Going to church is still essential in an age of options

December 2, 2016

Churches experience seasons of growth and decline. Some close, while others emerge. The church is a global movement in rural villages, white-collar suburbs and urban centers. People from diverse language and ethnic groups gather at least weekly in every occupied time zone on the planet for prayer, study, ministry, fellowship, evangelism and worship. The cultural waves of interest and disinterest do not threaten the church’s survival. Instead, it seems the opposite is true. When legitimate followers of Jesus face persecution, rather than shrinking back, the church swells with Kingdom power and cultural impact.

Our need for the church

So recovering church attendance is not an issue of church survival. Instead, recovering church attendance in age of options is an issue of how the individual Christian flourishes. How will we live faithful, Spirit-filled, Christ-centered lives without the church? How will we abide in Christ and bear lasting fruit? How will we live on mission for the glory of God? How will we show and tell the gospel to a world that waits for hope? How will we end well?

The follower of Christ needs the church. Yet many who call Jesus “Lord” are not so sure. We’ve heard that the church is not a building. That’s true; the church is a kindred people committed to one another for the advancement of the gospel. The misguided implication, however, is that the regular meeting of committed Christians in a particular place and a specific time is of secondary importance— a good option, but an option nonetheless.

As the writer of Hebrews called us to draw near to God through a new and living way that is Christ, he also challenged us to hold on to our confession “without wavering” because God is faithful. And in light of the promise that God will not leave us, the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to command us to the same faithfulness to one another: “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

Apparently, as early as the first century, habitual church skipping was a thing. Some Christians had developed a pattern of prioritizing other activities, which kept them away from worship meetings, and they were called out for it. The author here risked being labeled a legalist in order to rebuke believers for neglecting the responsibility they had to attend church. In essence, he reminded them that the church meeting is not an option, but rather an essential practice for the faithful follower of Christ.

Why is that? If we are in Christ, and we love God, why should attending a church meeting every week be a priority? If the church will survive without us, why does it matter? If we are living moral lives and showing respect for Christian values, what is the big deal? If we are practicing other spiritual disciplines, why is the church meeting primetime?

The nature of the church

These are legitimate questions. Many of us are very familiar with church, yet we are unclear about the nature of the church. Our view of the church is more sociological, cultural or familial than it is theological. Church attendance is a common practice in our particular culture, but it’s somehow disconnected from our view of God and our part in his eternal story of redemption.

Recent efforts have been made to make the church more relevant with themes like, “The church is not a place, but a people,” or “The church has left the building.” The point is well made that church is not simply an event to attend, but a people who live everyday on mission with God. And now technology allows people to “attend” church by watching the music and preaching through online streaming. While online access is convenient and potentially gets the gospel to more people in one moment, it may also invite people into a form of church that falls desperately short of New Testament Christianity.

What seems to be clear is that while the church is not merely a weekly event to attend, and it is certainly not limited to a physical location, faithful Jesus followers insist on meeting regularly with other Christians for prayer, Bible study, fellowship, ministry, evangelism and worship.

We could begin in eternity past where God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit met in triune community. Or we could look at Adam and Eve’s relationship in the Garden of Eden. Or we could see how the people of God were organized into a community of faith that met regularly for worship in the Old Testament. But perhaps the most helpful model for us is in Acts.

After Jesus’ ascension, his disciples returned to Jerusalem, and they were “continually united in prayer” (Acts 1:14). And then we read that about 120 believers were gathered together as Peter preached. On the day of Pentecost, they were “all together in one place,” and the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the church movement was born. That was a unique experience, but their gatherings did not end there. Soon after that, “every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude” (Acts 2:46).

Throughout the book of Acts, we see God working in tangible ways in the hearts and through the lives of his people as they met together. Christians did not form communes. Instead, they lived out their faith in their homes and in the marketplace every day, but they also met in groups and established churches that met regularly for united prayer, study, fellowship, ministry, evangelism and worship.

Every church was unique. The time of day, the type of place and the order of service were likely very different as churches were planted throughout Asia Minor, but the priority was the same. This is what the writer of Hebrews commands us to not neglect. In light of God’s redeeming work and his eternal faithfulness, we must not neglect our regular meetings together.

Our call to interdependence

The context of the Hebrews exhortation is important. Our new and living way in Christ compels us to a new and living way with his people. Our personal relationship with God through our perfect High Priest never encourages personal independence. Instead, it is the basis for our interdependence. God’s faithful, never-leave-us-alone relationship with us compels us to build committed relationships with one another through the local church. And it is that kindred heart among believers that validates the message of the gospel (John 17).

The incarnation of Jesus calls us to an ongoing incarnational ministry to one another, and “all the more as [we] see the day drawing near” (Heb. 11:25). We do not outgrow our need for congregational life. Instead, as the pressures mount, as the persecution comes, as the stakes grow, as the urgency of the gospel intensifies, as our window of opportunity closes, our need for the local church only grows.

We have options. The modern era of transportation allows us to go wherever we want in just a day or two. Our affluence also gives us options. In suburbia America, hefty one and two income families let us to do whatever we want to do. But for the one who has been redeemed by Jesus, the local church meeting is still primetime.

The ebb and flow of messy, imperfect relationships, the experience of listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit with other believers, the roots that grow in the soil of biblical teaching, the sanctifying work of knowing and serving one another and the courage to live on mission with God every day—this is the indispensable work of God that only happens when believers meet regularly with their local church family.

So in an age of options, faithful church attendance is not one of them.

This post originally appeared on Daryl’s blog.

Daryl Crouch

Following 28 years in pastoral ministry, Daryl Crouch now leads Everyone’s Wilson, a community transformation initiative that helps churches bring the whole community around every school so that every student, educator, and family can live whole. He’s married to Deborah, and they have four children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24