Have you ever wondered, “What does the Bible really say about not going to church?” You’re not alone, especially in recent years, as the COVID-19 pandemic affected the church-attending habits of Christians worldwide.
A few years back, I saw a cartoon that stuck with me and relates to this. A wife was getting ready for her day, and she asked her husband why he wasn’t getting ready for church. That’s when he pulled the covers back over his head and said, “I don’t feel like going to church today. I think I’ll sleep in.”
“But, honey, you’re the pastor!” the wife said.
The truth is, all of us have those weekends when we don’t feel like going to church.
The good news is the Bible isn’t silent on the topic.
What is a church?
Let’s get one of the most important parts of this question out of the way right away.
Nowadays, the meaning of the word “church” has changed and much of it doesn’t match what it meant when the New Testament was written.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we use church to mean:
- A building for worship (usually Christian worship)
- The clergy
- An organization of religious believers
- Public worship
- The clerical profession
None of those quite fit how early believers in the New Testament understood the word “church” (Greek, ekklesia). In the Greco-Roman culture where the New Testament was written, an ekklesia was a political assembly. It’s also the word that the most famous Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) used to describe Israel’s religious gatherings.
In other words, the church isn’t primarily a place you go to. It’s a gathering of people you belong to.
The New Testament uses many different metaphors to describe what the church is. For example, the New Testament says the church is:
- the bride of Christ (1 Cor 12:12–27)
- the flock of God (John 10:11–18; 1 Pet 5:2–4)
- the branches of the vine (John 15:1–18)
- the family of God (Eph 2:19; Gal 6:10)
But maybe the most important New Testament image of the church is the body of Christ. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:12–17 that every professing believer is part of the body of Christ. As individual body parts, we can’t do much by ourselves. Instead, the power and the potential of the church are in what we can do together.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (1 Cor 12:17–20)
The question isn’t so much, “What does the Bible say about going to church?” It’s really, “What does the Bible say about gathering as a church to fulfill its mission together?”
And the gathering of the church can take lots of forms. Buildings, professional clergy, and a well-established structure aren’t required.
Throughout the centuries (even as far back as the earliest Christians we’ll see in the next section), God’s people have gathered in homes, in theaters, in offices, on beaches, etc., to worship God and encourage one another in faithfulness.
None of those options are less biblical or less holy (or more biblical or more holy) than gathering under a steeple on Sunday morning. God wants us to gather with his people regularly in whatever form that takes.
The importance of going to church according to the Bible
As the apostolic writers penned the New Testament in the first fifty to sixty years after Jesus’s resurrection, the church didn’t have buildings where they could gather regularly. Yet that didn’t stop God’s people from doing so.
Luke says the earliest Christians (right after the church’s birth on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2) “devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46).
Although they didn’t have property of their own or professional clergy, early Christians met regularly. They were a minority in their communities. They were trying to live out a faith that was in its formative phases and didn’t even have a finalized canon or a New Testament to study. The early church needed one another.
And so do we.
It’s in that context where we come to understand what the Bible says about going to church. We don’t go to church because we’re under an obligation to do so. We gather because, as citizens of heaven, not earth (Phil 3:20), we’re outsiders on this planet (1 Pet 2:11). We can’t live the Christian life well without the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
For example, the author of Hebrews wrote to early Christians who knew some were challenging the need for believers to gather. Recognizing how desperately we need the support of other Christians, he writes in 10:24–25:
Let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.
Living a Christlike, sacrificial life inside of a world system that often stands in direct opposition to our values is tough (likely impossible) on our own. We need—desperately need, to be honest—other Jesus-followers walking with us to “provoke love and good works” in our lives.
Those words conjure up in my mind the concept of a coach urging athletes to push their bodies further than they think possible.
When I was in high school, I spent one season as a wrestler. It was my lone attempt at high school athletics. I had very little athletic training and zero athletic aptitude. So when we were asked during the first few weeks of practice to run stairs for what seemed like an hour and do more push-ups in thirty minutes than I had ever done in all my previous gym classes combined, I nearly gave up. It was way too hard.
Our coach wouldn’t let me give up. He kept encouraging us to keep going, to keep giving it our best no matter how tough the conditions became. So I kept pushing myself harder.
That’s the kind of coach the author of Hebrews calls us to become for one another in our walk with Jesus—the kind that cheers and spurs one another on toward Christian faithfulness.
Nearly sixty times in the New Testament, we’re commanded to do something with or to one another. These are commands we can’t possibly live out on our own.
