by Jon Payne
Is the local church really that necessary for the Christian life? Aren’t there better, more relevant ways to thrive spiritually as a Christian? It is my experience that an increasing number of believers are asking these sorts of questions.
Sadly, some doubt the importance of the church because they have been burned by unfaithful church leadership or wounded by a nasty church split. Others are tired of the hype and superficiality of consumeristic megachurches. Still others, due to a deficiency of biblical knowledge, downplay or even reject the organization, authority, and ordinances of the church.
George Barna’s research reveals contemporary attitudes on the matter. He writes that many evangelicals “are less interested in attending church than in being the church.” He goes on to explain that a large “segment of Americans . . . are currently leaving churches precisely because they want more of God in their life but cannot get what they need from a local church.”
This would all sound supremely spiritual if it weren’t so profoundly unbiblical. The church as organism and the church as organization must be distinguished but never separated. God ordained the visible church as an organization for the gathering, protecting, and perfecting of the church as an organism––the members of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:12–31). Therefore, being the church should never be divorced from being committed to a local church. In the local church, we receive the divinely ordained means of grace—Word, sacraments, and prayer—from the hands of lawfully ordained ministers. Christians are never stronger in isolation from the faithful ministry of the local church. We need the church. The organized church is God’s idea. The visible church is central to God’s disciple-making strategy (Matt. 16:18; 28:18–20; Heb. 10:19–25). Indeed, the local church plays a principal role on almost every page of the New Testament. It is through, not apart from, the ministry of the church that Christ and His benefits are efficaciously communicated to the elect and received through faith. A serious Christian, then, does not craft a mosaic of personalized spirituality outside the church. No, true faith believes Christ’s promise to feed His sheep through the faithful ministry of a biblical church.
What is detailed in the book of Acts is not an individualistic approach to spirituality, but a clear devotion to the life and ministry of the visible church (Acts 2:42; 20:28). The Bible everywhere assumes that believers will be vitally connected to the church. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper powerfully reinforce the Christian’s union and communion with Christ and fellow believers. Not only is it God’s purpose for us to mature under the shepherding care and faithful ministry of the church, but also to build one another up in love. We need pastoral care and the soul-nourishing means of grace. We also need each other. Make no mistake about it—church matters.