I've seen a few articles popping up around the internet lately suggesting that Christians should abandon the institution of the church and just "follow Jesus." For example, the cover of Newsweek on April 9 had a modern-looking drawing of Jesus captioned with the words, "Forget the church. Follow Jesus" (you can find the related article here). I haven't yet seen the movie Blue Like Jazz -- I did read the book years ago -- but it's already generating discussion about the failures of the church and the idea of moving "beyond" church to something better. Proponents of this approach often cite the church's history of violence, hypocrisy, and heresy. The solution, it is argued, is for everybody to approach Jesus individually or in small communities with no formal hierarchy or structure. True spirituality is too individualistic to tie it down to an "institution."
Nobody who has attended church for any significant period of time doubts that churches have problems. They tend to be filled with sinners. I've yet to encounter a perfect church, one free of conflict, pride, self-righteousness, or hypocrisy. Most Christians have become irritated with their church at one time or another, and perhaps have even toyed with the idea of ditching the whole thing altogether.
Yet the problems caused by simply walking away from church would be worse than those present in the church itself.
First, Jesus established the Church (in a universal sense) and He seemed to think it was important (Matthew 16:18).
Second, the first Christians really believed that meeting together to worship God corporately was critical to their spiritual growth (Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:4-25). Christians who stopped "meeting together" faced the very real danger of abandoning the important aspects of their faith.
Finally -- and I think this an important point -- meeting with other Christians reminds us weekly of our own imperfections and need for grace. It is true that churches are filled with sinners, just like the rest of the world. Christians in church, though, have (hopefully) come as sinners looking for grace. In other words, we're sick like everybody else, but we're sick people who know we need the cure. And we need to remind one another of our constant and perpetual dependence on the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We need to remind one another that we're not alone in our sin. We need to remember -- through worship, preaching, and celebrating the Lord's Supper -- that provision has been made for our sin. We do that shoulder to shoulder, face to face, because we just can't do it on our own. I tend to forget what's important, and it doesn't take me all week to do so. So I need you to remind me and to challenge me to refocus. That's what church accomplishes when we approach it appropriately.
What's more, as we recognize our own deficiencies and praise God for His grace, we're empowered through His Spirit to share the Gospel with the world. We have to do that together as well. I don't know the people that you know or have the abilities that you have. And vice versa. The Great Commission is a task that requires community and organization. I think that's one of the key reasons Jesus founded the Church, and one of the reasons that the early Christians thought it was so important.
Be very skeptical anytime somebody suggests simply doing away with a practice that has been going on for thousands of years. Yes, there are things that we need to reconsider and do differently, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes there is a good reason for continuing an old tradition. In this case, it's because it mattered to Jesus. I think that's a good reason why it ought to matter to us as well.
If you go to church regularly, what do you value about it? What do you gain in your walk with Christ by attending and participating in it?