As I was growing up, we often talked about “going to church.” But then, there were those people who pointed out that church is not a place, it is a group of people; therefore, saying “going TO church” is like saying “going TO family.” On the other hand, I would sometimes say I was going to band or chorus, which is the same sort of thing.
Those objectors did have a valid point, although the way they expressed it did not always hold up grammatically. Church is not bricks and mortar. Church is not a nave, an apse, and transepts. It is not, as in the old rhyme, “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.” The point was that since the church is not a set place, it is difficult to “go” to church. The church, a group of people, can meet at a riverside (Acts 16:13), a public building (Acts 5:42; 19:9), or a private home (Romans 16:9). The church can, at any time, be under a tree or in a parking lot, scattered throughout the city or assembled in one place.
There is much value in this thinking. Those that thing of the church as a building may have little emotional tie to the place. It may be fancy or plain, but it is still just a place. If the church is merely a place, then it truly doesn’t matter what church you belong to. One place may be as good as another, or not. One may be more comfortable or more ornate. One may be open all the time while others may lock their doors except at certain times. It really doesn’t matter. If the church is a place you go to, then when you are not in that place you have no obligation to God. You may be good in church, and the greediest man in the world in the business world. If church is a body of believers, however, you are either in or out; you can’t be in at times and out when convenient. Church as a group who shares common beliefs demands that you exemplify those beliefs at all times. Moreover, church as a family of believers carries with it the obligations of family. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” (Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man) But the corollary is true as well; family is where when others go there you have to take them in. Church is a group of forgiven people, who feel the obligation to forgive; a worldwide family of brothers and sisters who love you just because you are family. That is why people should feel the need to be with the church rather than ask, “Do I have to go to church?”
But there is also something to be said in defense of “going to church.” When one uses this phrase with the understanding that church is not a physical location, then one is personifying the assembly as the church. We do that so often with other things. I recently took my car to the shop because it had an oil leak. Technically, only the oil pan gasket had the leak, but the whole represented the part, just as sometimes “wheels” (the part) represents the whole. If we go to church, as in going to the assembly of the body, we are recognizing that the whole assembly is made up of the parts, known as saints or Christians. It can apply, beyond that, to any function or assembly of the parts of the church. If I go to the park downtown to help others give clothing to the homeless, I am going to church. If you help at the Christmas party for a ministry to at-risk children, you are going to church. Participating in a Bible study, in conjunction with the broader assembly of the church or in a private home, is going to church.
If we are the church, then maybe we can’t go to church. But if church is the body of believers doing the will of God, then when we go to do we are going “to church.”