There's a group on Facebook (you know Facebook, that colossal sinkhole where I waste too much of my time) that quite a few of my facebook-friends have facebook-liked in recent days. The title is something like "Going to Church doesn't make you a Christian any more than Standing in the Garage makes you a Car".
Long before facebook, I'd heard this saying, and I certainly understand the logic behind it ~ heck, I even laughed about it from my professional-church-person perspective. But I think the analogy only goes so far, and if it's taken to its logical end, it breaks down.
The underlying assumption is that a garage is where you can find a car, and that church is where you find a Christian. Without even considering my garage (where no one has found a car for at least 18 months), we can probably clearly recognize that the basic makeup of a car is and always will be different from the basic makeup of a human. A car is, essentially, a compartment where people sit, which is supported by wheels. These wheels are connected to a drive train and an engine which powers the drive train. One of the occupants of the car has access to mechanisms which control the velocity and trajectory of the car. A person, standing in a garage or not, will never possess these qualities.
The other side of the analogy, then (whether going to church makes a person a Christian or not), causes me to wonder about the basic makeup of a Christian. What are the qualities that a person would possess which would make them Christian, and where do they come from?
Some people who regularly show up for worship probably don't lead exemplary Christian lives. Maybe for the rest of the week, they abuse other family members. Maybe they practice usury. Maybe they have taken G-d's name in vain. Maybe they haven't sold all their possessions and given the money to the poor. Do these things mean they're not Christian?
This brings up a few questions for me. What does it mean to be a Christian? Is being a Christian predicated on behavior? Is being a Christian about following the rules?
If being Christian is about following the rules, about practicing the right behavior, then we're all in a world of hurt. We've come to realize over the centuries that none of us can follow all of the rules perfectly. If being a Christian is about following the rules, then of course we don't need to go to church in order to be a Christian. We can follow rules as well outside of church as well as we can when we show up.
If being a Christian is about following the rules, then G-d's grace which we see through Christ on the cross is for nothing.
So, if being Christian is not about following the rules (as important as they are), then what's it all about? I would argue that the Christian life is about recognizing G-d's grace (which we can never escape), about following Christ more closely every day (responding to G-d's grace), and about discipleship (our own and others' discipleship). These things we cannot do without community. We cannot recognize G-d's grace without the community to show us G-d's grace. We cannot respond to G-d's grace without a community in which we can practice our response. We cannot become disciples without people of faith who mentor us, and without others for whom we are mentor. We cannot be Christian without the church.
Recognizing and responding to G-d's grace, becoming disciples ~ these things, necessarily, must happen in community. In fact, where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, I believe these things will happen. And where those things are happening, people who participate in the community will become Christians. They won't become perfect people, they won't become exact rule followers, but we will together become closer disciples of the living G-d ~ and isn't that what the Christian life is?
Will standing in a garage make you a car? No. Will going to church, and participating in the faith life of the community of believers, make you a Christian? Absolutely ~ it can't happen any other way.