Big Questions: Do I Have To Go to Church To Follow Jesus?
Do I really have to go to church to follow Jesus? How important is the church, really? Does it even matter?
I am a pastor at a church, so you might be assuming what you think my answer will be. And you might be wrong in that assumption.
Most of us picture something in our mind when we hear the word “church.” Some picture scandals and abuse, or maybe rules and hypocrisy, or other examples of religion gone bad.
Or maybe we picture leaders left unaccountable for their actions, or churches that use their power to protect and shield the powerful rather than uplift the powerless. There are lot of examples out there, and they are all terrible.
For others of us, instead of picturing religion gone bad, we picture religion gone stale. We picture ritual and boredom. And irrelevance.
Or, maybe we just think of institutions that are primarily interested in “religion” more than people. After all, you can make a strong argument that Jesus came to start a movement, not a religion.
If any of those things pop into your head when you think of the word “church,” then I can safely say, “No, you don’t need any of that.” You don’t have to participate in empty rituals or hold your nose and be a part of an institution you don’t support. It’s ok to say “no” to all of that.
However, when we look at the Bible, it’s clear that the movement Jesus began is a group activity. There are numerous passages about how that group is to function, how leaders are to lead, how we are to support and encourage one another, and how we should each fulfill unique roles within the group according to our gifts and abilities. The Bible makes clear that we need each other.
The Christian life and the journey of following Jesus is designed by God to be a team sport. To say “yes” to following Jesus but “no” the church is like saying “yes” to playing professional football but “no” to being on a team…like trying to play all the positions yourself, simultaneously, as a tiny team of one.
So to follow Jesus, do we need to participate in what we picture in our mind when we hear the word church? Probably not.
Does that mean we can do it alone? Definitely not. The journey of following Jesus only takes place in dependence upon God and interdependence upon others.
So if you want to follow Jesus, please find a community that feels like home—one that can support you and help you, and one where you can contribute and help support others, too. If it takes a while to find that community, that’s ok.
If you need a community that is small and intimate, great. Find one of those.
If you need a community that really focuses on issues of justice and human rights, super. Find a good one. There are lots of churches to choose from.
If you need a community that really focuses on Bible study so that you can have a much better grasp of the Bible and theology—then seek out a good one.
There is as much variety among churches as there is among people. There are a lot of right answers in the Kingdom of God.
Bottom line: it’s ok to look for something that is the best fit for you.
And, when you find that community, don’t expect it to be perfect. It will be imperfect, just as you and I are imperfect. But hopefully it will feel like home, and you will experience the life-giving interdependence with others that God wants you to experience.
know it’s hard to overcome bad examples. It’s especially hard to overcome bad experiences. If you have had a terrible church experience, you are not alone. There are a lot of us out there.
Churches are messy places that get it wrong a lot. But since God designed life with Him to be a group activity, then the church is worth another shot. And I sincerely hope you find the type of community that you are called to be a part of.
Find and share more thoughtful answers to life's questions at the Big Questions playlist on YouTube.