By Steve Duby
Faculty, College of Theology
In the midst of my busy life, I sometimes wonder whether I need to be a member at a church in order to be spiritually healthy. I have Christian friends and am part of a Christian university. I can listen to sermons online and get worship songs to sing on the way to work. Why would I need to worry about being a member of a local church in order to serve God and grow spiritually?
This is an important question and one that more people are asking today as we have so many resources we can access online. To answer you, we can start by acknowledging that it’s a great blessing to have Christian friends and a university where we can interact regularly with Christians who want to help us focus on following Christ. Many people don’t have that and it’s something we can thank God for!
Having said that, the New Testament does speak very strongly about the importance of being part of a local church. In fact, in the way that Christ and the apostles speak of Christian believers, it is taken as a given that believers are part of local churches.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises to build his church and says that the gates of hell won’t prevail against it. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 also, Paul says that when believers receive the Holy Spirit, they are placed in the body of Christ. No letter in the New Testament addresses Christians in isolation from the fellowship of the church. The author of Hebrews tells his readers that they must spur one another on toward love and good deeds and not give up meeting together, as some had done at that time (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Of course, we might ask whether the fellowship of Christians envisioned in the New Testament is sufficiently carried out in friendships with other believers outside the church and in parachurch organizations today. To respond to that question and to see what we miss when we’re not part of the local church, we can highlight a handful of characteristics that mark out the church as a special place of God’s activity and a unique and necessary environment for Christian discipleship.
First, the church is where those who have been called by God to shepherd his people preach and teach the word of God week after week (Ephesians. 4:11-16). Hearing the word preached by shepherds who know you and your family and will walk with you in good times and in suffering is different from listening to a famous preacher online. Pastors who know their people can provide spiritual care that simply can’t be offered by those who don’t actually know us. Embodied, face-to-face connections add something to our relationships with spiritual leaders that cannot be replicated in podcasts and other similar resources (however useful those may be).
The church is also the place where we participate in the sacraments (or ordinances) that God has given to us to shape our faith and encourage us in profound ways. In baptism, the Lord identifies us as his own and portrays for us how we are washed by Christ and raised with him to walk in new life (Matthew. 28:19; Romans. 6:1-14). In the Lord’s Supper, we partake anew of Christ and all his blessings with our fellow believers whenever we receive the bread and the cup (1 Corinthians 10:16).
The church is also an environment where we are cared for and held accountable by elders who are called to oversee God’s people for their spiritual well-being. The New Testament envisions elders faithfully watching over our souls so that we remain faithful to the Lord (Hebrews 13:17).
Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that the church is a place of intergenerational fellowship. Often our friendships and parachurch organizations bring us into contact with believers who are in the same stage of life. But the church, since it encompasses Christians of all ages, brings us an intergenerational wisdom that younger people in particular need to run the race of faith well.
Indeed, the church in Ephesians 3 is called the manifestation of God’s wisdom that speaks to his greatness before all rulers and powers – and we dare not reject the call to be part of something so beautiful and compelling!
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