Recently, a friend of mine sent my wife and I an email asking us what we thought about the necessity of attending church services on Sunday, as opposed to simply, informally, hanging out with Christian friends, and perhaps studying the Bible in small groups. I asked her if I could reprint her email, with my reply, on my blog, since it's a question I've gotten a lot over the years, and thus seems rather relevant. Since my friend is a Protestant, the first part of my answer addresses the question from a "mere Christianity" basis. From there, I go on to discuss why, as Catholics, we particularly believe in the importance of Mass attendance.
Hi Guys.Hey B!
How are you? I have a question for you both about church. I think going to church on Sunday is an act of obedience to Christ, but my small group doesn't think so. They think church could be defined as just hanging out with Christians and studying together, i.e. going to small group. Apparently, I'm a little legalistic (which I'll admit I tend to lean towards that). I'm just not sure I buy going to small group as an alternative to going to church. I realize church is very "structured", but there's a reason the early church decided on including certain things in a service (I don't know what the word back then would have been). Structure doesn't have to be a bad thing. It sure beats chaos. Furthermore, there's something to be said for church family. Typically, protestants are drawn to small groups with people who think like them. You don't necessarily see eye to eye with everyone in your church family, but there's a reason we're all there. We're skilled in different areas, and we clash, but it forces us to work out our differences. It's also an opportunity to witness. Most people know that church is Sunday morning or Saturday night in our culture. Small groups are too easy to disguise as something else, i.e. someone in my small group calls it, "book club". I don't know. Maybe I am off my rocker, but it makes me sad to know that so many of my friends could care less about Sunday morning church. I miss seeing them there.
I thought your question was fantastic, and the thoughts from your own perspective were really insightful. It's a question I've gotten a lot over the years--usually from Protestants, since when a Catholic asks, the short answer is "Because it's a Mortal Sin not to go!" :) For the record, I don't think you're one bit legalistic in thinking Church attendance is important, and even necessary.
I completely agree that attending Church is an act of obedience to Christ. While hanging out with Christian friends is certainly important, studying the Bible as a loose assortment of people is, I think, rather incomplete. As for why I think this, you yourself hit on some very good reasons: mainly, small group Bible Studies tend to be or become groups of like-minded individuals. Obviously, we should be like-minded in that we all share the mind of Christ, but I think when you and I say that a small group is full of like-minded people, we agree that that tends to mean that certain viewpoints are automatically assumed, and challenging the status quo with a different idea of things is a quick road to ostracisation. Moreover, in such an environment, how can growth occur when such new(er) ideas are presented? Those with like minds can tend to conclude they have all the answers figured out. Plus, as you said, the whole Church has members with different skills, giftings, and roles, that are likely to be absent with groups featuring only a handful of people. Again, as you point out, it can be more difficult to witness, since inviting a non-Christian to a small-group can be intimidating at times. They're very obviously the "new blood". (Though, conversely, the large church setting can be intimidating to some, as well. Small groups do have their place--it just isn't exclusive.) Further to the witnessing question, when Melissa and I were talking about it, she brought up the point that if the group isn't really growing in faith, especially if they think they have all the answers, then how can the new Christian continue to grow themselves? And what if they, as a new Christian, have a different perspective? Will they be embraced, or forced to seek out their own small group of like-minded new Christians?
As for structure being a good thing, it certainly is. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is all about structure in worship, from his detailing the rules of conduct around Holy Communion (ch 10-11), to his dealing with abuses of the Charismatic Gifts, like Tongues (ch 12-14), as well as other problems. He specifically states at one point, that God is a God of order and not of confusion (14:33). By the way, the Early Church called its services "Divine Liturgies", and they were, in fact, structured liturgical services very similar to the Catholic Church's liturgy. You can even read ancient documents outlining the service from within 100 years of Jesus.
Moreover, pertaining to the question of structure is the question of leadership. Who is the appointed leader and authority of a small group gathering of Christians? By what authority does that leader (if there is a leader) lead? The Bible very clearly discusses the hows and whos of leadership in the Church, mentioning the ordination and leadership of bishops, presbyters, and deacons (prominently in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, but in other places as well). No bishop, presbyter, or deacon appoints himself, but they were all ordained by those who were bishops before them, and they were ordained by, ultimately, the Apostles, who were themselves ordained by Christ. Without this ordained leadership, there is no church. And it is that ordained leadership that has the authority to teach the Gospel to the people, and to challenge them to live it. While we should all be challenging each other to live the Gospel, when we submit to the authorities put in place by Jesus Himself, we achieve three things: first, we act in humility by submitting to authority. Second, we are challenged to keep growing in the faith as our ministers grow and learn and then teach us (since it is their role and luxury to be able "devote [them]selves to prayer and to the service of the word" (Acts 6:4).
As Catholics, Melissa and I have additional reasons why we feel attending Church is both important and vitally necessary. The first, as I've already mentioned, is that without a real reason for doing so, it's actually a Mortal Sin to miss Church on Sunday. According to Catholic teaching, a Mortal Sin is one that basically amounts to a person who commits it renouncing their covenant with God. In other words, by missing Church because we just don't feel like going, we're essentially telling God we don't need Him.
The reason why it is a Mortal Sin to miss Church for Catholics is the second reason why it's so necessary for Catholics to go: that is, we believe that at Mass, we receive Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist. Since He is our Living Bread (quite literally), missing Mass is like going hungry for a week! Worse, since it really is Jesus Himself present to commune with us, neglecting such an opportunity is like standing up an appointment with the King! It's saying to Jesus that we care so little about His sacrifice on the Cross that we can't even take one hour out of our week to spend with Him! And since consecrating the Eucharist is one of those roles that is bestowed through one's ordination, it's only the ordained leaders of the Church who can provide the Eucharist. We can't duplicate it as a small group of friends at Bible Study.
Finally, as Catholics, we believe that it's necessary to go to Mass in order to grow in our faith, and to be sure of true teaching. Since we believe that Jesus promised to preserve His Church from teaching error, we can be reasonably sure that, provided the priest is actually being obedient to the Church himself, and not making things up according to his own understanding, that we're getting the whole truth and nothing but. And if one does have a bad priest, there's recourse to the Bishop so that the priest can be disciplined and corrected. There's nothing like that in a small group Bible Study. At best, the most educated in theology is the leader, and just being educated doesn't mean they're right. And if one tries to correct the leader's misunderstanding, the most that can come of it is a discussion or debate of differing opinions.
So for all of these reasons, as well as the community aspect that you yourself pointed out--the Family of God being able to minister to each others' needs, I believe that Church is necessary. Incidentally, I saw the powerful effect of conversion that the Family of God can have for a person, at Easter. There was a Catholic woman in our church who married either a non-practising or a non-Christian husband, and they had five kids, none of whom were Christian. Well, this past year, their house burnt down, and they lost pretty much everything. Because of the love and generosity our parish had for this family in providing food and clothing and other blessings, this woman's husband and all five kids, and a cousin, all were baptised at the Easter Vigil Mass!
Anyway, for all these reasons, and more that I haven't thought of here, Church is both important and necessary. That's why the writer to the Hebrews wrote, "Do not absent yourself from your own assemblies, as some do, but encourage each other; the more so as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb 10:25).
hope that helps.
(Category: The Church: The Make-Up of the Church)