Is it possible to be a follower of Jesus and not go to church? What do you think?
A Sunday school teacher asked the children: “Why is it necessary to be quiet when you go back into the church?” A little girl replied, “Because the people are sleeping!”
It has to be said, many people think of church services as boring, sometimes dead-boring, and to be fair a lot of church services are… but they absolutely should not be!
I heard a story about a vicar taking a small boy around his church and showing him the plaques of war memorials.
“These are the names of all the local people who died in the various Services,” he told the boy.
The boy looked horrified and asked, “Did they die in the morning services or the evening services?”
Some people feel exasperated by church, maybe they’ve had a bad experience or they were dragged along to church against their will as a child. I heard a funny story about someone being exasperated…
A young lad doing his homework approached his father and asked, “Dad, what does ‘exasperation’ mean?”
His dad thought about it and said, “It means being really cross or wound up or utterly frustrated. Exasperation is something you ‘kind-of’ build up to: Here, let me show you how it works. With that he picked up the telephone and dialled a number at random. It rang several times before it was answered… then the dad winked at his son and said, “Hello is Simon there?”
A man’s voice on the other end replied, “No. I’m sorry there’s nobody here called Simon. You’ve got the wrong number,” and he hung up.
“Now you see”, the Dad said, “that’s what we call an inconvenience: It took a while for the man to answer the phone and so we obviously dragged him away from something and inconvenienced him by dialling a wrong number.”
The father then pressed the redial button and when the same man answered, he said, “Hello is Simon there?”
This time the man on the other end said, “Look, I’m sorry, you’ve just dialled this number and I told you there’s no one here called Simon. Now, please check the number and stop bothering me.” He hung up a second time.
The dad looked at his son and explained, “Now, we’ve moved from inconvenience to annoyance… Let’s try again.”
He pressed the redial button and a third time said, “Hello is Simon there?”
There was a moment of silence and then an angry voice said, “What’s the matter with you. Don’t you understand English? I’ve already told you that Simon doesn’t live here. STOP PHONING ME! Do you understand?” And he hung up!
The father looked over at his son and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, said, “And that was anger! Now for exasperation; watch this…”
He pressed the redial again and immediately it was picked up he said, “Hi this is Simon, has there been any messages for me?”
When you hear the word ‘church’ what image does that conjure up for you? I hope it is not exasperation! Some associate the word ‘church’ with church services: Before I became a Christian I didn’t like church. I wasn’t exasperated by it – but I thought church services were dull and boring. Some people associate the word ‘church’ with the clergy – priests, pastors, ministers; those who work in the church. Others associate the word ‘church’ with a particular denomination; Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist etc. And a lot of people associate the word ‘church’ with a church building. Of course, there’s an element of truth in all of these but many Christians, myself included, are trying to point out that this image of church is far removed from the picture of church given to us in the New Testament. Lots of churches today are turning back the clock and seeking to creating a wonderful warm and outward-going Christian family, which is much closer to the biblical picture of what the first Christian church looked like. The Greek word used in the New Testament for church is ekklesia, which actually means ‘an assembly’ or ‘gathering of people’. What we are doing right now!
Some people look at the church on the outside and they really don’t like what they see. Experience and the behaviour of a few can repel rather than attract, but true Christianity, real church is not like that. Real church is all about seeking to reflect Jesus. It’s like the owner of an orchard who invited a man to come and taste his wonderful fruit.
‘Oh, no,’ said the man, ‘I have seen the orchard and I have tasted some of the fruit… its apples are sour and bitter!’
‘Ah,’ said the owner of the orchard, ‘I planted sour apple trees on the outside of the orchard to stop thieves coming in and stealing the fruit. But come with me into the centre, taste and see; the fruit is sweet and good to eat.’
Jesus would not have us remain on the outside, but to come in, taste and see the fruit that he offers is good and sweet.
