Church is a massive part of both of our lives. It’s something that we’ve missed lots but that has also brought us times of great joy while we’ve been away. Depending on your point of view, that might sound like a pretty odd thing to say. Only about 5% of adults in Britain now regularly go to church, a proportion that has apparently been dropping steadily for years. It’s now no longer a ‘normal’ way to spend one’s Sunday morning. Many people I presume would say, what is there to miss?
To answer this question, it’s helpful to be clear about why we go to church. It’s not because we feel obligated or guilt tripped into spend our Sunday mornings there. I think a large part of our culture has a kind of ‘Simpsons’ view of church, in that it’s portrayed as a cold, unutterably boring place to which a small group of people are obliged to go each week to keep up appearances & to appease God. It’s not because we’re anti-intellectuals who reject science and rationality, and want to spend time with others who live in the same dream world, a kind of ‘group hallucination’. It’s not because we’re seeking an ’emotional high’ that can so easily be created through the clever use of music, words, lighting, etc. It’s not because we think we are, or at least want to feel, morally superior to the rest of humanity. None of these mirror the picture of church that the Bible paints. Church (‘ekklesia’ in the original Greek) simply means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’, and it’s something Christians are encouraged to do often (Hebrews 10:24-25 ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’). Why?
The reason we go to church springs from the foundations of our worldview. First, people need God’s word. Second, people need other people. Third, people constantly need reorientating.
Christians believe that the only way we can know truth about God, is if he chooses to reveal himself to us. Anybody can have thoughts and ideas about who God is, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are right. You might see a picture of me and surmise all sorts of things (works as a male model, rarely wears suncream, physically unable to use a razor). But if I don’t reveal myself to you, you have no way of knowing whether they’re true or not (as it happens only one of the above is true…) The Bible makes the claim that God has revealed himself, so we can know true things about him! Primarily in the person of Jesus Christ, and also in the words of the Bible.
The Bible makes the claim that it itself should be at the centre of the Christian life, because it contains all that is necessary for salvation, and all that a Christian needs to keep going as a Christian (2 Timothy 3:16 ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work).
This is what God wants to say to you, so take notice of it (2 Peter 1:19 ‘We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.). Therefore going to church on a Sunday is a way of setting aside an amount of time each week to hear the Bible being read, and to listen to a sermon that, if done well, will use God’s word as a foundation, and then explain more clearly what God is trying to say through a specific passage. To sing songs that remind us of incredible truths about God, and apply those truths to our emotions (Ephesians 5:19 ‘Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.‘) It’s an opportunity, together with other Christians, to change how I live, according to what God says in his Word, in the Bible. That’s an extrordinary and amazing thing. If we want real truth about the world and about us, we’ll find it in his Word.
Yes, you could do it on your own. Personal Bible reading is a great thing, and very valuable for a Christian. But people need other people. There is also something vital about the corporate nature of going to church. When somebody decides to put their trust in Jesus Christ, when they become a Christian, they are not just personally ‘saved’. There is more going on. The New Testament speaks often of salvation in terms of what we’ve been saved into. A common way of putting it is that before we were ‘outside of Christ’ (ie, not united to him, with no relationship to him), but now, as Christians, we are ‘in Christ’ (ie, united to him, in relationship with him). But they key thing is that it’s not just a personal relationship. I’m united to him, but so is every other Christian, past and present. The picture the New Testament uses is of a body. Jesus is the head, and Christians are all different parts of the body. All are connected to the head, but also, all are connected to each other. They’re inextricably bonded together. Perhaps the picture of a family is an easier one for us to relate to (if you struggle with thinking of yourself as an elbow). In a very real sense Christians are called to treat one another as family. I imagine most people know something of the closeness of relationship that family brings. That is what Christians should be mirroring with each other.
Church, therefore, provides a regular time for the ‘family’ to meet up. There are many parts of the New Testament (and indeed the Old) concerned with how these relationships are handled, and why it’s so important to love people in the family, both practically and spiritually. It’s very hard to do this if you never meet them. Church is a place where spiritual brothers and sisters can encourage each other, grieve with each other, laugh with each other, cry with each other, even, when necessary, rebuke each other. I firmly believe that we weren’t created to be lone wolves. We all need friendships, to some extent, at some stage. Church should be a place that fosters deep and life giving friendships, based on the sure foundation of God’s word to us.
