“I am a Christian, but I don’t have to go to church to have a relationship with God.” This is the phrase that all too often changes the course of conversation once people find out that I am a pastor. Each time I hear this phrase I cringe and wonder if such folks really believe they can be faithful Christians on their own. Usually it means that this person does not feel the necessity to attend worship services on Sunday morning. Other times it serves as an indicator of a past or present issue a person has within his/her congregation. In either case, the statement cannot be anymore false. To be a Christian means living within a relationship, not simply with God, but with other faithful Christians as well.
The Communion of Saints
Just as families grow larger with the birth of each new child, so too does God’s family of faith grow with the baptism of each new Christian. Through baptism, God gathers people into community with one another, living together as members of the body of Christ. This is not simply a relationship we share with members of our congregation. It isn’t just a relationship we have with Christians of our time. This relationship is one that is shared with all of God’s people for all time. As we express in our liturgy, “God has made us his people through our baptism into Christ.” Through water and the Word, God frees us from sin and unites us in relationship with the Christian family. As Christian people, therefore, God calls us to live together in faithfulness. Through times of prosperity and through times of great difficulty, Christians enjoy a kinship unlike any other in this world, one filled with God’s unfailing love. Being a Christian is also a way of life. Following our baptismal vows, Christians worship together, pray together, study God’s Word together and share fellowship together. When church family members fall short (and we all do), others come to their aid and support them with the love and compassion of Christ. God does not intend for his people to live in isolation; the Christian life cannot be lived out alone. Each member of the body depends on the others to live and thrive as God’s people of faith. Denying this relationship means denying the One who calls and institutes the relationship also.
Keeping the Sabbath Holy
We often read in the gospels that Jesus had the custom of reading and teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Jesus did not set this pattern for worship, and he did not set this pattern for people to learn of the ways of God. This pattern was established for us by the very hand of God with the third commandment. God said, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” Notice that Jesus’ Sabbath custom did not include spending the day alone. He went to the synagogue and joined God’s gathered family for worship and immersed himself in the community of God. In worship God speaks to his people through liturgy, song and sermon. We share stories of our faith with one another, share the peace of Christ, and strengthen one another in love just as God strengthens us with his love through the feast of the bread of life. For Christians, keeping the Sabbath holy; therefore, also means immersing one’s self in the community gathered by God for worship, publically offering thanks and praise to God and participating in the banquet of bread and wine that is a foretaste of the feast to come.
Christ at the Center of Life
Finally, to be a Christian, that is a follower of Jesus Christ, one must always keep Christ at the center of his/her life. To do this one must strive to live as Jesus lived and obey his two great commandments. Jesus teaches that we are to love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. God gathers us, God feeds us, and God sends us in mission to the world; not to live in isolation, but to be living examples of faithful people living in the community of Christ Jesus. Dismissing God’s call to gather with other Christians and be a fellow worker for the sake of the gospel replaces Christ and puts the self at the center of life. Those with the false notion of being Christian on their own do so with an unrealized intention of being in control of the relationship. They end up serving their interests before God’s interest, and eventually fall even farther away from the church and their relationship with God and his people. Living for the sake of the world and its empty promises brings false hope. Those who seek only to live as Christians on their terms live in denial of the promises of God and the fellowship of God’s people.
So why this article now? Well, as I look around and see those vacant seats in our church each week, and hear other pastors tell of the same emptiness, I pray for those who are not with us, especially those who profess to be Christians on their own. And what about those of us who attend worship each week and participate regularly in the life of the church, are we inviting friends and neighbors to join us in this relationship? We all know people who say they are Christian, but don’t feel the need to go to church. Such a statement is our invitation to be inviting. The next time someone tells you they don’t need to attend worship in order to express their love for God, invite them anyway. Worship is not hardship; it is a Christian’s pleasure, a right and good thing to do. Invite them to come and see what they are missing.