Q: Can’t I be a faithful Christian without joining a church?

A young Christian couple moved to a small mountain town where the nearest church was 45 minutes away – and it was a small, offbeat collection of dubious characters. “It was more like a truck stop than a church,” he lamented. Other times Christians reflect that they can pray and read their Bibles just as easily at home, and not have to bother mingling with hypocrites and offensive people. It can take just a few weekends before the habit of isolating yourself and getting your sermon from the Internet can take hold.

But it’s plain in the Bible that being with a group of fellow believers and growing together into the likeness of Jesus – through ups and downs – has always been the norm. John Wesley is said to have remarked: “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” It’s rare to find a person who leaves the communion of a church and, years later, is still having a vibrant and maturing Christian experience.

The Bible’s explicit directions to us are found in Hebrews 10:25:  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day [of Jesus’ soon return] coming. Throughout the New Testament, the disciples and converts were always in a group, worshiping, praying, serving one another, feeding each other, sacrificing for the common good, pooling resources.

Consider this: praise and glorious music happen best within a group. There is a place for private prayer, of course, but a community of people praying with and for each other and a lost world accomplishes powerful things. A downloaded sermon on your iPod is a good weekday experience, but there is something exhilarating and life-changing about mingling with other searching men and women and exploring truth together, discussing and debating and jointly listening.

Former Watergate criminal Chuck Colson discovered for himself the powerful impact of “prison fellowship” as he served time for his political mistakes, and was blessed by the Christian inmates he came to know. In his book, The Body, he gives powerful examples of how it has always been “The Church” which moved societies, which called kings and dictators to account, which resisted evil in the world, which toppled tyrannical powers by its prayers and its stout but humble resistance. Missionaries are supported by churches, not individuals. Global relief efforts are funded and manned by congregations, not by the loner who stays by himself.

In his bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren observes: “While your relationship to Christ is personal, God never intends it to be private.” He whimsically points out that in the Bible, the Church is always described by the beautiful metaphor, “The Bride of Christ.” The Church is the thing Jesus loves and cares for the most; he regards it with supreme loyalty. With that in mind, how would it seem if we say to Jesus: “Yes, I love you but I dislike your wife”?

Jesus invites each of us to accept his salvation, and then to serve in his church. If we rightly measure the value of Calvary in our lives, and the reality of eternal life, even serving at a rundown “truck stop” church – is still a bargain.