On Weekly Church Attendance and the Gospel in the New Testament

Why Do People Not Go to Church?
It is very easy to find church attendance unpleasant.

I have enjoyed going to church services since my early teenage years, but mostly because my bent has always been toward the philosophical and sermons offer (when done well) a great deal of food for thought.

But I still remember being in high school and finding the singing, the hugs, and the other bits unpleasant. Some people feel that being there Sunday morning is a waste of time, some would rather watch sports, do chores, sleep off a hangover, or make money on Sunday.

Another reason not to go is if church tries to be “cool.” When I’m around people faking being cool I feel embarrassed for them. It’s worse when it is a person doing something that is categorically weird (giving a lecture on a weekend).

Why Might Christians Not Go to Church?
There is an even deeper issue many of us have with church attendance though. Many times the way that the good news of Jesus is explained excludes the church from being a part of the deal. Does this sound familiar:

If you want to go to heaven when you die, then admit to God that you’re sinful, believe that Jesus died for you, and ask God to forgive you. You don’t need to do special good works, you don’t need a priest or church to say so, you’re a Christian.

Now, I have no doubt that the Lord works to redeem us silly creatures with a very minimal or in some cases highly inaccurate understandings of God and God’s will. The point of John 3:16 is that God did everything reasonable, necessary, and possible to make sure that sinners would experience eternal life.

But, the particular way of summarizing the good news of Jesus in question makes church attendance and membership seem utterly peripheral. Thus, if it is boring, then why even go? There is no warrant to treat it as a duty. On top of that, many evangelical teachers claim that duty and ideals are bad things! How could people not be confused about going to church? If church attendance isn’t a duty, isn’t related to being a Christian at all, and has no entertainment value, then why go?

Last Minute Thought: Some people may avoid church due to pangs of conscience like somebody off the wagon who avoids his NA meetings.

The Gospel Message and the Church Community
On the other hand, let us look more clearly at the way the gospel authors summarize Jesus’ message:

Mark 1:14-15 ESV  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,  (15)  and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus’ version of the gospel is that God’s kingdom is at hand. This phrase means a lot when you dig into the rest of Mark’s gospel, but for now, let’s focus on one reality related to kingdoms. To look at it requires two questions: Who is in charge of a kingdom? Who lives in a kingdom? If you answered

  1. King
  2. People

then you are correct.

Jesus’ very message entailed that there would be a community of people who lived under God’s rule and reign in Israel and indeed, in the whole world. To believe the gospel message that Jesus preached is to believe oneself a citizen of God’s kingdom and thus, in later New Testament lingo, a member of the church.

Grace and Form
So evangelicals who are zealous to explain how God saves us by grace and not meritorious works, need to learn to explain that the message of grace is given in order to create a community.

Here is a concept that might help. Grace, like any other gift must be received as it is. Grace has form.

To Illustrate: If I am offered a gift card for a burger, and I go in and demand free lasagna, I have misapprehended the form of the gift. To receive the free gift, I must receive that gift. Similarly, if I try to accept God’s grace of salvation, but do not accept the form in which it is offered (entrance into a community), then am I really receiving it? God, in his graciousness, forgives us of many misunderstandings, but if God’s grace is meant to make a “people of his own possession, zealous for good works (Titus 2:14),” then receiving God’s grace without being part of such a community seems like a questionable proposition. Surely it can and has been done, but why try?

Many popular preachers define grace as “unmerited forgiveness.” A better definition of it is “unmerited gift.” Even then, this short-circuits its meaning in ancient culture. Grace by definition was offered freely, but receiving grace came with an expectation of loyalty or at least of thanksgiving in return (see DeSilva Honor, Patronage Kinship, and Purity). As Dallas Willard would say, “Grace is opposed to earning not to effort,” or in this case grace is opposed to earning, not to responding and receiving.

Now, the form of grace  that Jesus offers in the New Testament is an invitation to be Jesus’ disciple with Jesus’ people. One could also say that grace is offered as an invitation to believe Jesus’ message because it comes from Jesus, who is completely trustworthy. So, to receive the grace Jesus offers is to receive Jesus. To receive the message of God’s kingdom is, by implication, to accept the invitation to become citizens of God’s kingdom or members of God’s family.

Reframing the gospel message to include what Jesus and the gospel authors say about the gospel is very important for helping people to understand why going to church is important. Church attendance is important because we believe the gospel message. The gospel message offers entrance into a kingdom filled with God’s people. No people, no kingdom; and no kingdom means, no gospel. The people of God meet for church services every week to offer praise to God and to build one another up. The church is and does more than weekly services. But the church is not less than it’s services. To believe the gospel is to agree that barring impossible circumstances, we will be with God with his people regularly.

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