It seems that an increasing phenomenon of pop American Christianity in our postmodern times is a significant rise in the number of what might be called “unchurched Christians” – that is to say, individuals who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ yet who see no need to be involved in responsible membership in a local Bible-believing church. Below are answers to some common objections one might hear from such unchurched Christians for excusing themselves from either regular church attendance in general, or responsible church membership in particular, or both.
(1) “I’m a very spiritual person, but I just don’t see the need for organized religion.”
The problem with this objection is that biblical Christianity is an inherently organized faith. Jesus Himself willed it to be so, and in God’s Word the Lord Jesus calls His professed followers to be involved in accountable, responsible membership in a visible, organized expression of His Body, the church. To willfully despise the church and to reject responsible church membership in a local congregation is to reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ and thus to place oneself outside of the Christian Faith.
Jesus appointed twelve apostles as the foundation upon which the church would be built, Christ Jesus Himself being the Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). A careful reading of the Book of Acts shows the apostles, such as Saint Paul, taking the gospel into new areas, baptizing new converts and their families, organizing these newly baptized converts into local congregations, and training and ordaining local elders to shepherd and oversee these local congregations. The apostles didn’t just lead people to make a personal decision for Christ and then leave them to their own private spirituality. The Scriptures reveal that Christ has given the pastoral office to His church to shepherd God’s flock (Ephesians 4:11-12). Most of the Epistles in the New Testament were written to local, organized churches with a definite membership and leadership, and the Pastoral Epistles (First and Second Timothy, Titus) include instructions on “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (First Timothy 3:15, ESV), including instructions on qualifications for church officers (bishops/overseers and deacons; see First Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Church members are exhorted to obey and submit to their leaders in the church (Hebrews 13:17) – a command that would be meaningless if there was no formal, organized church with a definite membership and clearly-identified leaders.
All of this testifies to the fact that Christianity from the days of the apostles onward has always been an organized religion! This makes sense, since Scripture reveals God to be a God of order, not a God of confusion and disorder.
Regarding the idea that being “spiritual” allows one to be a “Christian” without being committed in responsible membership to a faithful, organized local church, the fact is that all people are “spiritual” because God has created all human beings with a spirit/soul! God created us as body-souls, and in that sense we are all “spiritual”. But being “spiritual” in this sense does not of itself justify one’s claim to be a Christian, nor excuse one from the responsibility to be involved in a local church.
(2) “Christianity is a relationship with Jesus, not a religion.”
This popular statement involves a false dichotomy, an illegitimate “either/or” option. Yes, of course Christianity involves a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. But it is not only or merely a “personal” matter between the individual soul and the Savior. Such a narcissistic statement reflects more the extreme hyper-individualism of the American mindset than it does the teachings of the Bible. It is also a dishonest statement, because of course Christianity is a religion, in the sense that it has Divinely revealed Scriptures, religious doctrines, a code of ethics, and worship practices (including liturgical and sacramental rites). Of course, it is not a “religion” if by “religion” one means a man-made religion or a system of works-righteousness by which one can “earn” salvation. Salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9)! However, biblical Christianity is the one, true, God-revealed religion.
Biblical, historic Christianity is inherently corporate and covenantal, not merely private and personal. When Christ saves a sinner, by the Spirit He not only unites that sinner to Himself; He also baptizes that sinner into the Body of Christ, the church (see First Corinthians 12).
(3) “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than living in a garage makes you a car.”
This seemingly-clever statement is true on the surface, but irrelevant to the question of church attendance and church membership. No one who knows anything about biblical, historic Christianity will claim that just attending church, or even just being a church member, will in and of itself make you a Christian. But faithful, consistent Christians will attend and belong in responsible membership to a faithful local church, because that’s what Christians who love Jesus and want to obey His Word do!
Church attendance and church membership do not make one a Christian, but they do help to manifest to the world our profession of faith in Christ, and they also help to nurture and strengthen us in our discipleship.
(4) “Church is boring.”
It is not the church’s job to entertain us. A Sunday worship service is not a form of religious entertainment. Rather, it is the church’s job to feed our souls with God’s word and sacraments, and to give us an opportunity to gather together with fellow believers in order to offer God praise and prayer out of gratitude for His gift of salvation in Christ.
I’m all in favor of a well-ordered worship service which engages congregants in active participation and which seeks to encourage their deep interest. But if you happen to attend a faithful church where the gospel is clearly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered according to God’s Word, but you still find the service to be “boring” or “irrelevant”, then the problem is not with the church. In such a case the problem rests squarely with you. If you find the good news of God’s full and free forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Christ to be “boring”, then you need to repent of your blasphemous boredom with God’s good news and ask God to create within your soul a heart-felt interest in the things of the Lord.
(5) “I don’t need the organized church.”
Again, this is an extremely narcissistic, self-focused statement. You may not feel that you need the church, but the church needs you!
If you are truly a Christian, then Christ has made you part of His Body. You are a member of the Body of Christ (First Corinthians 12; Romans 12:3-8). By cutting yourself off from the local church you are depriving the local body of Christ of your spiritual gifts and the encouragement of your presence. You are acting selfishly. You are not loving your neighbor as yourself. A human body which is missing body parts might be able to function and survive, but it survives in a disabled, maimed, weakened condition. The same is true of the Body of Christ. When a member is missing or cut off, the whole body suffers.
But there is a sense in which we do need the local, organized church! If we willfully cut ourselves off from responsible membership in a local, organized expression of the Body of Christ, then there is a sense in which we cut ourselves off from the Head of that Body, namely, Christ Himself! The Bible indicates that Christ has entrusted the means of grace (word, sacraments, and, in a secondary sense, prayer) to the visible organized church. To cut oneself off from the church is to cut oneself off from the ordinary means of grace – those means by which God creates and nurtures saving faith within the souls of His elect. Professing Christians who, over time, cut themselves off from the church often end up altogether abandoning the Christian faith sooner or later. As our Westminster Confession of Faith rightly states, outside of the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (Chapter 25.2). Dear reader, you need the ministry of a faithful, local organized church in order to stay vitally connected to Christ, the Head, and in order to avoid the spiritual danger of apostasy! So, yes, you do need the organized church.
(6) “I can worship God on the golf course.”
True. We can engage in private, personal worship within our spirit anywhere, and at any time. But we cannot obey God’s command not to forsake the assembling of ourselves with other believers in worship (Hebrews 10:25) by skipping church to engage in other activities (like hitting the golf course).
I am sure that there are many other objections that “churchless Christians” offer for rejecting church membership, but the ones above seem to be some of the more common ones. I hope this article has been challenging and encouraging to you, dear reader. May we all seek to be committed to Christ and to His church!