As I said, before I became a Christian I didn’t like church but after I became a Christian I began to love the church. Tonight we are going to be looking at five pictures of metaphors for the church: These are five reasons why I love the church so much. The first reason why I love the church is because it is…
1. The People Of God – Jesus calls us his friends – (John 15:14-15)
Someone said to me recently, ‘Ian, you don’t have to read the Bible or go to church to be a Christian.’ And I said, ‘no you don’t, that’s absolutely true! And similarly, you don’t have to talk to your spouse or you don’t have to go home for you to be married… but then what kind of a relationship is that?’ The fact is we can’t grow in our relationship with God if we don’t really spend any time with Him – in prayer, in the Scriptures, and in fellowship/church.
The church is made up of people. The New Testament refers to the universal church (Ephesians 3:10, 21; 5:23) which consists of all those people worldwide and down the ages who profess or have professed the name of Christ. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world today (a third of the world’s population), and it’s estimated there’s a net increase of 70,000 in the number of new Christians being added to the church every single day worldwide. ‘The church is growing faster than ever before and Christianity is gaining more members than any other religion. Indeed, it is growing three times the rate of the population explosion. More Muslims in Iran have come to know Christ over the past ten years than during the previous thousand years. In Africa, 20,000 people a day are becoming Christians. Some estimate that there may be as many as 100 million Christians in China alone.’ Citation
The church is hardly an irrelevant or insignificant movement and yet there are those in society who think that Christianity is irrelevant and that the church in the UK is not connected to the real world: that’s just ignorance.
At recent Christian conference I was at, one the main speakers reminded us of some key facts… and because we are also a part of the universal church I wanted to pose a few rhetorical questions to you, by way of showing just how relevant and significant the church really is! Now I am looking for a little interaction from you here, and so the response to each of the following questions is – “No, it’s the church actually!”
- Do you know who provides half of the parent and toddler support groups in the United Kingdom? Is it Sure Start? – No, it’s the church actually!
- Do you know who provides the biggest network of debt counselling across the UK with 190 drop in centres helping over 19,000 people last year alone? Is it Martin-money-saving-expert-Lewis? – No, it’s the church actually!
- Do you know who will feed over 100,000 hungry people this year in the UK, through food banks and drop in centres? Is it the Red Cross? – No, it’s the church actually!
- Do you know who brought hospitals, schools, universities and democracy into our country? Was it the Vikings? – No, it’s the church actually!
- Who invented Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs? Was it the Football Association? – No, it’s the church actually!
- When the doctors, the police and the social workers move out of an area and go and live somewhere safe, who is it that moves in? Is it Richard Dawkins and the militant atheists? – No, it’s the church actually!
- Who is it that is the hope of the world? Is it the United Nations? – No, it’s the church actually!
It’s good for us to get a glimpse of the bigger picture and for us to understand that we are members of this very relevant and significant body, the church.
We become a member of the church not by birth but by re-birth. Becoming a Christian involves three things: First, there is something we do – we repent and believe. Second, there is something that God does – He gives us the Holy Spirit. And third, there is something the church does – baptism.
As I mentioned previously I was adopted as a child, and although I was too young at the time to know what was happening, I took on a new name and a new identity and, legally, I was adopted and became a fully-fledged member of a new family. In a sense that’s what happens at baptism: in the ceremonial act of baptism with the blessings and prayers and promises, the candidate takes on a new identity; they become a member of the universal church and they formally join the Christian family.
All believers should be linked to Jesus through baptism. If you are a believer and follower of Christ and you haven’t been baptised then you really should be baptised, publicly. Not because this is some kind of ritual or ceremony that we need to do in order to be saved – salvation is by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8–9), but because Jesus instructed us to do it, because we need to be obedient and because it helps to edify and build up the whole church. (It’s a great reminder and a real encouragement for other believers to see people publicly affirming their faith.) The water of baptism symbolises the washing away of sin and our being forgiven and made clean by turning to Christ. In full immersion baptism the candidate goes down under the water, which symbolises darkness, separation, dying to the old self, and then they are symbolically raised to live a new life, washed clean and forgiven in Christ.
