It is easily forgotten that the community of Christians is a gift of grace from the kingdom of God, a gift that can be taken from us any day — that the time still separating us from the most profound loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.)

These words were penned seventy years ago as the world stood on the doorstep of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany's assault on Europe. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had returned to his home in Germany from the US to lead the Confessing Church, an underground movement that lived out the life of Jesus in the face of Nazism. He was eventually hung in a hideous and torturous way to try to silence his voice. Nazi Germany fell, but the writings and words of Bonhoeffer live today, inspiring believers — especially those under oppression — all over the world.

Occasionally, I will be asked if I really believe it is important to "go to church." The question is not from unbelievers. In fact, this question is often asked by those passionately seeking to live for Jesus. Some have been deeply hurt by church politics. Others have been bored by church services. Some just see church as a waste of time. Others see "going to church" as an outdated form of community that is no longer needed in the computer age of social networking.

When asked about the importance of church, some who email me are seeking biblical insights to their frustration with the modern "churchland" experience — mall churches where unknown hordes gather in anonymity or religious institutions more concerned about political agendas than about doing the work of Jesus. Some folks just want validation that their abandonment of not "going to church" ever again: they are fed up with what they see as corruption, hypocrisy, and irrelevancy.

This is not an easy question to address for several reasons. Seemingly, the Western expression of church has lost its way on many levels. Far from being a place of community that practices radical forgiveness and accountability as Jesus envisioned (Matthew 18:1-35), many forms of modern church are not much better than the caricatures so often criticized. Far from being a mission-driven community sharing God's grace with all nations and a community of different people brought together by the power of God's Spirit (the book of Acts), we seem to have sunk into rival marketers of easy religion pedaled to consumer-driven attendees or into rival politically aligned preservers of our version of national values.

On the other hand, many are genuinely blessed by their association today with what is called "church." They find support, help, encouragement, and friendship. They can't understand why some would be so critical of something they love. In addition, oppressed and persecuted believers in other cultures cannot fathom having the freedom to gather with other believers and not taking advantage of it. Meeting in clandestine house churches in China or meeting openly with believers in Africa knowing that their persecutors are watching and taking note of them, these believers truly understand the words of Bonhoeffer, "... it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today."

So I'd like to share a few biblical observations into the discussion for all of us to ponder and discuss — yes, I'd like to hear from you on my blog at this address:

First, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament did not envision a Christianity that does not involve Christian community. Jesus sent out his followers two by two. He called together a small group of twelve to be his first community. His primary teachings centered on relationships and life lived together in community. While much of his teaching and lifestyle brought him into conflict with religious leaders in religious situations, his regular practice was to participate in those gatherings to redeem them and restore them to their intended purpose. He didn't abolish or abandon them. He even talked about building a gathering of people around the confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:13-16).

Second, the term used overwhelmingly throughout the New Testament for this community is the word our modern Bibles translate "church." Unfortunately our well-intentioned use of the word and popular definitions of it — like the "called out" or using the word to refer to a "church building" — distort the original meaning and use of the word. The word itself, ekklesia, is not even a religious word. (Acts 19:32, for example, where the word is used for an assembly of those who definitely were not followers of Jesus.) It simply means "assembly" or "gathering" of people. What makes it "Christian" is that the gathering is done in "[T]he name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). When believers gather in Jesus name, there is a very sense in which the Lord is present among them with power (Matthew 18:20;  1 Corinthians 5:4).

Third, followers of Jesus are identified with this term "gathering" (or "church") repeatedly through the New Testament. Rather than identifying a theoretical group of people, this is an identity formed by being brought into community together and meeting together (Acts 2:41-47;  Acts 20:7). Reading the letters of the New Testament (Romans-Revelation), the first few verses of them reveal this focus, using a formula like, "To the gathering of God's people in ..." (Romans 1:7;  1 Corinthians 1:2).This gathering together in Jesus' name was so important that they were urged not to forsake their times of meeting together, but to use these opportunities to stir each other up to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:19-25).

Fourth, this was to be a community that lived the lifestyle of Jesus and called each other to that lifestyle all over the world in different cultures (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus called his followers to live by Kingdom of God ethic found in his own teaching (Matthew 5:1 — 7:29) and in his call for his followers to live in a community of accountability and forgiveness (Matthew 18:1-35). This is reflected in the rest of the New Testament's emphasis on how Jesus' followers are to live with "one another" and treat "each other" in community. (See a partial list of these passages by following the link below.) In fact, all of the New Testament books following the book of Acts are not understandable outside followers of Jesus gathering together to try to help each other live the life of Jesus. Most are letters written to specific gatherings (or "churches") of believers in Jesus.

"But I'd rather spend my time doing good for others and helping them in their life than be stuck in some outmoded church service!"

The truth is, this isn't an either or choice. In fact, gathering several folks who share your commitment to help others only increases the reach of your good deeds and offers these people a place of community and friendship where they can belong. So many in our lonely society today need just a place of friendship and acceptance.

"But I love my church where I am just fine! What's the big deal, anyway?"

If you are blessed by the contemporary expression of church, great! Help your gathering of believers live out the call of Jesus and make sure others are welcomed and loved into your group. But please, understand that a whole generation is coming of age and many are not finding a connection with what they see as the institutional church — several studies suggest less than 4% of those 18-25 in the US are connected to a "church" experience of any kind. Give them the permission to search the Scriptures and try to faithfully express the community of Jesus in ways that connect with their culture. I'm not talking about a cosmetic re-do of modern church to make it more consumer friendly, but a genuine passion to restore the life, vibrancy, accountability, and community we see in the book of Acts.

"Aren't you afraid that even suggesting this will hurt our churches and give our young people and others permission to abandon church all together?"

People don't have to have permission to do this; folks are abandoning the current expression of church in droves, already. (For a glimpse at the hard realities of where things actually are, read the book Unchristian.) We must remember that our goal is not putting people in church buildings, but helping others find real community in the Kingdom of God and submit to the Lordship of Jesus. Many will continue to be blessed by the church culture we have experienced for the last several hundred years. Others, however, are looking for a more intimate gathering of people who are held accountable to each other and to the Lord in community. They see the power of the house church movement in places like China and Cuba, and long to experience what they see as authentic community as they serve others in the name of Jesus. Others are blessed to enjoy both expressions of church in their home congregations. The key, I believe, is for all of us to keep praying, "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

You gather with other believers in some form.
"So what are you saying?"

I'm saying that I believe followers of Jesus are going to regularly gather with other followers to help them live the life of Christ and remember the life, words, sacrifice, and resurrection of their Lord, together. That doesn't necessarily mean that you do the big church deal that is a part of our Western culture of church. It does mean, however, that you gather with other believers in some form to call each other to be community where Jesus' character and compassion are lived.

Your turn!

Are you part of a regular church service, a house church, or do you not go to church at all — and why or why not?

What's your take on all of this?

What do you believe Jesus is calling us to do as his people in our current culture?

Are you part of a regular church service, a house church, or do you not go to church at all — and why or why not?

I'd love to hear your feedback and see your discussion on my blog: