The phrase “Going to Church” is a common one in our society. Frequently the same idea is posed as a question: “Do you go to Church?” or, “What Church do you go to?” This manner of speaking is sometimes expressed a slightly different way, for instance, “We have Church tomorrow,” or some such version.
What do we mean by “going to Church”? The answer depends on what we mean by “Church.” Admittedly in our society, this whole concept is an abstract one by which “church” can mean a wide variety of things.
Most commonly, “church” is a building where religious people, usually calling themselves “Christians,” meet for some sort of religious service. Thus any building designated as a “church” fits this definition no matter what actually takes place within the building. In America, for all intents and purposes, all “churches” so designated share the same, or equal, value when it comes to “going to Church.” In popular regard, all “churches” are interchangeable.
Hence, to the question: “Do you go to Church?” if one answers, “Yes,” most consider it ultimately irrelevant whether one goes to a Baptist, Catholic (Roman), Episcopalian, Evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Non-denominational, Orthodox, or Presbyterian church, etc. The reaction tends to be the same: “Well, at least you go to Church.”
Especially in the negative, this abstract notion of “church” reveals itself. How many times we hear these days: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” Because the concept of “church” is so broad and encompasses so many, even contradictory, experiences, the concept of “church” has come to mean nothing in particular except what the church-goer needs it to be for them personally. And if a person doesn’t find “going to Church” particularly appealing, then they don’t need to go (and that’s okay, except when they “need” something there).
Now, contrast this popular understanding of “going to Church” with the Orthodox reality. The Orthodox reality of Church is not abstract, but specific, not providing subjective needs-based services, but revealing the objective soul-saving ministry of Christ Himself. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, “[W]hen you come together as a church” (1 Co. 11:18). This English word “church” is a translation for the Greek word “ekklesia,” meaning “an assembly.” Right away we realize that “church” is not a building, or any space in which people happen to conduct some sort of religious activity. As the Apostle goes on to explain, “com[ing] together as a church” is supposed to be “to eat the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). You see how specific this is! The Church is the assembly of Christians gathered for Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion.
Furthermore, the “you” (Christians) who come together as a church are by definition the baptized people of God. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). From the beginning of the Church, it was the baptized who “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and in the communion, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” (Acts 2:38-42).
When we Orthodox “go to Church,” we’re going to gather around our Savior Jesus Christ in the grace of the Holy Spirit in order to receive salvation from our sins, death, and the power of the devil, and to have communion with God, one another, and all the saints in the Kingdom of heaven. “[N]ot forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 10:25; 12:22-24). And what is the “new covenant”? Jesus said, “Drink from it, all of you…This cup is the new covenant in My blood” (Matt. 26:27-28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The new covenant is our relationship with God revealed and sealed in the Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion, the very Body and Blood of Christ. This is “going to Church”!
Someone “going to Church” wherever or whenever they feel the need to go is clearly not Orthodox. Such a belief and practice are clearly not Christian according to the words of Scripture itself. The Church is not an institution providing religious services for occasional needs of the people, like some kind of religious store or agency. Apart from the baptized faithful assembling for Communion in Christ, there is no “church,” no matter what anyone might think, or what might be written on a sign on or in front of a building. Church is a revelation, or manifestation, of the Savior in the midst of His people, the Shepherd surrounded by His sheep, the Head with His Body, the Holy Spirit’s Temple composed of living stones fitted together in prayer, the family of God the Father gathered in love as sons and daughters. The more we gather, the more the Church is manifested for what it truly is, the dominion of God unto everlasting life.
As there is only one true God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and there is only one true Savior, the God-Man Jesus Christ crucified and risen, there is only one Church which is manifested throughout the world in whatever local place the faithful assemble for Communion (Eph. 4:4-5; Rom. 16:4-5). All these local churches have the same God, the same Savior, the same doctrine and practice, the same Liturgy, worship, and prayers; this is the Orthodox Church. In our/your corner of the world, this is where we go – to which we have been called by God – to have salvation.