This is a day of convenience, quick on-line shopping, and instant everything. It is almost possible for a person to live one’s whole life without leaving the house. If someone can arrange to work from home, the rest is easy. You can do all of your banking online, shop for almost anything and have it delivered to the door, order repairs and other services at home, and “attend” hundreds of social networking sites without ever seeing anyone face to face. It may be that to a person who has never known it any other way, this seems better than “the good old days,” as their parents described them, and is now just normal life to them.
Many of us were alive before the technological age and could argue that life in general was better when we had to work at it more. At the same time we are very thankful for many of the modern conveniences which we didn’t have in those “good old days.” Obviously the modern house with indoor plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and electrical appliances is better than the log cabin. Today’s cars are unbelievable machines compared to just fifty years ago, although it was a fun family project to be able to work on your own car in those days. There is no comparison between the computer and the old manual typewriter, and how can the post office letter compare to email and texting?
A modern day dilemma surfaces, however, when we apply many Biblical admonitions and commands to today’s conveniences. There is no electronic way to update prayer for example. Yes, you might make a prayer list on your smart phone to have with you at all times, or participate on a prayer chain with other believers, but when it comes down to the thing itself, you still have to talk to God. I don’t think you can record beautiful prayers from preachers online and then have your computer repeat them to God at regular intervals and call that prayer. Bible reading may have a couple flexibilities in this regard. We have always been able to listen or read whether a real person is reading or we are listening to a recording. We can read God’s Word on paper with ink, or we can read an electronic version, yet there can be no alternative for taking in the Words of God which are Scripture.
So what about the local church? If we were only talking about the building we could argue that some modern conveniences have brought about welcome changes. Bathrooms, kitchens, air conditioning and heating, comfortable seating, and such things have all made the local gathering of God’s people at least easier (I’m not sure about better). But the local church is, at the bottom line, the people of God. Can there be a substitute for face-to-face fellowship? Can there be a substitute for a speaker and a listener? Can there be a substitute for corporate prayer, congregational singing, personal fellowship, and face to face preaching? I am not at all sure there can be. I would offer three perspectives as to who needs the local church.
The carnal Christian doesn’t.
First let me say that I believe there is such a thing as a carnal Christian (some oppose the idea). In fact, carnality resides in each of us and we must fight it daily as we practice a progressive sanctification. I am not trying to say that anyone who disagrees with my view of the local church is carnal. I am saying that when a believer allows his old nature to rule, there are many avenues open to him that will allow him to disregard the New Testament local church.
A Christian can allow his carnal nature to avoid fellowship with other believers. Social networking (as it is called) is so pervasive in the electronic world that a person can “network” with hundreds or thousands of people without ever coming in contact with them. I think carnality would prefer this to eye to eye contact and the actual shaking of another believer’s hands. No doubt there are many believers who avoid this even in their local congregation, but that is carnality as well. One error doesn’t excuse the other. In addition to preferring physical absence there is the danger of hypocrisy. In a virtual world you can become many things that you really are not. This is a danger that we have to warn young people about when they are in contact with faceless people who scan the internet for nefarious purposes.
A person can also find teaching of every sort online. One may have enough discernment to avoid the bad and select the good or one may not, but one thing that will be missing is accountability to a pastor and a congregation. I’m sure that the carnal Christian likes it that way much better. In addition, there is no adherence to a doctrinal statement or accountability to a constitution or covenant. The growing trend of satellite congregations fosters this scenario as well. If one must go to church only to watch a preacher or teacher broadcast his sermon from another location, why not just stay home and watch who you want without all the effort of getting ready and leaving the house?
Since worship has become an individual’s preference, the internet offers multiple worship venues of choice. You can participate or sit and watch. You can stay in your pajamas or get dressed. You can play the service in the background while multitasking all around the house. And when it comes to offering time, the trendy thing now is to give online anyway, with no messy checks and envelopes and all that time taken with boring offertories.
The same rules apply to other services of the local church. Moms and dads can become involved in multiple social networks, some of which may actually offer a meeting time and place which, of course, is not under the scrutiny of any one local church. No doubt the para-church phenomenon of the past has blossomed on the internet. Even faithful attenders of local churches may be spending hours upon hours and dollars as well in these “activities.” Children who grow up very tech savvy will gravitate to online activities rather than be put in some embarrassing face to face group where one has to actually do things. If one wants to sooth his conscience with social projects, there are also many ways to contact, promote, and “get involved” with things that “make a difference.” Who knows, your post might go viral, and just think of all the good that will be done then!
So the carnal Christian doesn’t need the local church. In fact, it is a distraction to him. His life is easier and more interesting to him than all of that attendance stuff. He probably even sees himself as better off and more culturally attuned than those people who go to church. And no doubt he thinks he has avoided so many hypocrites who attend church but don’t actually live out their faith.
The spiritual Christian does.
The New Testament Christian needs the New Testament church. The primary reason he needs it is because it is what the New Testament is all about. Jesus trained and prepared the disciples for leadership in the church. The Holy Spirit filled the first church as they were gathered together in one upper room. The apostles wrote the epistles of the New Testament to local churches in various localities. Paul concluded his letter to the church at Thessalonica this way, “I charge you by the Lord, that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27). They had to be in church to hear the letter read, and that’s partly why they were holy brethren.
