermons, sing worship music on my drive to work, and pray every morning. But if that’s the extent of my relationship with God then Paul is not satisfied with my progress in faith.

I have to live out my faith within a community of other people who are living out that same faith.

But here’s the catch. I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing who can be part of my faith community and who I don’t want to deal with. I don’t have the luxury of self-selecting how deep my commitment level will be towards these people in my faith community.

Churching local is the only legitimate way to “church”

Churching local makes your faith complete.
Churching local makes your faith real.
Lastly, churching local is the only legitimate way to church.

When we read the “one another” verses in the NT, it’s easy to interpret them this way: Be kind to people you know. Be considerate of other people’s feelings. Especially other Christians.
Love others. Don’t be selfish. Especially with other Christians.
Be a servant. Especially with other Christians.

In other words, my neighbor is a Christian, and was out of town last week, so I brought his garbage can out for him. I’m “serving one another”. Check! My coworker is a Christian, and we grabbed lunch the other day and talked about worship music we like to listen to. We are “one in spirit and of one mind”. Check! My cousin is a Christian, and lost her job last week. I called her up and prayed for her over the phone. You could say I “in humility valued her above myself”. Check!

All that is true. All that is great. But this isn’t a Hallmark Card. Reading Philippians like this is picking and choosing my faith community and self-selecting my commitment to them. But an honest reading of Philippians doesn’t allow for that simplistic interpretation.

The original recipients of this letter didn’t read this that way. I’m going to prove it to you. When we read the New Testament, we are reading someone else’s mail, right? This letter of Philippians was written by a church planter named Paul to a particular church family, the church of Philippi. So we have to be careful that we do not import our reality into their letter. We have to be careful that we do not apply this stuff to our own life before we really know what he’s saying to them in this letter.

First off, this letter was written to a formal church. It was not written to a bunch of anonymous people who happen to believe in Jesus. The postman didn’t just nail this to a bulletin board with the words “To whom it may concern”. This was written to a formal local church body. Notice Philippians 1:1 where Paul addresses actual church leaders who met with an organized church body that worshipped in at actual location. (“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons…”)

Second, these descriptions of community had significant meaning. The way that Paul describes “being like-minded,” “valuing one another,” having “relationships with one another,” and so forth meant something very concrete to these people. This letter was designed to be read by someone in a house church while serving communion, worshipping, and discussing how each other were doing in their pursuit of Jesus and building His kingdom. Nobody read this and thought, “Oh, be nice to people.”

Third, the structure of the early church was spread out over a collection of house churches. These “elders” were likely considered pastors who led house churches part of a bigger whole. These were oversized small groups, essentially. And they read this letter together, as a house church.

Picture this: You’re standing in a living room of someone’s home. There’s about 40 people crammed in there. There are kids, adults, men, women, slaves, government employees; all kinds of people. But these are people you know. You know every one of their names and personal lives. You’re been singing together, praying together, and sharing a meal together. Then the pastor of the house church stands up and says “Folks, let me get your attention. We’ve received a letter from the Apostle Paul, written to you and given to us elders.”[1] Then he starts to read:

“…be like-minded, have the same love, be one in spirit and of one mind. In humility, value others above yourselves. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

There is no way anyone in that room is thinking “Oh, Paul is saying be nice to everyone you know.” That is far too fluffy, too informal, and too abstract. When the house-church elder read those words, everyone in that room thought This is my church. You all are my people. I’m accountable to you, and you’re all accountable to me. I’m committed to you, and you are committed to me. We are in this together. I’m FOR you people.

Church Local

Maybe you feel like that puzzle I mentioned. Remember the one missing 1/3 of the pieces? You believe in Jesus. You’re committed to him. Maybe you read your bible regularly, pray, and feel that you have a relationship with God.

But you aren’t part of a local church. Sure, you attend one every now and then, but you haven’t really gotten connected in a group. Or maybe you just watch online. Sure, you interact with other Christians regularly, at work or old friends, but if you’re honest those relationships are self-selective. You aren’t sure you’re living out the kind of stuff Paul talks about here in Philippians.

Maybe you feel like a “Spiritual Tourist.” You read through the Bible, but you can’t picture yourself living out the kind of mission that the disciples were living, or the Philippian church, or the Thessalonian church, or the Ephesian church, or any of those specific, formal churches.

This doesn’t have to be you. Living out your faith in isolation, but missing genuine community.

Church local.


[1] See Larry’s description of the early churches in Lead Like a Shepherd by Larry Osborne, 7-8.

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