Why do I need to belong to a local church?

Church attendance is not about duty, it’s an essential resource for faith, says Elaine Storkey

It used to be said that many people went to church out of habit rather than belief. But those days are largely past. Now, we have the problem that some believers stay away from church out of habit. We are in the era of ‘post-church’ Christians.

Church attendance is declining so rapidly that statisticians are predicting that some denominations will have zero members by 2030. It isn’t simply unbelief that accounts for the decline. Many believers don’t go to church either. They give umpteen reasons: overwork and tiredness, boredom, uninspiring church leaders, age-group isolation, wanting to spend more leisure-time with family, dislike of formality, short attention span, not their kind of music, don’t want to inflict church on the children, or simply that church has become alien territory!

Some Christians might cheerfully go to Christian holidays, festivals or special events, but don’t head for the local fellowship for weekly worship. After all, we can pray, worship, read the Bible, listen to music, witness to others and learn about God any time and anywhere. So why does joining a local church matter?

Well, it mattered for the early Church. The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers not to neglect meeting together, adding “as is the habit of some”. So even then, the apostles had to chivvy up Christians who had become habitual absentees! But the epistle writer saw churchgoing as a great resource to faith in Christ, rather than any mere duty. He put it in the same category as “holding fast to what we believe” and “not wavering”. At a time when Christ’s followers were surrounded by great pressure to compromise their commitment to Jesus, they found support in gathering regularly to worship with others.

Today we face pressure to ‘believe without belonging’. But there is a paradox in this. For belief entails belonging. Believers are members of the “body of Christ” – a metaphor St Paul uses often (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4). And the essential thing about a body is that all its strange, odd bits belong together. The amazing diversity of organs, skin, muscle, arteries, vessels, bone, brain, intestines, corpuscles are held together in a single body, where blood flows through every part, and oxygen travels via our lungs to keep the whole body functioning. Paul goes to great length to show that just as every component of our physical bodies needs every other part, so it is with the body of Christ.

The local church, with all its different people, is part of the worldwide body. So let’s see why early church leaders were so convinced about gathering together. Highest on the list is the strength that comes from experiencing God together and learning about Christ from each other. The Holy Spirit can inspire, teach, and enrich us together with biblical truth, for God promises that where even one or two gather in his name, he is right there with us.

Mutual encouragement is another reason. Listening to one another’s struggles, sharing the distress of those who are suffering, praying together, rejoicing in new birth, or recovery – these all help us to know the reality of God with us in our daily lives. We all need encouragement in the faith, especially at times of grief or perplexity. Then, churches can “stir up love and good works” as mentioned in Hebrews, when we notice the different needs and life circumstances of people in a congregation.

I know a church which operates a ‘gift swapping’ session – not to recycle unwanted presents, but to offer services for fellow Christians. The surprising discovery was how much this also released those usually on the receiving end. They found that they too had ‘gifts’ which could bless other people.

We can witness to the Gospel through an effective local church, both in its evangelism – Easter Marches, Carols on the Green – or ministry in the community. Drop-in centres, debt counselling, bereavement groups, children’s ‘messy play,’ recycling groups all announce the relevance of the Gospel to the whole of life, and can draw so many people into the orbit of God’s love. None of these activities run themselves, but takes joint commitment and effort.

If you’re church-wavering, why not have another go? If you can’t find an encouraging, loving, accepting and outreaching church, don’t give up. Hunt for a church which loves God and looks promising and share your vision. If people need to change, the Holy Spirit can handle that. Even when those people are us.

+ Elaine Storkey is an author, broadcaster, theologian, academic and senior figure in the Church of England laity