If you go to church or have gone to church in the past you have probably heard this saying: “We don’t go to church for other people. We go to church for God.”
The saying is usually used in settings where someone is complaining about people in the church. Perhaps there is a lot of division, hypocrisy and bickering or it could be as simple as a lack of true intimacy among the church members. So someone shares their frustration and perhaps even their doubts about returning to church.
That’s when this age-old adage comes to the fore. And what we really mean by it is, “No matter how bad people are at church there is no excuse to stop coming because at the end of the day you are only there for God, not them. So keep coming for God and ignore all those people.” This concept sounds noble. In fact, it even sounds biblical. But it turns out, it isn’t really true.
The New Testament (NT) introduces us to the concept of church. It uses the Greek word ecclessia, which literally means “group of people”.1
When Jesus says to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church”, He is literally saying, “On this rock I will build my group of people.” Likewise, when the NT speaks of believers having church it simply means that they were having community. Nowhere in the NT do we get the idea that the church is a building or a location. Not once. Instead, the church is a non-building, non-temple, non-institutional group of people who do life together with God and each other.
With this definition in mind, it’s impossible to maintain the old adage that, “We go to church for God not for people”. What we are literally saying is, “We go to a group of people for God not for people.” I don’t know about you but that sounds very weird to me.
Some of the problem is theological. Many seem to have embraced the idea that the NT church is a sort of replica of the Old Testament (OT) sanctuary. In the OT sanctuary, sinners came individually to offer worship and sacrifice to God. Some of the problem is also historical. The early Christian church quickly came to adopt the concept of “holy buildings” and “shrines” from the pagan culture around them. The cathedrals and the eventual “mass” became the central element of the church service. Practitioners went, not for fellowship, but for this cultic ritual that provided redemption to them. Under this paradigm, church became a geographical place with a central individualised focus.2
"People are not supposed to attend church for God alone. They are supposed to attend for the people as well!"
The NT church, on the other hand, is not a place but a community of people. Therefore, when someone goes to church, they are not going to a building or a place but to meet with a group of people. That’s what church is. And this group of people gather: to encourage and nurture one another through fellowship; serve one another and the community that surrounds them through acts of mercy; help one another to grow in grace; and spread the gospel in their area of influence. This is all accomplished through intimate member-to-member connection. And this connection, Jesus declared, was to be the evidence that we are truly children of God (John 13:35).
If the church were a place for individual worship, then yes, it would be exclusively about Him and no-one else. But the church is not a place! It is a community. It is a group of people. When we go to church we go to connect with God and with this group of people who love Him and worship Him.
Most of the time when people say that church is about God and no-one else, they are trying to convince someone who has been hurt by another in the church or who is tired of the hypocrisy, to attend anyway because it’s God alone they are there for. It comes from a good place. But this concept is horribly flawed. People are not supposed to attend church for God alone. They are supposed to attend for the people as well! The church was made for community. For friendship. For togetherness and “withness”. It was made for companionship and social support. It’s about God and people. Even the OT sanctuary, which had a more individual function on a day-to-day basis, was still encapsulated in community. The NT church is more so.
If this is true, then we need to stop excusing our hypocrisy and failures with the “it’s just about God” cop-out. Instead, we should take a good hard look at ourselves and an even longer harder look at the cross of Christ. What are the areas in which we are failing to be the kind of community that God has called us to be? And how can we become that ecclessia?
The church is about God, yes. But it is also about people. It is about us. When someone leaves our church due to interpersonal conflicts we do them—and ourselves—a disservice by saying, “Come anyway. It’s about God not people.” What this statement really communicates is that it’s the person who is hurt who is at fault and that we don’t need to do anything to change.
But nothing could be further from reality. We do need to change and we need to aim to create the culture of intimacy and togetherness in our churches that we were always meant to have.
Marcos Torres lives in Perth with his wife and children. He pastors the Victoria Park and Joondalup churches. Marcos blogs at www.pomopastor.com.
- Ecclessia: 1) a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly. 1a) an assembly of the people convened at the public place of the council for the purpose of deliberating. 1b) the assembly of the Israelites. 1c) any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously. 1d) in a Christian sense. 1d1) an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting. 1d2) a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings and manage their own affairs, according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake. 1d3) those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body. 1d4) the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth. 1d5) the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven [https://lumina.bible.org].
- See: Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Frank Viola and George Barna (2012). Chapter 2: “The Church Building: Inheriting the Edifice Complex”.