She yanked her headphones out of one ear as she saw me approach. “Hey,” she greeted me enthusiastically, “I feel like I haven’t seen you in weeks!”
I had stumbled upon one of the students from our church as I walked through our city’s downtown. Having just emerged from a long season of precautions around gathering and wondering if any of us had been exposed, I was glad she was glad to see me. But (and here’s the more honest truth I was keeping to myself), she was wrong. It hadn’t been weeks since I saw her last; it had been months.
We exchanged small talk, and she told me all about the podcast she now listens to on Sunday mornings (“It’s amazing teaching, you should really check it out”) instead of making her way to church. After months of “having church” in her PJ’s online, she was finding it difficult to re-join the local body of believers. And her hesitations had nothing to do with a virus or safety or health precautions; she just didn’t see the need.
She thought of church as a series of tasks that we tick off one by one each week—teaching, worship music, and personal relationships. I will admit that our church mantra in the early days of the pandemic likely didn’t help matters. As we awkwardly pivoted to online “gatherings,” we often stressed what could still be done from a distance—a list not much different from my young friend’s.
So naturally, when our church started gathering again in person, her mind sorted the list this way. Christian teaching—that great podcast that releases a new episode weekly—check. Worship music—well, Pandora will shuffle some of the top Christian hits for me (plus I don’t have to lug myself through the hymns I don’t prefer)—check. Personal relationships—online and in person, friends were never in short supply to grab Starbucks or Chick-fil-a—check.
But what was she missing? What are many of us missing? We may consider my friend’s perspective and get the sense that something is missing, that something is awry, that something isn’t quite right. But what is it?
Or, perhaps more bluntly put, can Christians “do Christianity” apart from the church?
While many good things can happen outside of the church in terms of our learning and spiritual edification, none of them accomplish what Christ intends for his gathered people. Or, to answer a blunt question with a blunt answer: No, Christians cannot “do Christianity” apart from the church. Why? Let’s break down this checklist, tick by tick.
There are more Christian podcasts today than ever before. More churches are streaming their services online. Famous pastors and noteworthy preachers can be found on YouTube, and their sermons are often available in mass quantity on their church’s website.
And I would dare to say that this is, on the whole, a good thing. More biblical teaching, more preachers making their work available for free online, and more access to doctrine can serve God’s people well. But information will never replace transformation. While there’s a plethora of informative teaching about the Bible, church history, theology and the like available from pastors and preachers and scholars we will never meet, none of them can replace a local pastor preaching to their congregation from the word of God.
I’m married to one such pastor, and I myself am a trained homiletican. I will prepare messages for a conference miles away from home, teach them and return back to my everyday life without (and I don’t say this dismissively, just factually) a deep pang of burden for my hearers. But when I or my husband prepare teaching for our local congregation? That’s a different burden altogether. I have watched my husband lament in prayer the needs of our local church, rejoice as he bears witness to believers growing in Christ, and eagerly pens encouragement and edification into his sermon manuscript to urge these believers on in the faith. The goal of local church preaching—where you are known and loved and seen on a weekly basis, where the pastor knows your name and needs, and where he preaches to you week in and out—is transformation. A podcast simply has no barometer for your spiritual growth. But your pastor does.
I’m a sucker for the top 40 Christian songs playlist. I have worship music on almost constantly in our home. As we eat breakfast, do the dishes, go for walks, and play in the living room, you’ll hear a consistent hum of everything from Getty hymns to Hillsong hits.
But as I sing along with yet another distant voice of a person I will never meet, the temptation to believe that Christianity is primarily about my personal walk with Christ is all the more prevalent. Many of these songs foster my private, personal life of discipleship, and while this is a good thing, it certainly isn’t the whole thing.
Some of those very same lyrics are transformed as we listen to weak and wounded believers press the words from their lips at great cost to themselves. As the young mother who has experienced a miscarriage stands next to you in church and sings, “All I have is Christ” or the man who morally failed publicly and is in the restoration process sings, “Our sins they are many, his mercy is more,” you’re reminded that these songs aren’t just truths sets to song—they’re mantras of the faithful. They are the creeds remembered and recited. They are truths we sing when we can hardly bear to pray them aloud to God.
And we sing them together. My words buoy up the shaky voices of those around me, and theirs do the same for me. Singing songs in worship is about believing for each other when we fail to believe, and reminding each other of the highest truths we can recount. They’re a way we preach to each other without being trained for the pulpit; they are corporate memory and communal confessions.
God created us in his likeness, and one aspect of that likeness is our delight in community—just as he delights in the community of his own triune nature. But our God-given desire for community is marred by the fall, leaving us cherry-picking people to spend time with based on human limitations at best, and depraved motivations at worst. We’re prone to select people for our communities based on how well they resemble our own reflection in the mirror, whether or not they’ll assist us in our social advances, or if they have the capacity to meet our emotional needs.
Human relationships are often a mess, but God’s beautiful plan for the Church is that everything that’s true about our human inclinations can become marvelously untrue by the power of the Spirit. God’s design for his people is that we’d live in harmonious community—not because there are no differences among us, but because we have taken up the Christlike humility that considers others as more important than ourselves and seeks unity at the foot of cross. His design is for a multi-ethnic, inter-generational, joyful people to worship alongside one another as co-heirs in Christ. Rightly operating, we’ll be like two pieces of iron that constantly sharpen each other into God’s vision for our heaven-bound selves.
The church isn’t perfect. But God’s plan for her is. When we’ve lost a love for the church, when a desire for far-away preaching creeps in, or we sense that age-old desire to avoid the local church because no one is just like us, we have a helper. No one has a better imagination for what the Church can be than the Spirit of God. No one knows better her deep flaws and sins, and yet beholds her with such deep and unwavering affection as our Lord. When we lose our taste for being a part of the Church, we can ask God to change that. And when we ask, we can ask with confidence that we’re praying according to his will, echoing the prayer of our Savior:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)