The answer to your question is, of course, determined by the understanding of what a Christian is. If a Christian is simply someone who assents to belief in the Triune God, then the answer is no. If a Christian is someone who is kind, caring, and keeps the basic ethical teachings of loving God (without specific practices) and loves one’s neighbor, then the answer could be no, one does not have to go to church.
However, if a Christian is someone who has been baptized into life of the Triune God and the body of Christ, the church, and professed the faith of the church, the answer is yes.
At baptism or in confirmation/profession of faith, we make very important promises. We renounce evil, reject the spiritual forces of wickedness, and repent of our sin. We declare that we accept the freedom God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. Then we declare we trust in Christ for salvation and promise to serve him in union with his church.
In those promises we accept God’s acceptance of us within the beloved community. We promise to serve WITH THE CHURCH. It is into life with each other in the church that the church welcomes us as members of Christ’s royal priesthood.
As United Methodists, our answer is an even more emphatic yes.
John Wesley, one of our founders, taught and practiced accountable discipleship. He put it this way. ”There is no religion but social religion.” In other words, without being vitally connected to other people in the church, we cannot reasonably claim to be practicing the Christian faith at all. We can’t keep on the path with Christ without the help and support of other Christians. Without hearing the Word read and preached, without gathering with other Christians around the table to share and feast upon Christ who is host and sacrifice for us, and without becoming part of the fire of the Spirit as it moves among the living members of Christ’s body, we become like embers of a fire separated from the community of grace. We grow cold and the fire and flame of love grow cold and we die spiritually. We may still have some Christian beliefs, but we can no longer credibly say we ”believe in Jesus.” Believing in Jesus means being in a vital relationship with Jesus and with his living body, the church.
So what happens if we do not stay connected in a local church? We believe God does not let us go or give up on us. What God promises, God does not revoke. We are still marked as Christ’s disciples and still called to live in and with and for Christ. The Spirit will strive with us and work to restore us to the fellowship of Christ’s body.
So can you be a Christian–baptized, sharing the table of communion, connected to Jesus and one with his body–the body that Paul says we are to discern when we gather to remember (See 1 Cor. 11)– and not attend worship and participate actively in the life and work of the church?
The plain point is this: without God’s grace we cannot live the Christian life. God’s grace is everywhere at work and always available. And if we really seek it and must have it, why would we go anywhere but to where Christ has promised, ”I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
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