Many Christians grapple with this question, either consciously or subconsciously. As students studying hard for frequent exams, it can be difficult to juggle our week, whether it’s making time for football, our grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary, or dare I say it, for church. This becomes increasingly difficult as work demands increase throughout medical school and beyond into the realm of medical practice. Does it really matter if we don’t make it one week, the next week, or not at all? I hope that this article will explain the absolute importance of and the principles behind church, particularly with respect to being in a good local church.
The real meaning of church
Confusion about church often comes from confusion about the meaning of the word. To help us understand the biblical context of the word church, a direct translation from the original Greek (ekklesia) would be ‘gathering’, or ‘assembly’ of people. Evidence of confusion comes in phrases such as ‘that’s a beautiful church’, or, ‘come and visit our church in London’. These comments can be misleading, suggesting that the church is an organisation, a building or even a programme of events rolling from one end of the week to the other.
To look at what the church should mean to us, we will examine what the Bible has to say about the church in the future and past, understand the purpose of it through Scripture in the present and look at how this might apply today.
A future certainty: the universal gathering
As Christians who recognise Jesus’ authority at his second coming, there will be one big gathering of believers, as found in Revelation 7:9,10:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’
This picture of the age to come is a time of great celebration for Christians. Many are gathered from the four corners of the earth to stand in a great multitude. God himself sits on his throne, as well as the Lamb, Jesus, standing before them. Only those that acknowledge Jesus will be there. One thing keeps them all together; they all affirm that salvation comes from God and that he is in charge on his throne. This multitude has endured suffering on earth for their faith, but verse 17 states that ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. We can justify calling this great gathering the universal church (or ‘Church’), referring to Ephesians 5:23: ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.’
An unchangeable past: God’s ancient people
The people of Israel were saved by God from Egypt in the Exodus. They met at Mount Sinai to be formally constituted as God’s people and to receive his laws. They were called to be his special nation and to be distinct from those around them. God instructed them:
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
It has always been God’s purpose to call communities of people to serve him. We have the immense privilege of being united with believing Israel:
Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus.
A present reality: meeting in Christ’s name
In the future, we will all gather together in Christ’s name. God calls us to do the same in the present, as his chosen people – something we would do well not to take lightly! In our busy lives in the 21st century, we can forget the big picture of this calling. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul speaks of us as previously dead in our transgressions and sins, without hope and without God; but with Christ through his blood, we have been made alive, no longer foreigners and aliens, but members of God’s household. God’s plan is that we are all in this together, and Jesus is central and supreme to this work.
We are a family of believers: God’s children, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. The Bible uses the illustration of his people as his family, who are in the business of congregating. It is easy to forget that the people we spend our time with on Sunday will be with us eternally, as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ; it would be abnormal for Christians not to meet.
The universal church and local churches
In Matthew 16, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (ie Messiah, the anointed one): Jesus responds by promising to build his church on Peter. This refers to all those who are saved, irrespective of time or space, the universal church. In contrast, Matthew 18 also speaks of the church, but in a differing context of local accountability, that is, the local church. It would be impractical for pastoral care to be carried out on a universal basis – and from this we can deduce that smaller groups, gathering in the world, would have been the most appropriate form of meeting in the name of Christ. Watchman Nee, a Christian writer and teacher in China, wrote The Normal Christian Church Life and helpfully explains the differences between the big gathering and smaller ones (to avoid confusion, I shall refer to the universal church as ‘Church’, and local churches as ‘church’, with a small ‘c’):
We have clearly two different aspects of the Church before us—Church and the churches, the universal Church and the local churches. The Church is invisible; the churches are visible. The Church has no organisation; the churches are organised. The Church is spiritual; the churches are spiritual and yet physical…The invisible Church does not test our obedience to God, but the visible churches test us severely by facing us with issues on the intensely practical plane of our earthly life.
The purpose of the local church
By remembering our ultimate purpose of God’s glory being manifest all over the world, we are united as a local fellowship, and can share our lives with one another and build each other up. Paul’s aim in his ministry was as follows:
We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
Presenting people perfect in Christ involves two parts: the clear (verbal) proclamation of the gospel helped by the studying of Scripture. As a corporate body in a local community, there are numerous opportunities for a church to be able to speak of the gospel. From this, people will come to trust in Christ. In addition, all those who are Christians need to be clearly taught from the Bible, so that they become mature and equipped to serve. The local gathering, each with its different members, are all called to use their God-given gifts for God’s purposes to build up God’s people: we still have the same calling today! This work is further strengthened when we pray for God’s will to be done and retain discipline and accountability within our gathering.
Finding a good local church
Clearly, the functions of a local church are important. Therefore, we should be involved in a good church near us, so we can maximise our opportunities for ministry. Although there are many hallmarks of a good church, such as being caring and committed, I would like to single out a point that vastly impacts any local congregation:
Clear and faithful Bible preaching
The pastor/teacher has a responsibility to teach faithfully from the Bible, as he is speaking the very words of God. Ephesians 4:11-13 highlights God’s purpose:
It was he who gave…some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.
The role of a pastor/teacher is to equip people to serve, by exposition of the Bible. When he does this task well, the local church will be built up: this will be seen by putting Scripture first at every opportunity to build up the people, and using it correctly. There is a difference between paying lip service to the supreme authority of Scripture and actually putting it into practice. A good guide would be to see what the focal point of the meeting is. Is it the singing or liturgy at the beginning, the sermon in the middle or the social events after the end?
