Every Easter and Christmas, there’s a surge of attendance at churches. People who don’t regularly attend church show up for the important weeks of the year. And every Easter and Christmas, I notice a conversation that takes place about the necessity of church attendance for salvation.
Christians who don’t regularly attend church will often insist that Jesus cares more about their personal walk with God than with their presence at a particular building on Sunday mornings. Christians who attend church regularly will insist that while God is probably not keeping attendance, Church attendance ought to be a priority to Christians.
As a minister, of course I wish there were more Christians who were committed to coming to church, but I can also understand that churches can be uncomfortable places for many people.
But is it true that Jesus cares more about your personal walk with God than your church attendance?
The language of “Personal walk with God” is relatively new in the history of the church. The phrase “personal walk/relationship with God” is completely absent from the text of the Bible. In fact, the Bible is far more interested in the communal walk with God than the personal walk with God.
Throughout the Bible, communal faith gets far more attention that personal faith. Israel’s relationship with God is centered around the faith of the community, not the individual. When someone does wrong, the whole community is punished. When someone does good, the whole community experiences the joy of relationship with God.
Even in the New Testament, stories of conversion are often about whole families, rather than individuals. When 3,000 people respond to Peter’s message in Acts 2, they gather together in community and share everything together. The community of God takes care of each others’ needs (both physical and spiritual). The Holy Spirit moves among the community. The most powerful stories in the New Testament are about how God functions in the community of believers.
So when Christians emphasize a personal relationship with God over a corporate or communal relationship with God, they miss out on the biggest part of what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel isn’t about how Jesus saves you nearly as much as it is about how Jesus saves us.
So while I absolutely believe that salvation doesn’t require church attendance, this recent emphasis on personal faith is, I believe, a step away from the actual purpose of salvation – which is the reunification of all creation with its Creator. Personal faith doesn’t do that nearly as well as communal faith does.
Personal faith emphasizes how you become a better person. It’s focused on you getting a handle on your anger problem, or refraining from drinking too much, or not having sex with people you’re not married to.
Communal faith emphasizes how God is redeeming the whole world. It’s focused on taking care of each others’ needs, encouraging each other to be Christ to each other, and bringing the community to those who aren’t a part of it yet.
And a good Christian community will help its individuals get a handle on their anger or drinking problems. A good Christian community will emphasize and encourage a holy sexuality. A good Christian community will seek to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, which will also transform the individuals. Individual transformation is a part of what happens in a communal faith. Communal faith makes you a more holy person, because it places you in a holy community that’s making the whole world a more holy place.
So when we neglect the church, we neglect what it truly means to experience salvation.
Now I recognize that churches can be uncomfortable places for some people. You may have had terrible experiences in church that make it difficult for you to step back into a church building. I’m not trying to suggest that you should just get over it and go to a church. The community of the church can be found in places other than Church buildings. Church can be your small group of friends that meets every other Thursday to share how God has impacted you over the last two weeks. Church might be the group that you volunteer to do Habitat for Humanity builds with. Church might be inviting your neighbors over for dinner and praying with and for them, and encouraging them in their lives.
If you’ve had a bad experience with a church, I’m sorry that’s happened to you. Please don’t let that make you miss out on what God is doing to redeem the world through community. Find a community of believers that you can experience salvation with, regardless of the building it meets in.
When people who believe in God choose not to engage in the community of God, everyone loses out. What God does privately in your life is important, but it’s not nearly as important as what God does in the larger community. Don’t settle for a personal relationship with God when you can have a communal one. Jump into a community of believers so that you can be a part of God’s plan of salvation for everyone.