The New Testament teaches us to:
- Love one another (John 13:34)
- Care for one another (1 Cor 12:25)
- Admonish one another (Rom 15:14)
- Teach one another (Col 3:16)
- Encourage one another (1 Thess 5:11)
- Pray for one another (Jas 5:16)
And, of course, that’s just the start. You’ll find numerous other “one another” commands in the New Testament. You simply can’t be who God made you to become on your own.
While there are a handful of Christians in history who chose an ascetic life or been exiled or imprisoned into one, this isn’t the usual pattern of Christian faithfulness. In fact, the Christian community has typically recognized this as a mark of their suffering.
What are the consequences of not going to church?
No matter what someone has told you in the past, you won’t miss out on heaven (or be sent to hell) if you don’t make it to church this weekend. Neither can we expect God will smite us or intentionally make something bad happen to us because we’re skipping the gathering with other believers.
The Bible is crystal clear that God’s faithfulness to us isn’t dependent upon our own faithfulness to him. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (1 Tim 2:13).
Yet that doesn’t mean there won’t be natural consequences when we’re not gathering together with other Christians. Here are a few of those consequences.
1. Our Christian growth will stall
We always grow better in community than outside of it. That’s how God wired spiritual growth. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many of the “one another” statements of the New Testament revolve around teaching, caring for, and confessing to one another. None of us have the market cornered on spiritual truth and biblical wisdom. We need the help of others to learn and grow in Christian faithfulness.
2. We won’t have the support we need when challenges arise
All of us will experience tough times. That’s guaranteed. We’ll get sick, lose a job, face the death of a loved one, etc. In those times, it’s important we lean on others. If you haven’t developed relationships, you won’t have them when you need them.
3. We’ll miss out on the blessings that come with loving others within a biblical community
God didn’t design us to hyper focus on our own well-being. Living in a relationship with other believers who are pursuing God and his kingdom rewards us with a sense of meaning and purpose.
When you serve others in Jesus’ name (particularly the “least of these”), the Bible tells us you’re serving Jesus himself. That’s a privilege that comes regularly to those who gather with other believers.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:2: “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” God’s will for us is to be a part of a community of faith where we can willingly love and support other believers as they strive to live for Jesus. Missing out on that blessing would be one of the great tragedies of human existence.
Practical tips for getting the most out of going to church
Maybe one of the reasons you’ve struggled with church attendance is you don’t feel you’re getting anything out of it. God doesn’t want you to go to church just so you can complete a to-do item. He wants you to gather with other believers so you can grow and serve others in community.
God wants it to be a significant experience when you gather with other believers. Here are a few ways to make it more meaningful for you.
1. Volunteer to serve
Many of us can tend to hyper-analyze churches when we attend. We critique the preaching, the music, the environment, etc. If you’re looking for something wrong in a church, you’ll find it. That’s why it’s so important to turn your attention off of yourself as soon as you can. Look for ways you can help others. Talk to people who have been around for longer (like maybe the minister) about ways you can help at the worship gathering.
2. Invite a friend
Sometimes attending a church where you don’t know anyone can feel intimidating. Bringing someone along with you can help with some of those feelings. Whether it’s your spouse, a coworker, or your next-door neighbor, bringing a friend will help you feel less alone at church (and give you a head start on building new relationships in the church).
3. Bring your Bible
Of course, the first tool to bring to church is a Bible. If you don’t have one, you can download a free one for a tablet or smartphone on the Logos app. I find that engaging with a digital Bible study tool helps me pay attention to teaching at the church. I’ll often highlight important passages and make notes about what I’m learning during Bible studies and sermons. That’s all available on apps like Logos. Plus, you’ll be able to find other resources (some of them for free) that can help you learn more about what you’re studying.
4. Get involved in other areas of the church
Remember, the point of church attendance isn’t simply going to church but being a part of it. Church should be a part of your life on more than just one morning a week. Ask around for other opportunities to learn, serve, and share throughout the week. If your church has a bulletin, it’ll likely have a list of activities. Look at it and make notes of interesting activities.
5. Introduce yourself to others
Yes, we all would prefer if others did the introducing. Most of the time other people who have been attending church longer will make the first move. But if they don’t, you do it. The first time you extend a hand to a stranger at church will be the hardest. It gets easier. I promise!
Again, attending church isn’t about fulfilling an obligation or checking off a box. It’s about gathering with fellow believers to support, encourage, and serve one another as we grow in our faith. The Bible tells us we need each other. You don’t want to miss that.
By gathering with other believers, we not only follow the biblical call to be part of the body of Christ, but we also open ourselves to the blessings and growth that come from living life in community with other believers.
- Beyond “A People, Not a Place”: What the Church Really Is
- When Going to Church Is Hard: 5 Tips
- The Corinthians: Who Were They & What Was Paul Saying to Them?