More than that, though, baptism is a sacrament instituted by Christ himself. According to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer baptism is: ‘An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ In other words, baptism is a sign or symbol that represents our acceptance of God’s grace to us in Christ and God’s acceptance of us through Christ. The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, explained it like this: ‘Circumcision was for the Jews their first entry into the church, because it was a token to them by which they were assured of adoption as the people and household of God. (…) In a like manner, we also are consecrated to God through baptism, to be reckoned as his people.’
In the Old Testament only males were circumcised but in the New Testament, under the new covenant, all believers, male and female, are initiated into the church through water baptism. All believers should be linked to Jesus through baptism. Acts 2v38 says: ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ When we receive the Holy Spirit we are never alone, unless we want to be, because God is with us always, even to the very end of the age.
Let me share an illustration: If you are a Christian you’re never alone; God is with you even in trouble because you are in Christ. You have the seal of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). What does it mean for us to be in Christ? Take a piece of paper (this represents you). Open the Bible (this represents God). Put your piece of paper inside and close your Bible… ‘God is above you and below you; in front and behind you; to the left and the right and all around you.’
The universal church has three local expressions; three sizes of church, if you like: the large gathering, the medium-sized gathering and the small. ‘The large gathering of Christians is the celebration event. This may take place every Sunday in the bigger churches, or when a number of smaller churches come together for worship, and also things like New Wine, Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor. But these larger gatherings are not places where Christian friendships can easily develop. The congregation or medium-sized gathering is where it is possible to know most people and be known by most. It is a place where lasting Christian friendships can be made. The third level of meeting is the cell or the small group – like being on Alpha. Small groups usually consist of between two and twelve people who gather to study the Bible and pray together. It is in these groups that the closest friendships are made. They are characterised by confidentiality (we can speak openly without fear of gossip), intimacy (where we can speak about what really matters in our lives) and accountability (where we are willing to listen and learn from one another).’ Citation
If you have enjoyed doing Alpha in this small group, can I encourage you to keep on meeting in a small group setting. There are a number of existing groups you can try. Speak to me afterwards or to you table host.
The second reason why I love the church is because it’s…
2. The Family of God
‘As Christians we have God as our Father, Jesus Christ as our Saviour and the Holy Spirit as our in-dweller.’ We all belong to one family. We are all sons and daughters of God, and we are all brothers and sisters to each other. Wherever you go in the world, in the universal church, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are called to get on with each other. Jesus prayed to the Father for unity in the church asking… ‘that they may be one as we are one’ (John 17:11). At the heart of the gospel is God’s love for us. So at the heart of our lives should be love for Him, and for others. Jesus said: ‘a new command I give you: love one another. [It’s a command, not a suggestion or good advice on how to do church.] ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34–35 NIV.)
Loving one another is what the Bible calls ‘fellowship’ and a powerful example of what fellowship should look like can be found in a study of the phrase “one another” in the Bible. Citation Over and over in the New Testament we’re told as a church to be devoted to one another, submit to one another, forgive one another, bear one another’s burdens, honour one another, accept one another, teach one another, serve one another, encourage one another, pray for one another and love one another. Citation You get the message. We are commanded to love one another. It’s not always easy. You are not easy to love sometimes, are you? Neither am I. Oswald Chambers said: “God loves me not because I am lovable, but because it is His nature to do so. And now He says to me, ‘show the same love to others – love as I have loved you. I will bring any number of people about you whom you cannot respect, and you must show my love to them as I have shown it to you.” Citation
I was with one of my children recently and somebody said, “Ian, they look just like you!” Guess what the Father wants to say about you? He wants to look at Jesus, look at you, then look at Jesus again and say to Him: “That disciple looks just like you!” That’s what discipleship is, a process of bringing you to the place where you look and act just like Jesus. Citation
When it comes to our fellowship together we should constantly ask ourselves: ‘what would Jesus do’ and then go and do it. Some people might say, ‘That’s all very well and good but I’m not Jesus.’ Ah, but you are! To the person sat next to you in the pew; for the visitor to our church; to the brother or sister who is in need, you are Jesus. They look at you as a Christian; a believer, a representative of Christ and what they really want to see… is exactly what you want to see in other Christians – they want to see Jesus. We want to look at others believers and other believers want to look at us, and we each want to say, ‘you look and you act just like Jesus’.
