Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?
The answer to your question is, of course, determined by the definition of what a Christian is. If a Christian is simply someone who assents to belief in the Triune God, then the answer is no. If a Christian is someone who is kind, caring, and keeps the basic ethical teachings of loving God (without specific practices) and loves one's neighbor, then the answer could be no, one does not have to go to church.
However, if a Christian is someone who has been baptized into the church and professed the faith of the church, then the answer is yes.
At baptism or in confirmation/profession of faith, we make very important promises. We renounce evil, the spiritual forces of wickedness, and repent of our sin. We declare that we accept the freedom God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. Then we declare we trust in Christ for salvation and promise to serve him in unity with his church.
In those promises we accept God's acceptance of us within the beloved community, we promise to serve WITH THE CHURCH, and the church welcomes us as members of Christ's royal priesthood.
John Wesley taught and practiced accountable discipleship. He knew what we deep down know today--we can't keep on the path with Christ without the help and support of other Christians. Without hearing the Word read and preached, without gathering with other Christians around the table to share and feast upon Christ who is host and sacrifice for us, and without becoming part of the fire of the Spirit, we are like embers of a fire separated from the community of grace. We grow cold and the fire and flame of love grow cold and we die spiritually. We may still believe, but we stand outside the covenant in our practice.
However, it is important to add God does not let us go or give up on us. What God promises, God does not revoke. We are still marked as Christ's disciple and still called to live in and with and for Christ.
So what is the answer? Ask yourself, can you be a Christian--baptized, table sharing, connected to Jesus and one with his body--the body that Paul says we are to discern when we gather to remember (See 1 Cor. 11)?
The plain point is this: without God's grace we cannot live the Christian life. God's grace is everywhere at work and always available. And if we really seek it and must have it, why would we go anywhere but to where Christ has promised, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)
--Rev. Dan Benedict
Center for Worship Resourcing
General Board of Discipleship
The Ask Julian website of the Upper Room offers responses to these related questions:
Do you have to attend church to be a Christian? Can't you worship Christ in your heart and show others that you are a Christian by your deeds, words, and actions?
What is the role of a church community in Christian life?...Did Jesus refer to communal worship in the Bible?