California megachurch pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Ministries has explained why it's important for God's people to attend church in person, even though it's often more convenient to watch services on television or online.
"Why does the church exist? Why did God put us here on this planet? The Church exists for three reasons," Laurie, who is the senior pastor of Harvest Orange County and Harvest Christian Fellowship in California, began his sermon on Sunday. "We're here for the exaltation of God, we're here for the edification of the saints, and we're here for the evangelization of the world."
"Number one: The exaltation of God, the glorification of God," he said. "Secondly, building up one another. Thirdly, evangelizing the world. A simple way to remember it: Upward, inward, and outward. That's why we're here."
The 1st century church, as depicted in Acts 2:42-47, can be summed up with the acronym WELL, Laurie said.
"They were a worshiping church, they were an evangelistic church, they were a learning church, they were a loving church," he explained.
"God has ordained preaching and teaching," Laurie contended. "Now look, some people will say, 'Well, you know, I like to attend church online.' And this always makes people mad when I talk about this, so I'm going to talk about it some more."
"People will say, 'I listen to teaching on podcast, I watch online,'" the pastor continued. "Now, there's a place for that, and of course there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe you can't get out to the church in person, I understand that, I appreciate that. I know there are people that watch ... from around the country and around the world and it's a way for them to still participate."
But Laurie argued that "something special" happens when God's people gather together and study the Bible.
"You know it when you're there, and you'll experience it, and this is what the early church did," he said.
Unfortunately, the trend in America today is not in studying the Bible, the pastor said, revealing that while 93 percent of Americans own at least one Bible and the average American household has four Bibles, most people are not reading them. He cited statistics from the Center for Bible Engagement which found that "if you are not reading your Bible four times or more a week, you will make no significant choices or changes any different than someone who does not read the Bible at all."
However, the study found that "if you read the Bible more than four times a week, your propensity for pornography goes down 61 percent, your propensity for substance abuse goes does 57 percent, your propensity for gambling dones down 74 percent and even obesity goes down 20 percent."
"You see the impact being in the Word has?" Laurie said. "The church of the first century was a Bible studying church."
Later in the sermon, Laurie emphasized the importance of fellowship as instructed in Malachi 3:16.
"Church is not just a place to come and hear a message about God," he said. "It's a place to talk to each other about God. That's what fellowship is."
"When we get together and we talk about the Lord, the Lord sort of bends down and eavesdrops on our conversation," the pastor continued. "He loves to hear us talk about Him. When you're walking with God, you want to be with God's people. Let me turn that around: When you're not walking with God as you ought to, you probably don't want to be with God's people as much."
"The stronger your vertical fellowship is, the stronger our horizontal fellowship will be," he emphasized. "If you find yourself out of fellowship with God, you'll also find yourself out of fellowship with other believers."
Laurie pointed out that far too often, people say they don't want to attend church because congregants are "too judgmental" or "too hypocritical."
"Maybe you need to be judged a little bit," Laurie said. "Judgment, i.e. evaluation, is something we should do for one another, helping one another, encouraging one another, and if necessary, correcting one another."
He added, "Maybe the reason you feel judged is maybe you're doing something you shouldn't be doing and that's why you feel judged."
The Bible also instructs us to be "holier than thou," Laurie said, defined as "living a life that is honoring to God and wanting to become more like Jesus each and every day."
"These folks in the early church understood that," he concluded.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center, one in five people who identify as Catholics and one in four Protestants in the U.S. seldom or never attend organized services. About half of this group stopped going as often because of what the researchers called "practical issues": They are too busy, have a crazy work schedule, or describe themselves as "too lazy" to go. Others said they just don't care about attending services as much as doing other things.
Dr. Dale B. Sims, professor of Management Information Systems at Dallas Baptist University, writes that professing Christians today have become a "culturally obese society because of the availability, ease of use, convenience, and affordability of technology."
"The goals of technology are safety, convenience, efficiency, prosperity, liberty, productivity, and control," he writes. "If people can use technology to ease an inconvenience in their life, they will not hesitate to do so. It is inconvenient to get dressed for church, fight the traffic on the way to church, board a bus to get to the building, and interact with others in a 'nice, Sunday manner.' It is more convenient, comfortable, safe, and efficient to attend an Internet church or watch church on TV or listen to it on the radio, even when we have the physical ability to attend in person."
"Online church" and webcast worship services, he says, should enhance, not replace, personal presence in community. And we must not neglect our neighbor for media.
"Christianity has never been about convenience or safety," he writes. "God calls us to leave our comfort zone, interact face-to-face with people, and go out as 'sheep among wolves.'"