Summary: For anyone who wants to know God, the church is essential.
Let’s imagine it’s sometime this afternoon. You’re at home, working in the front yard, and you see a moving van stop a couple of houses down the street. Two men get out of the truck and start unloading furniture. Then you see a minivan pull up to the curb, and a family gets out. You want to be a good neighbor, so you put down the hedge trimmers and walk over to meet them. They’re dressed a little differently, and as you approach, you hear them talking with some kind of foreign-sounding accent. You say hello, you chat for a while, and in the course of the conversation you mention that you attend WestShore, and you invite them to come to church with you sometime. They look at you with blank expressions on their faces. You think maybe you’ve offended them, but then they startle you by asking, "what’s a church?" You’re a little surprised, but you figure that they must be from some part of the world where there are no churches, so you do the best you can to explain what a church is. And then they ask another question: "Why?". Why do you belong to a church? Why do you go to those meetings every week?
Now in one sense, that’s a pretty unlikely scenario. It would be unusual to run across someone who had no idea at all what a church was. But in another sense, it’s really not that unlikely. Because most of us live next door to people, and work with people, and are friends with people, who have at best a very hazy idea of what church is about. They know it has something to do with singing hymns and putting money in an offering plate, and they’re pretty sure there’s a sermon involved, but that’s about all. Or maybe their idea of church is clear, but clearly wrong. Perhaps their idea of church has been warped by a bad personal experience with a church sometime in their past. Or perhaps all they know about church comes from TV and movies. In fact, I suspect that even most people in churches would have a difficult time clearly explaining what church is, and what it’s about.
And that’s something we need to correct. Because without a firm belief in the value and importance of church, it just becomes a matter of habit. You go because you’ve always gone. And if that’s all it is, then just as you got into the habit of church-going, you can just as easily get out of the habit. Or perhaps you go because you enjoy it. You like the people, or the music, or the pastor, or the Krispy-Kreme donuts. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I hope you do enjoy church. But if that’s the only reason you come, because you enjoy it; then if you stop enjoying it so much - maybe the style of music changes, or they hire a new pastor, or they change from Starbucks coffee to Folgers - then you may just decide not to go to church anymore. What we need is a reason for belonging to a church, and attending church, and participating in the life of a church, that’s deeper than just force of habit, or personal enjoyment. We need a conviction that church is not only beneficial, but absolutely essential. We need to understand that, for anyone who wants to know God and grow spiritually, church is not an optional activity. It is not something that we can do or not do, as we please. It is a basic requirement. It is an essential source of nourishment for our souls.
Perhaps you’re skeptical. That’s natural. We live in a very individualistic society. It goes against our grain to suggest that we need other people, or need a group of people, for anything. "Yes, of course," you might say, "church has its benefits. But I could do without it if I chose. After all, I have the Bible to read. I can pray - I don’t need anybody else for that. I can read Christian books, and I can listen to Christian radio, and I can watch Robert Schuller on TV. And what about Tom Hanks, stranded on that island in the movie Castaway? He didn’t have a church. What about Robinson Crusoe? Are you trying to tell me that people stranded on desert islands can’t know God? Or what about missionaries who go and live in the jungle with remote tribes, where they are the only Christians? They get along all right without a church. So I can too."
Well, with all due respect to Tom Hanks, and Robinson Crusoe, and jungle missionaries, I still say that we need the church. Yes, God can give special grace to those who live outside his normal channels of blessing and power. But for most of us, He has made provision for meeting our spiritual needs through the church, and if we neglect or abandon his appointed means of grace, then He will not supply our spiritual needs in another way that we substitute. Listen to what Christ says: