That is definitely the answer, but it probably needs some clarification. If the same question is asked in a slightly different way – do I have to go to church to get to heaven? – the answer is still, no. But not for the reason this question is usually asked. More on that later.
While I will stick with my original answer, the far better response is, “Why do you ask?” The motive of the questioner is far more crucial than the question itself, or its answer. There’s always a reason for every question, so let’s explore that thought pattern first.
Unless one is seeking out the theology of corporate worship, the person who asks either of these questions is trying to justify themselves. They don’t go to church. They don’t like to go to church. They don’t want to go to church. But they’d still like to check heaven out; they just don’t want to go through the usual steps to get there. They don’t want to be inconvenienced, nor do they want church to interfere with their already established priorities for their time and energy. I’m not saying this to be insulting or condescending. It’s just the truth. I’ve dealt with this question just about every day for the last 26+ years, so I know the motivations behind it quite well.
If the one who asks were to truly unveil their internal processing on the matter, they would own up to a few things, in any order or combination:
The stumbling block in this way of thinking is the false assumption that worship is about me. Somehow someone has implanted the notion that the heart of worship is either what I have to put into it, or what I get out of it. My attitude toward worship becomes another shade of works righteousness, which means I’m trying to buy God off – or my mother, whoever is pestering me the loudest. My whole life has evolved into a daily quest for entertainment and stimulation, so if church doesn’t do it for me, then I don’t need it. That’s a whole lot of I’s to construct an argument against something that is not fundamentally centered on me.
When people grow up, their lives stop revolving around themselves. They discover that there are other people on the planet who also have needs and hopes and dreams, and then they begin to reach out, to connect, to care and to help. They start letting people in, as they learn that a life shared is a far better life. Before too long, their life is defined by how they relate and interact with other people, rather than how much they get for themselves. They’re either admired and loved for their selflessness and caring, or they’re increasingly isolated and separated from any meaningful relationships because of their self-centeredness.
Our faith matures in much the same way. The Holy Spirit is continually growing us, challenging us, reshaping us, improving us in the eyes of God and men by the consistent and repeated outpouring of God’s grace in Jesus. Then he sends us back out into our world, surrounded by people that Jesus wants to get to know and to care for, and we’re the ones He’s placed in their lives to be His voice, His hands, His heart. All of this flows from time spent in His Word, at His table, in prayer to Him. Every real relationship is built and strengthened on attention, appreciation and affection. In worship Jesus is giving us exactly that, and we return the sentiment – to Him and to our brothers and sisters in faith and life.
Staying away from worship is staying away from Jesus. Staying away from Jesus is staying away from forgiveness and life. This is food for our faith. How long do you think you can live without food? How long do you think your faith can live without His grace forgiving us and saving us?
God still expects us to come together as His people in worship, so that He can get us ready for another week of life in a hostile, violent, evil world. The 3rd Commandment still stands. And He was smart enough to place the one thing we need more than anything else – forgiveness – in the possession of His Church (John 20:21-23). Your sins are not forgiven on your couch. Or in your tree stand. Or at your kids’ ballgames. They are forgiven on the Cross of Jesus, and then He hands that forgiveness to you at His table, and He speaks His words of life to you in His House, where He Himself is present.
You and I can’t get to heaven by anything we do. We can’t get to heaven by tipping the server a little extra, nor by helping little old ladies across the street. We also can’t get to heaven just by showing up at church. The Lord doesn’t focus on everything we try to do or fail to do, because none of the good will ever be enough to get us in, and none of the bad will ever be enough to keep us out.
So don’t go to church anymore. Come to Jesus. And bring your kids, and your friends. I suspect you might want to see them in heaven, too.