Finally, people constantly need reorientating. If Christians were perfect, maybe there’d be no need for church. But a quick glance at church history, at the world around us now, or indeed the life of any individual Christian you know, will make it clear that this isn’t the case. Christians mess up loads, and will do, until Jesus returns. What God demands (and helps us to achieve) is progress. A life lived more in keeping with his rules, more similar to the life Jesus lived. A life that will be compellingly attractive to those around you, yet also scorned (look at how Jesus attracted followers, yet was hated). For this, we constantly need reorientating. To see the badness of sin, why it hurts us, those around us & God. To see the joy of living in line with God’s plan. To see his faithfulness and love through the ages to many different people. To be warned of his justice, and the judgment upon sin that is coming. I’m a very forgetful person, and it’s a great help to be reminded of these things regularly, by people I trust.
The problem for us of course is that we haven’t been going to church for the last 4 months. At least not regularly. No sitting under & learning from God’s word as it’s read and preached. No having your spirits lifted by joining voice with hundreds of others and being reminded of how good God is. No being challenged over areas where we’re slipping up, or being encouraged when we find things hard. The few times we have been to a church (not including the tedious trudges around Catholic cathedrals to see all the candles and icons dotted around) the services have nearly all been completely in Spanish, and so very difficult for me to take much in. We’ve been trying to read the Bible and pray together every day, and listen to sermons occasionally (very occasionally to tell the truth), which have been encouraging in their own way, but it’s definitely not an ideal situation. One of the things we’re most looking forward to about being home is throwing ourselves back into a church (wherever that might be).
One thing the trip has enabled us to do, however, is visit a number of churches across South America. We’ve both found this to be one of the greatest joys of the last 4 months. Not particularly from what we’ve heard or sung (at least not for me, though Evie tells me lots of it has been helpful) but from the welcome we’ve experienced, and the vision that we’ve seen to spread the good news of Jesus over South America. We’ve visited churches operating over the whole economic spectrum, from a very poor, rundown part of Salta in northern Argentina, to the dazzlingly affluent Reñaca on the Chilean coast. From a house church in Arequipa, Peru, to a city centre mega church in La Paz. While their circumstances are very different, their core desires are the same, to grow Christians in their faith, and to share the gospel with the communities in which they’re based. We’ve been incredibly grateful for how these churches have welcomed us, and it’s made us rethink our notion of hospitality.
We were introduced to the group below in Salta. We went along to their 9pm Sunday service, but when we arrived at the venue there was a kids birthday party still very much in progress, complete with big inflatable slide and dozens of hyper children. There’d been a double booking. Bizarre on a number of levels (why would you hold a kids birthday party at 9pm on a Sunday?!), but their service finally kicked off just before 10pm. They then invited us to join them for a barbecue the following day (a Bank Holiday). We met at 8am the next morning to get to the country park! Apart from their ludicrous approach to anything to do with timing, we couldn’t have felt more warmly welcomed by these guys.
We shared our backgrounds with each other, and transferred words of encouragement from the Bible. The day finished with a birthday party, which turned into an impromptu church service, where I was asked to preach off the cuff, with Evie translating. An odd couple of days in many ways, but one that was certainly a help to us, and hopefully to them too.
Renowned thologian Justin Bieber once said ‘It doesn’t make you a Christian just by going to church…you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.‘ He’s right, to some extent, though the taco bell metaphor illustrates the first point not the second. Attending church doesn’t make one a Christian, just as not being at church every week doesn’t automatically mean you aren’t one. But to use the Taco Bell metaphor, where would you want to go to find a Taco? The best place for a taco to be (assuming the good thing for a taco is to taste nice and be eaten) is Taco Bell. Sure, not everyone in Taco Bell is a taco, just as not everyone who attends a church is a Christian. But the best place for a taco to be (for eating purposes) is inside Taco Bell. These last months have confirmed to us that a faithful, local church is the best thing for a Christian to be a part of. We’ve enjoyed spending time on our own, growing together in our faith, and visiting churches, big and small, in all different circumstances over here. But we can’t wait to be back in one place again, and able to enjoy one of the best gifts that God has given his people, the church.