My father was not a converted man when my younger sister and I were growing up, but even so he attended church with the family Sunday morning and night without fail. I’m sure he believed in what the church stood for and felt the value of attending — at least for the children’s sake.
I will never know fully what his decision to attend contributed to my own life’s decisions. Neither of my Sunday School buddies, Fred and Howard, had fathers who ever turned up at church and both of them fell away from any church connections when they were 15 or so. Fred died of a heart attack when he was 31 and Howard had a checkered life and he, too, has been gone for many years.
As valuable as mere church attendance might be for either believers or unbelievers, it is far from the whole story when it comes to the Biblical understanding of church.
“Church” in the New Testament does not refer to a building or auditorium. The simplest translation for the word in English is “assembly.” Literally the word means “the called out” or the people of God whom he calls to assemble together. It means a gathering of believers — the “set-apart-ones.”
The Apostle Paul enhances our understanding of church when he further represents it as a body – a vital organism (1 Cor.12:12-27). This analogy indicates the living nature of the church. And just as a body has arms and legs, eyes and ears, internal organs, etc., all of which are subject to a common control center — the mind — so the church has living members who exercise special gifts in and through the assembly under the direction of the supreme head, Jesus Christ. These members thus contribute in an orderly way to the church’s communal life.
The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 has much to say about exercising these gifts to give the whole body order and usefulness.
And to the church in Rome he wrote, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (Rom. 12: 6-8).
The gifts God gives to the members of his church are varied for a good reason – they are to enhance the health and witness of the whole body. But the one gift, fundamental to all else, is the gift of God’s Spirit. He awakens us with the life of God (Eph. 2:4-5). That is called the new birth. And then he “gifts” us to serve in and through the workings of Christ’s body (Acts 1:4).
From these passages it is clear especially for Christians that the central idea is to participate as a living member, and to contribute to worship and ministry!
You might wonder what became of my father’s church involvement after my sister and I left home. He responded to the gospel at age 61.
He had “attended” church for nearly all his adult life but now he had become a “living part” of the church — a member of Christ’s body. He went suddenly to be with the Lord when he was 83, leaving that comforting witness behind him.