Why bother with church? This central question is one Sam Allberry recognizes most Christians ask at some point, whether explicitly or implicitly. For this reason he unpacks this question in the 95-page, Why Bother With Church? And Other Questions about Why You Need it and Why it Needs You. This short and easy-to-read book focuses on what the church is and whose it is. Its timeless theological and practical insights are reassuring and make it a great read and read-again book for Christians of all ages and stages.
Allberry starts by taking us through a walk in the park on Sunday. He is heading to a church in Oxford where he was a pastor. He notes how free, fun, and easy it is to take a walk in the park. The allegory here is fitting. Just about anyone can take a walk in the park. At the same time just about anyone can go to church on Sunday, too, but in the end very few do… sometimes even among professing Christians. Why is that?
Before we can dig deeper into this question, Allberry takes a helpful detour by going to Scripture in its original New Testament language. What is church in the first place? The Greek word for which we use “church” in the New Testament is ecclesia. It means “assembly” or “gathering.” The meaning can be broad, and we see in Acts 19 how it refers to a riotous mob and a legal body. Over time it was established as a term for Christians gathering together. Not just two or more Christians meeting at the grocery store, but something akin to how God gathered and spoke to His people in Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. The New Testament uses this gathering as the prototype church.
Other dimensions of the church’s identity and meaning are also fleshed out. Allberry highlights how the church is more than a collection of individual believers; it is a unified group that upholds the truth to a watching world. Allberry resurfaces the marriage allegory of Christ and His bride, reminding us how committed Christ is to His church—committed enough to create it, die for it, and marry it, forever. Allberry emphasizes this point to showcase the significance of this spiritual institution to which we belong. And these truths all build up to his next chapter on why we need church.
Chapter 2 is really the core of the book. In this chapter, Allberry challenges all Christians who say they can have “church” by just lying in bed and listening to sermons and worship songs. After all, modern technology has allowed us to have all the “meat” of church without having to actually be there. So why bother with going to church? Allberry essentially says, “hold on, not so” for two key reasons:
- You can’t come to Christ without coming to His people (29)
- You can’t serve Christ without serving His people (31)
He goes on to explain in depth how important it is to show up. Unlike what the world says and promotes, it’s not just about you: Church is about Christ and His purchased people. You go because the body needs you, and you it. Just like the hand can’t function properly without the eyes, neither can the church without all its members (1 Cor 12:14-27). This obligation makes church more than just another social gathering or meeting to attend. It makes it a critical component of Christian life. Allberry ties it together with two key verses:
In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (Rom 12:5).
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matt 25:40).
“Doing ‘church’ in my bedroom on my own isn’t starting to look so good…” (31). Every day we miss church is a crucial opportunity to know the body and its needs better, and effectively build it up and serve Christ. It is also our place of accountability where we can heartily confront and be confronted in our walk with Christ. Lastly, Allberry observes how the cohesiveness of the corporate church is itself one of the strongest evangelistic tools available. The closer we are to the body and sacrificially tending to its needs, the stronger and purer the love of Christ will be made manifest to the world. For “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
The final four chapters essentially answer the question, “How should I bother with church?” Though not as juicy and loaded as the first two chapters, they offer practical advice on matters of “doing church.” In chapter 3 Allberry dissects what makes a good church. Using Acts 2:42-47 as a template, he describes how a church that is (1) continually learning from Scripture, (2) devoted to one another, (3) worshipping through regular prayer, song, and giving, and (4) growing through outreach to the lost, is a healthy church to join.
In chapter 4 Allberry discusses matters more relevant to church leadership. He dives into what church leadership should look like and how church should be run. He covers the importance of a plurality of elders, the various types of denominational structures that exist, the role and job description of elders, and how to do church discipline. At the end he also covers tricky topics like whether women can be elders, if small groups can be considered “church,” and why there are so many denominations. These little tidbits are relevant ancillary questions he has at the end of each chapter and worth a read.
Chapter 5 goes through how to “survive” church. It acknowledges that the church is still a body of sinners that will clearly make mistakes and cause friction. Allberry calls back the hurting and doubtful by giving an honest inquiry into several “problems” of church. Whether the music is out of date, the preacher has a weird knack, someone has committed a damaging sin against another, or church has simply exhausted those that feel their efforts go unrecognized, Allberry answers these real issues by pointing to the early church and its problems. He ties it together by reminding us how much of a miracle church is with its diverse body and differences all sitting together, by grace, to worship the one true and living God: “Its imperfections are in themselves exciting, because they show just how powerful and loving the God who has brought you together must be” (83).
For chapter 6 Allberry draws a parallel to chapter 3 by discussing what makes a good church member. He answers the question, “How do I love the people Jesus loved enough to die for?” (85). He lists out the following actions to fulfill this high calling with practical tips for each:
- Attending (85)
- Involvement (86)
- Praying (86)
- Serving (87)
- Giving (88)
- Submitting (89)
- Devotion (91)
The last section on devotion is the glue that binds everything together according to Allberry. He reminds us that the early church was not just approving all the latter sections in cold commitment—they were full-heartily devoted to them. His last paragraph sums up the core question of the book well:
This sounds like hard work, and it is. Devotion is not a laid-back, feet-up-on-the-couch kind of word. It speaks of spending ourselves—using our time, giving our gifts, investing our emotions. But it speaks of doing so gladly, because in God’s church we find something worth being devoted to—an embassy of God’s kingdom, a family of God’s people, the bride of the Lord Jesus. It is remembering what the church is, and whose the church is, that makes hard work glad work, and keeps us joyfully devoted (92).
Overall, Why Bother with Church is a helpful resource to read through on a Saturday and revisit every year. In it we are reminded of how precious our church actually is and therefore how important it is to show up with our full heart and devotion. Although not a walk in the park, it is worth far more than anything we can imagine. Why shouldn’t we bother with church? becomes the real question after going through this book.