But, alas, some Christians skip coming to church far too often; they miss out on our coming together as a family, and they become spiritually dry. Imagine we are individual coals in a fire. Together we encourage and feed off each other and maintain our heat. But if you separate one of the coals, if you take your coal out of the fire… it will remain hot for a little while, but very soon it will start to grow cold until eventually the fire flickers and the flame extinguishes. The only way to rekindle the flame is to put the coal back in the fire again… get back to church, and keep coming every week.
Some people have become so very dry, spiritually. What they need now is a really good soak, not just the occasional shower at Easter or Christmas. Like having a hot bath, they need to soak in God’s presence for a good while and become drenched; totally immersed in the Spirit. – You know how a dried up plant, left in a plant pot for too long, how the soil shrinks and cracks and becomes hard, like baked clay? If you pour water on it, it’s so dry it just runs straight off. – Some Christians have allowed themselves to become like that… so dry that church, prayer, Bible reading, just touches the surface and runs off.
What they need is a real good soak in God’s presence for a while, to be drenched until they are totally immersed in the Spirit. What they need is to never have allowed themselves to become spiritually dry in the first place!
That’s what church is, or should be, a family get-together; where we come to encourage and support one another, and where we get refreshed and refuelled for the week ahead.
The third reason why I love the church is because it’s the way people see Jesus today; the church is…
3. The Body of Christ
In the church there is meant to be unity in diversity. Just as God the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is a community in diversity, so is the Christian church; we are a community in diversity.
Our unity means that our diversity does not become division. Our diversity means that our unity does not become uniformity.
If Jesus truly is Lord in our lives, then there should be unity in the church. Division and dissension in the church only weakens our united testimony! We are not created to be the same. We are not meant to become carbon copies of each other. We are created with differences. There is variety between us and this is meant to be complimentary. We are a community in diversity. We have different gifts and talents, and as 1 Corinthians 12v11 says: ‘All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.’
We are one body with many parts and as such, we have a mutual dependence; we need each other. The church functions best when all of its members are involved using their gifts.
One of the major problems in the church in the West today is that so few are exercising their spiritual gifts. The church has been compared to a football match, with 22 players running themselves ragged and doing all the work, and 22,000 spectators cheering (or jeering) from the stands! One church expert said, “The level of unemployment in this nation pales into insignificance in comparison with that which prevails in the church.”
Don’t think you’re unimportant or inferior to others who may have more ‘spectacular’ gifts. You have an important, God-given and valuable part to play, and the church will be impoverished if you don’t get involved. Use whatever gifts you have to serve and more will be given to you.
The fourth reason I love the church… it’s where we experience God in a special way. The church is…
4. A Holy Temple
Ephesians 2:20-21 says (NLT): ‘Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple of the Lord.’
You are a living stone; you are an important and valuable part of the temple. The church needs you and the body doesn’t function, as it should without you. Get involved; use your gifts; play your part willingly and gladly, not reluctantly… not because you must but because you want to, as an act of worship.
Let me ask you this: Is the church there for you – to solely satisfy your needs, or are you also there for the church? Are you just a consumer, or are you also going to be a contributor? Sometimes we need to come to church to receive, to just ‘be’… to be a human being and not a human doing. There are seasons when we all need to do that but church is not just a place to attend… the church; the living temple is meant to be an every man, every woman ministry. Church is not just a place to attend it’s a community, a body to get involved with, to serve others, and help build this holy temple. We are the body of Christ; we need each other.
