It is becoming increasingly popular among Christians today to officially announce that they have, "Given up on the church, but not on God." In other words, they still consider themselves to be Christians, but they are no longer participating in a formal Christian community. Is this a problem? The short answer is yes.
Some might go so far as to say that it is impossible to be a Christian without being a part of a church. One of the early Church Fathers, St. Cyprian had this to say, "He cannot have God for this father, who has not the Church for his mother." St. Augustine and other church fathers were noted for teaching that outside the church there is no salvation. I would not go that far, because I believe that we are justified by faith through grace (Eph. 2:8-10). However, I think the New Testament teaches very clearly that our faith is designed to be lived out in the context of community.
Some would argue that this concept of community could come from a small group, a family unit, or some other substitute for a formal church. While it is true we can find certain aspects of community in the context of these relationships, it is unlikely all the necessary components of "church" will be fulfilled through these informal mechanisms. Churches are designed to preach the gospel, offer accountability and fellowship, teach the Scriptures, meet practical needs, and commission and empower the people of God for gospel mission. (That list is probably not exhaustive I realize.) If your "small group" is accomplishing all of these aspects, maybe you are really functioning as a type of church.
One of the major issues with substituting a small group, or in some instances a house church, for participation in a formal congregation, is the issue of false teaching and heresy. (To be clear: I am not completely opposed to the idea of house churches, but they should be done carefully, biblically and with the awareness of inherent weaknesses/problems.) There must be accountability for what is taught, and formal churches generally have structures in place to make sure the congregation doesn't "accidentally" find itself forming a cult. If churches don't have accountability, they need to get it...like, yesterday.
Furthermore, we must address the issues of why one might want to give up on the church. The issues are many and complex, so I will only attempt to address two big ones.
1. Many people want to disassociate themselves from the church because of the mistakes Christians and churches have made in the past and the common perception that all Christians are hypocrites. To me, this is the easier issue to address. Let's make this clear: all Christians are hypocrites if we mean they are unable to consistently live out their beliefs or ideals. This is true of all people, regardless of what religion they are or what they believe. We are all hypocrites. The Bible offers a good reason for this, it is called sin. Secondly, we must ask the question of who the church is pointing to. We are not telling people to believe in us, we are pointing them to Christ. We are not perfect, but Christ is perfect. Ultimately our imperfection should not be an issue. If anything it should be expected and points all the more to the need we all have for Christ.
2. Some people give up on the church because they find it boring, irrelevant, failing to meet their needs, they don't like the music or any other number of reasons that ultimately reveal our identity as consumers of worship. When this becomes our perspective, we have made church about us. We see the church as something to make us happy, enrich our lives, improve our social status, etc. When it no longer serves one or more of these functions, naturally we give it up. It's like a hobby, sport, or club. What if church was about more than this. What if the point of church was to have an encounter with God. Who? You mean church is not about me? Well...in a way. But what if church was not so much about what God is doing for us, as it is about what he is doing in us and through us. What if it was about knowing and worshiping God more than what we can get from out of it. For to be sure, when our focus in worship is on God, we will get a lot...perhaps more than we bargained for.
Alright, this post is getting too long...more on this topic later.
Ask not what the church can do for you but what you can do for the church by Craig Blomberg