Faithfulness to the passage is vital for good preaching: I have heard many 25 minute sermons where the content of the talk had very little to do with the passage. Most recently, I heard a talk on the Lord’s Prayer. In expounding the first line, ‘our Father in heaven’, the speaker explained that we all believe in heaven and hell and applied that we should warn our non-Christian friends of the dangers of hell. It was all true, but the interpretation and application had nothing to do with the passage. We may learn some things from this kind of speaking - but it will stop us from being thinking Christians because the same application of, ‘read the Bible, pray and evangelise’ comes up week after week, whether the application is genuinely found in the Bible passage or not.
Pastors and teachers are no more important than any other member of a local church, but because their work impacts people spiritually, it is crucial that they get this right, and they will be judged more harshly for this task. A failure of the leader to be faithful and clear can be seen in Ephesians 4:14-16:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Without good teaching, we are susceptible to any attractive theology that comes our way (v14); but if it is clear and faithful, there is good news - we will grow as Christians, building each other up (vv15,16).
Our lifestyle choices
If we are committed to church, our priorities to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ come first, and should affect our decisions on a weekly basis. When work and social patterns prevent us from actively participating in our local congregation, we have made some wrong choices. In Guidance and the Voice of God (see Further Reading), Jensen and Payne helpfully point out that our priorities are often: find a job, find a house, find a church; they challenge us to do the exact reverse.
Our church should be local. The functions of a church will be very difficult to carry out if everyone lives an hour away from where they meet. It won’t be the easiest thing to fellowship on Sundays or in housegroups and it becomes easy to excuse ourselves from church for our own comfort. Instead, by being involved in a gathering near us, our opportunities with the community are much larger, and evangelism becomes much more effective: your non-Christian friend will be more disposed to walking ten minutes with you to church rather than taking an hour’s bus ride.
I’d like to finish up by responding to some common problems that are often encountered when looking for a church.
‘I rather like the other church’
This side of the second coming, there is no such thing as a perfect church. If it subscribes to accepted doctrinal belief, such as UCCF’s doctrinal basis, and there is clear and faithful preaching that builds you up, sticking with your church is usually the most sensible thing to do. To ‘church hop’ in favour of a more enjoyable and comfortable experience or for a potential romantic interest indicates that we have skewed priorities (and is spiritually risky): be wary of many other excuses! However, if a church no longer believes the fundamental statements of Christianity, it’s time to go somewhere else.
‘My needs aren’t being met’
There will be many times in our church life when, for various reasons, our difficulties go unnoticed. It may be that we hadn’t thought to talk to someone about these issues – and a fellowship is all about sharing lives together. If Christ is the head, and we aim to serve others, attitude should therefore be, ‘how I can benefit others?’ instead of, ‘how do I benefit from going to church?’ In practice, turning up in itself is often encouraging to others – your presence is valued, even if you don’t feel like it sometimes! It could also mean involving yourself more in the activities of a church, such as kids’ clubs, welcoming, or attending a housegroup. Make a commitment to get involved in a local church in order to fulfil the aims of maturing everyone perfect in Christ.
‘I don’t need church’
It is foolish to think that we can be isolated Christians, better off without the temptations of the world by living on a desert island. There is no such thing as a ‘lone ranger Christian’: my heart sinks when I hear comments such as, ‘you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’. Scripture could not more fundamentally disagree with this independent thinking. Throughout the Bible, God’s people have always been corporate, whether as Israel in the Old Testament or ‘one in Christ’ in the New. Many of us who are ‘churched’ have friends who take this view – and after a period of time, no longer appear to be Christian. The Nicene Creed is a series of concise statements of Christian belief written by the early church. One of the phrases is written, ‘we believe in one holy catholic [universal] and apostolic church’. Can we recite this line today, in an increasing world of privatised belief?
To deliberate on whether church is really necessary entirely misses the point. God through Scripture has already declared that we are inherently together as his people, and that meeting with one another is not only natural, but has a well-defined purpose. To turn our backs on the church as Christians is to deny that we are unified, though different, and in need of building one another up. It is not legalism, but affirming our identity as created beings of God, and acting in accordance with that knowledge. Church going will not make you a Christian, but it is a sign that you are.
‘CU is all I need’
Medical students are torn in three directions: the calling of CU, a CMF group and meeting at a local church (not to mention the countless hours we spend reading Nucleus!). Often the last of the three is the first to get dropped. If we attend our university CU, that’s great – because here is a unique opportunity of evangelism to our fellow students; but without being regularly involved in a local church, we risk impoverishing ourselves, with limited oversight and fellowship. While CU/CMF groups are invaluable, church is the priority.
The Bible leaves us confident on where we stand with respect to the universal church. Jesus said: ‘I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’
Christ’s promise about the Church is amazing. He states that he will be the one to build the Church, not us. We can be comforted in the knowledge that it is not our brilliance or error that is all-important, but Christ’s presence. Although the church will have enemies from within and without, none of them shall prevail. While the world is still here, it will always have a Church: God’s people are secure. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, explains Christ’s purpose, to bring the Church as a bride perfect before God:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
• Watchman Nee. The Normal Christian Church Life. Anaheim CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1980
• Tinker M, Buttery N. Body Beautiful: recovering the biblical view of the Church. Carlisle: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003
• Jackman D. Understanding the Church. Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 1996
• Jensen P, Payne T. Guidance and the Voice of God. Sydney: Matthias Media, 1997