St. Teresa of Ávila wrote:
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
A friend of mine recently went on holiday to Rome and while they were there they came across some members of a Christian group, called the Community of St. Egidio, who serve Christ on the streets of Rome by sharing their lives with the poor and marginalised. Years previously, they’d found an old wooden statue of Jesus in a skip. (I have a picture of it here.) It had been thrown out because the arms had broken off. But they picked it up and kept it. They said we are going to be the arms of Jesus, we are going to be his hands and feet and eyes. They called the statue Cristo dell’impotenza (Christ of weakness). Their base is the Church of St. Egidio in Rome and the statue is housed there, as a symbolic reminder.
As members of the one body with many parts that’s what we are called to do and be; we are to be Christ’s arms and hands and feet, and his eyes and ears and mouth… we are to use our spiritual gifts to serve the body/temple and grow the kingdom.
The fifth reason I love the church… is Jesus loves the church; it’s His bride. The church is…
5. The Bride of Christ
(I want to be a groom not a bride, but this is not a gender thing, rather it’s a picture of intimacy; of perfect union – Christ and His church)
Did you hear about the man who admitted, “I married my wife for better or for worse. I couldn’t have done any better and she couldn’t have done any worse!”
Or the other man who said to his wife: “I just can’t understand it. Why did God make you so beautiful but at the same time so stupid?”
The wife responded, “Oh, that’s easy. God made me beautiful so that you’d marry me and he made me stupid so that I’d marry you!”
When I got revved up… I mean when I was ordained in the Church of England, the experience was a bit like getting married: lots of promises and vows. The ordination service reminded me of a wedding ceremony. I walked down the aisle, gave myself publicly to another – Christ and his church – I swore allegiance to the Queen, obedience to the bishop (in all things lawful and honest) and publicly said my vows of office. Indeed, in the ordination service I had to say, “I do” and then say, “I will” eight times in all. In the end I wondered – still am – whether I’d been called or collared!
In 2 Corinthians 11v2, Paul refers to all believers as the bride of Christ and he describes the relationship between us and Jesus being like a marriage. Later on, the book of Revelation picks up on the same theme, and we get a foretaste of the wedding songs in heaven as the multitudes rejoice at the union of Christ and his church: Revelation 19v6-7 says: ‘Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.’ We are the bride and Christ the bridegroom. One day soon the wedding feast will begin, when Jesus returns.
In Revelation (21v2) the New Jerusalem is the church in its new and perfect state, ‘prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. It’s described as a place where God will live among his people again and the picture language is one of deliberate intimacy… just as it was in the beginning, in Eden. When God created all the creatures of the earth, man is the only one that God came face to face with and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. (It’s a beautiful picture of intimacy – the first ever kiss of life.) In the New Jerusalem this intimate relationship will be restored and man and God will live together again, ‘as a bride adorned for her husband’. We, the church, are that bride.
When a wife is separated from her husband – maybe for work reasons – she misses him desperately. They talk by phone and email, but she cannot see him face to face. She longs for the day he returns. We, the church, are the bride of Christ. We read His words in the Bible. We talk to Him in prayer. We are one with Him by the Spirit. We look at the bread and wine and marvel at His dying love for us. But soon, soon these will be no longer needed when we see Him face to face. Citation
So… the answer to the question: Is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church? The answer is… we don’t go to church. We are the church.
We are the people of God. We are family – brothers and sisters together in Christ. We are the body of Christ; being built brick by brick into a Holy Temple. We are the church, being prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
In closing can I just say,
- if you have not been baptised and you would like to baptised
- or if you were Christened as a baby and would like to be confirmed
- or maybe you were confirmed as a child or a teenager, but would now like to reaffirm you baptismal promises as an adult
- or if you would like to join a small group or start attending church…
speak to me or your table hosts afterwards.