This question may strike you in one way or another, depending upon your background and frame of reference. Some might point out what ought to be obvious, that believers in Christ cannot “go to church” because they are the church, or even more properly, the assembly of God. For hundreds of years in the English-speaking world, nonconformist Christians (those who dissented from the great establishment religious systems) spoke of going to “meetings” of the saints, while going “to church” was for those who passed through the doors of ornate or expensive structures they called “churches”. By way of illustrating this, consider this historical fragment: The picturesque and famous Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina, was named after the White Meeting House of the dissenting Presbyterian denomination in 1685. Prior to that, Meeting Street was called “Church Street”, because the establishment St Phillip’s Episcopal (Anglican) Church was located there, until it moved a block to the east where it still presides over, that’s right, the current Church Street.
But I have digressed. No doubt it is the spirit of the matter of assembling as Christians, rather than accurate terminology, that is of greatest importance to the Lord Jesus, but our terminology ought to reflect our reverence for the privilege of meeting as members of His body, the church.
Now there are certainly more important questions for believers to think upon with regard to their ecclesiastical associations. Here is one such question: To what extent should an assembly of Christians be occupied with growing their number, and how should that growth be pursued? Churches have tried many methods over the centuries for adding souls to their attendance rolls or for keeping them there, often seemingly without considering these innovations in the light of the Word of God. Let’s examine a few of these methods here:
- Appointing a minister or pastor to serve the congregation in preaching the gospel, teaching the Bible, administering the Lord’s Supper, baptizing converts, counseling individuals, and more. This arrangement serves to take pressure off those who are called “lay people”, who may then not be encouraged to exercise the gift they have been given by the ascended Christ,¹ since the exhortation given by the apostle Paul to “every one of you” in I Corinthians 14:24-40 is rendered obsolete or inapplicable under a clergy system. Spiritual retirement or relaxation in the care of an ordained clergy or ministry may be attractive to many, for we are all naturally lazy in spiritual things. Even Timothy needed to be encouraged to not neglect the gift within him, and his teaching gift was given in a prophetic manner with the fellowship of elders (I Timothy 4:14-16); how much more do we need encouragement to exercise our gift in the assembly! I ought never to delegate my God-given role to someone else whom the Lord has not gifted to carry on the work He has called me to do for Him.
- Replacing what is often called congregational singing with instrumental music, choir singing, or a “music ministry” replete with a worship leader and contemporary band. Our God values highly the singing of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” for mutual encouragement and in “worship by the Spirit of God”², but the use of instrumental music is conspicuously absent in New Testament assembly worship. It was not until the 10th century or later that instruments were introduced into the Western (Catholic) church, and it is a telling fact that a capella singing is still the norm in the Russian and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Nevertheless, these musical innovations in Christian worship are effective in attracting people to churches, and rare is the Christian group that maintains the old path³ of spiritual worship not enhanced by artificial methods.
- De-emphasizing Biblical doctrine or sound Scriptural exegesis, and avoiding the deep, abstract portions of the New Testament, in favor of programs that focus almost exclusively on practical Christian living, or even on a successful natural life in this world. In many circles, doctrine has the reputation of causing divisions and strife among believers. Whether or not doctrine is the true root cause of problems, churches often attract and keep members by staying away from difficult subjects like predestination, eternal security, the Lord’s coming, or even justification, sanctification and eternal life. The writer to the Hebrews (likely Paul) lamented this tendency of many early Christians to require and desire an on-going diet of “milk”, while avoiding the “strong meat” of the deep doctrinal principles that go along with spiritual growth (Hebrews 5:12-14). Offering only “milk” in an assembly of Christians may draw crowds, but it has a stunting effect.
There have been many other new ideas and practices brought into the Christian profession over the centuries, and some of them, like the indulgences that Martin Luther preached against, have thankfully fallen out of favor. But although it may not be popular and attractive to follow the plain and simple “old paths” and the “good way”, yet we have a pattern set clearly before us in the New Testament doctrine of the church, and in maintaining that pattern, earnest and seeking souls may find rest³ and the comfort of the Scriptures.
What ought to attract the Christian’s heart is the Lord Jesus Christ, that glorified Head of the body, who has promised to be in the midst of even a very few saints gathered in His name (Matthew 18:20). And where Jesus is, human innovations deserve no place.
¹ Ephesians 4:7-16; I Corinthians 12 ² Ephesians 5:19; Philippians 3:3 ³ Jeremiah 6:16