Christians need to hear the Word preached from their pastor, and he needs to have the time to speak to them. This needs to be face to face which is the real avenue for power in speaking. The apostle John said, “I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (2 John 12). Children need to sit in a classroom and pay attention to a teacher who has prepared a Bible lesson and takes special interest in each child. They need to learn to interact properly and respectfully with other children as well as with the adults in church.
Corporate worship is important. Congregational singing allows everyone to participate and express their personal praise to God, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). Public prayer allows a person to lead you in prayer, not to pray for you, and prayer meetings allow “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20), as they offer their requests to God. Sitting and listening to the Word of God by a man who knows and loves you and has prepared a message for his people is a biblical charge. We are not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25). The manner of many these days is to forsake the assembling, and the day of Christ is approaching fast.
As a believer, I need the schedule and discipline in my life that regular church attendance brings. This includes the preparation and travel time, the greeting and talking with people, the sitting for an extended period of time and learning to concentrate on the subject and text, and the self-examination of the spoken Word to my own heart. Children need this discipline as well, from nursery level to teenagers. This not only makes them grow in social maturity but inculcates into their thinking a pattern for life, a pattern which is in obedience to the Word of God. Eutychus may have fallen asleep in church but he was there (Acts 20:9).
After being in church all of my life, and pastoring for many years, and raising four children in church, all of whom still attend church regularly with their children, my need for the local church becomes more narrow. I never knew a church smaller than thousands until I was out of college, but my need of church attendance matters none on the size of the church. I need to worship, and worship with other brothers and sisters who also need to worship. I need to sing reverent songs that speak to my soul, not dragged out in a funeral dirge but not raced through without thought, and not sung as the world sings. I need to speak to all who are there, not waiting for someone to approach me, but seeking them out instead. And though I am almost always the one speaking, I relish the times when I hear a man of God preach the Word with passion to my soul.
I said to our church family the other day, it is better to be bored in church than entertained. If you have to be entertained, it is like an addiction which can never be fully satisfied. Boredom, however, can be easily fixed by the filling of the Spirit, a love of the brethren, and a love for the institution Jesus founded.
The lost person does.
Lost people need the local church. One of the joys of past years in America has been to travel across this great land and see the landmarks. Besides the natural beauty of the landscape, there are the barns and the windmills, the farms and the fields, the skyscrapers and the neighborhoods. There are also the church steeples rising above the tree tops and pointing their way to the heavens, and in some places the sound of church bells reminding us of time to worship. I wish the architecture wasn’t changing because I think those physical reminders of God and His house have been good for our communities.
With or without a steeple, the existence of local churches, of Christians moving around on Sunday morning when so many are sleepily at home, of people purposely dressed so as to meet the most important Person in their lives, of neighbors knowing that you have important business today, all are reasons why the lost person needs the local church.
To some this is simply a reminder of the Christian history of our country. America has been a church-going country, a Christian country. The Puritan belief of a Sunday Sabbath influenced Sunday activity for centuries. I can even remember a time when many lost people would dress up and go to church, putting themselves under the sound of the gospel. And many of them were converted including my parents and grandparents.
To most lost people today, the church doesn’t carry the same weight of testimony it used to carry. But this is not a good reason to change that scenario; in fact, it is a reason to reinvigorate it. To many people this is the most important gospel witness in their lives. You know the feeling of driving off to church on Sunday morning and seeing your neighbors looking the other way. That’s a good thing! It brings a needed conviction to them. Deep down they know that they should be under the sound of God’s Word too.
Churches have tried too hard to keep from offending the sinner when he comes to church. We all know that we should not be offensive personally, but we also know that there is an offense to the cross which we dare not remove. The best place for a sinner to be is in church watching Christians do what Christians do. If the repentance process is going to happen, he must be uncomfortable at some point. He will probably think of a dozen reasons why he should not be there or why he should leave early. This is the Holy Spirit speaking to his heart and we dare not short cut that process. He will look around and imagine seeing hypocrites everywhere; he will think that the preacher is singling him out; he will pretend to be tired or bored and in need of sleep. All of these are good things and why he has needed the local church for a long time.
We used to say often that the sinner doesn’t want to see worldliness in Christians because he will say, “Well, if that is what Christianity is I don’t want any part of it.” The truth, however, is that the sinner loves to see hypocrisy and worldliness in believers because that gives him a reason to refuse salvation. What the church must not do is take away the things that make him uncomfortable. The church must not say, “Look, being a believer doesn’t cost you anything. We haven’t changed anything in our lives and you don’t have to either.” I’m not speaking of a work for salvation. I’m speaking of repentance and faith, without which no man will be saved.
The lost person does need the local church. In fact, it is vital in helping him come to Christ. As Christians we should be doing the things God wants us to do in church, and let that be a Holy Spirit witness to the unbelieving onlooker.
Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.
And so . . .
It would be possible today for a carnal Christian to avoid assembling with believers altogether and there are many avenues out there that would substitute for church. But the local church is still the Biblical example of life for the believer and the believer is commanded to participate in it. The spiritual believer will desire to assemble in the local church and will be sad when he is not able to attend. The lost person may not like the church but he needs it very badly. Let’s do the right thing for all involved and not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.