Easter is only a few days away, and that means a lot of folks are dusting off their Sunday best for their annual or semi-annual trip to the church house. That's not a judgment: just a fact. These people may be dedicated to reading their Bibles, praying, giving, or sharing their faith - more dedicated than those of us who are at church every Sunday, even - but for whatever reason, they simply are not actively involved in the life of the local church.
There are as many reasons as people. There could be some pain, some guilt, some frustration behind it, perhaps from years past when they were a part of a congregation. It could be because they find church services boring, or they're busy with other commitments. Or maybe they just haven't seen any good reason to be a part of a church. I'll come for a special celebration of some momentous work of God, like Jesus' birth or his resurrection, but otherwise... why would I want to be there? Why church?
I'm a pastor, so obviously I have a vested interest in people thinking church is important. But I actually happen to believe it is important - vital, even. This is an enormous topic, but let me try to distill a few points here and offer 4 reasons why I believe church is vital to Christian faith.
1. Encountering grace. There are countless ways that you may get a taste of God's grace in your life. Some of come through company, through friends; some of them will only come in private, when you are alone with God, or alone with creation.
But there are a few ways that God has established as permanent channels of grace for our lives, regular "means of grace" (as we call them in the United Methodist Church) to which we have access. And many of these you will only tap into through the life of the church. Baptism and Holy Communion are the two most obvious examples: you are only baptized, you only receive the bread and the cup, Christ's body and blood, as a part of a community. Other believers are involved in all of that, and a minister, probably. The grace that we encounter through these acts, this is a grace you only find with the rest of the church.
[Worship itself, that encounter with God's grace, is meant to be a communal experience as well, where "each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Cor 14:25).]
2. Encouragement, support, and challenge. Being a part of the church means being a part of a community that helps us through life. The folks around you in the pews are called by scripture to "encourage each other and build each other up" (1 Thess 5:11), to "share each other's burdens" (Gal 6:4), and to "motivate one another to acts of love and good works" (Heb 10:24). We aren't just there to sit next to each other - we're there to journey through life together and help one another along the way! If we don't get to know others in our congregations and invest in their lives, we're not being the church at all. As a member of a faithful church, you can look to your sisters and brothers in Christ for spiritual, emotional, even material support and help on your journey (and they can look to you!).
Of course, the reasons "why church?" aren't all centered on us, and the benefits we can receive through a connection with the church. Some of the reasons are simply truths that Jesus' people need to come to terms with.
3. The Body of Christ.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:12, 14-16, 27)
Paul is really concerned here with the variety of spiritual gifts in the 'body', and the important role that each member of the 'body' plays. But his central image, of the body, has other implications as well. You, Christian, no matter how self-sufficient you might feel, you are a spiritual body part. You can't change that; nothing you say will make you any less a part of the body. The moral of the story? We're not supposed to do this on our own - if we try to, we may not really be doing it at all! You wouldn't say an eyeball or a pinky toe, off on its own, was really living life. Existing? Sure. Living life? Nah. That's what a body does. It takes more parts than that. If you don't join together with the other parts of the body, you're severely hampering your own Christian life, not to mention handicapping everyone else's (they're left without a nose, or a kidney!).
4. "You" is plural. The word "you" can be singular or plural, depending on how you use it. "Will you marry me?" "You lost, Denver Broncos." That's English. In ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, it's different: there is a singular "you" and a plural "you," and you can tell them apart just by looking at them - like the difference between "you" and "y'all."
And you may be surprised how many of the "you"s in the New Testament are plural. Take 1 Corinthians 3:16 for instance: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" I'm God's temple? Cool! That means I should eat right, exercise, maybe avoid tattoos (temple graffiti?). Oh, but wait: this is plural. You all, y'all, the Christian community, are the temple of God, where the Spirit dwells. Like so many other "you"s, it's plural. Why is that? Because Christianity is a plural faith. It's all about y'all, we, us. Jesus didn't call individual disciples to follow him, each on their own: he called twelve disciples to form a Church. One more time: we're not supposed to do this on our own! That's why church.
But let's get real.
This is a blog post and a whole bunch of words. If this all sounds good to you, you probably felt that way before you started reading. If you want to see folks who've never shown an interest in participating in the life of the church begin to invest their time and hearts in your congregation, recommending a blog post to them is not your best option (just trust me on that). If you want to see people drawn into the life of your church, do what you can to make that congregation the kind of community it's supposed to be; do what you can to offer people the opportunities for growth and service that they need; do what you can to make your church look like the bride of Christ that she is. Make your church, and the experience of participating in your church, a compelling case for itself.
Then trust God with the rest.
And you might want to get started on that, because this weekend you'll have an opportunity to show a lot of new people what the church can be, if they'll give it a chance.