Church is absolutely essential for the follower of Jesus. When Christ called us into relationship with Himself, He also called us into community with others. A Christian not committed to Church is an oxymoron and a confounding contradiction. Christians are commanded to “not neglect gathering together as some are in the habit of doing but to encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25) because through encouragement we are not “hardened by sin’s deception” (Hebrews 3:13). In other words, God uses His people to keep His people tender and receptive to His leading.
Church is absolutely essential. Our preferred form of church is not.
I am grateful for the time and place the Lord has placed me, a country where we can gather freely (a privilege I never want to take for granted) and a facility the Lord has generously provided. But when the writer of Hebrews wrote those words about believers gathering, it was not understood that all Christians would gather in mass at a church-owned facility. When the writer of Hebrews wrote about churches gathering there surely were not any megachurches with coffee shops awkwardly named He Brews. The early Christians gathered wherever they could, based on their context. They gathered in homes (Philemon 2), in lecture halls (Acts 19:9), outside (Acts 16:13), and in the temple (Acts 2:46). When the writer of Hebrews challenged believers to gather, the focus was on the purpose of the gathering, not on the size of the gathering or where the gathering would take place.
Look around the globe.
In the same way, believers around the globe gather in a myriad of locations based on their context. On global trips, I have been honored to participate in, I have taught believers in homes and believers outside. No one dared to hint that their gatherings did not somehow count as “real gatherings.”
Look to the past.
Martin Luther stated: “The congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.” John Calvin similarly stated: “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
We must be careful and caring.
We must insist that church is essential, but we must be careful not to subtly or overtly send the signal that our form of church is better than some other form. Our form may be our preference. Our form may even be more in sync to our context, but it is not more biblical. Insisting church is essential is not the same as insisting our form of church is essential. To declare that “church is not church” unless it takes a certain form discounts our incredible history and demeans believers around the world who are meeting differently than we meet. And to insist that a specific form of church is essential can attach people more to the form than to the focus of our gatherings.
I must be careful.
I must be careful because I love the large gathering. It is what I have known. I love being in a big room with people, singing and celebrating our great God. It is even where I am most comfortable. But I can’t say, not biblically or globally, that the form of a large gathering I have known and loved is the only form of a church gathering. Yes, it has often been more pleasing to me but I can’t say it is more pleasing to my Lord.
I must be caring.
The church I lead is resuming large gatherings (outside). I don’t believe we are more biblical or better than churches who are helping people gather in other ways. I also don’t believe that those in our church who will continue to gather in homes are somehow less Christian. Our approach of offering different ways for people to gather (from homes to smaller gatherings to larger gatherings) is not a stair-step approach to a more biblical way of having church, but a spectrum to biblically meet people where they are. All of those forms can be beautiful and biblical if the Word is taught, if people are encouraged, and if the ordinances are observed.