“Why do I have to go to church?” My children on occasion have asked this question. But they are not alone. Given how frequently many Christians skip it, many obviously don’t really understand what it is all about. Of those who do attend regularly, for some it is simply a habit: they’ve always gone, their parents made them, and so they still go. Others go to church because they fear if they don’t, God will do something bad to them. And others do it with a sense of obligation, but without enjoying the experience.
The author of the biblical book of Hebrews tells Christians simply that they “should not give up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25). But of course that doesn’t explain what the point of church might be or tell us what good it is.
Those who resist going to church will sometimes comment that “I can worship God just as well camping out in the woods.” Of course, one wonders if they ever actually do that.
Upon returning from seventy years of exile in Babylon, the Jewish leadership were very concerned about the people of Israel. They knew that God had sent the Israelites away from their homeland because of their failure to keep God’s laws, especially the one about not worshipping idols. Before the Babylonian exile, no one had ever thought to meet regularly for religious purposes. Before Babylon, the only time people did anything religious was during the occasional holiday. And the holidays were mostly about eating the sacrificed meat and celebrating. Think Thanksgiving. The holidays had failed to instill a love of God in the population at large. Sort of like Christmas and its failure to make people think about much more than the presents.
So after much thought, the Jewish leadership came up with the idea of having the people meet together regularly, once a week—and not just to eat and celebrate. Instead, they would have the Bible read and explained to them by people who had studied it in depth. Thus, the synagogue and the rabbi were born.
And it worked. The Jewish people after their return from Babylon were strict monotheists and never again were tempted to worship idols.
The first Christians were all Jewish. They had grown up in synagogues. Therefore, when they organized themselves, it was only natural that they would come together once a week to read the Bible and talk about it. Unsurprisingly, both the layout of the average church building and the way its services are conducted are remarkably similar to the structure and liturgy used by synagogues.
The weekly reading of the Bible in the times before the printing press, when books were rare and expensive, was a practical solution to the problem of how to get people to hear God’s words. Besides hearing the Bible read, the Christians could come together to sing, to learn about each other’s problems and to pray for each other. The church also became the center for helping resolve many of life’s difficulties: those who were in financial straits, who were suffering other personal issues, could find relief from their fellow Christians. In the early centuries, widows, without a male relative to take care of them, often faced starvation. The church took upon itself the role of supporting them. Additionally, the church took care of orphans, and the female infants that were commonly abandoned by the ancients on hillsides.
Today, at least in the western world, unattached women can easily provide for themselves. Most western nations have programs in place to help care for the poor and disadvantaged. Despite that, many churches still provide services for those who are down on their luck, either directly or by pooling their resources with other churches. Since the average size of churches in the United States is around 100 members, most churches work together to reach out to the needy in their communities. The “mega churches” that gain headlines are rare and do not reflect the actual experience of most church goers in the United States.
During the first 1600 years of church history, the only time Christians were exposed to the Bible was once a week on Sunday morning. Before the invention of the printing press, Bibles were expensive and rare. Only a church could afford to own one. Today, just about everyone owns a copy of the Bible and could read it themselves every day if they wanted. Neverthe less, for most, the only time they are exposed to the words of the Bible is on Sunday morning, when they hear the words of scripture recited and listen to someone explain them who has devoted his life to its study. That ancient role of the local church has not really changed at all.
Ideally, the church serves people in their times of need and in their times of joy. It gives them information about God and help for living life well. It is a place where Christians can meet together to be encouraged, where they can make friends and get support for life’s problems both large and small. It serves as a spiritual hospital for the suffering, and a place to receive weekly inoculations for the healthy. It is not a duty, it is a privilege, and it can be a source of great joy for those who attend and for those they then go out and help.