No, Hanging Out With Your Friends is Not the Church

friends wheat field gathering church

Who doesn’t like getting together for a fun dinner with friends and sharing about life? What’s not to love about having deep conversations about spiritual truths with those close to you?

Those things are great and we should do more of them, but—I’m sorry to break this to you—they aren’t church.

Increasingly, I see younger evangelicals (like the one in this Relevant blog post) wondering if they can call their spiritual hang outs with friends a congregation. They are exploring the question: What is church?

That is a worthwhile question and we can affirm various styles of doing church. A different methodology does not automatically mean heretical ecclesiology.

In Asia, house churches are exploding. In America, megachurches and multisite congregations are seeing the most growth. There are positives and negatives about each model, but we can see ways in which each of those can be healthy, biblical churches.

Too many, however, are not driven by a desire to be a part of a biblical church of any model. They simply want an excuse to claim their discussions over dinner as church.

Here are five ways these gatherings of friends fail short of what it means to be the church.

1. They only capture part of the church.

This line of thinking reduces all it means to be a church to one or two functions. At most, it includes sharing biblical doctrine and forming community.

Those are two vital aspects of what it means to be a church, but other parts are required before a gathering of believers becomes the gathering of believers as the church.

Before it could be called a church, there would need to be some practice of ordinances, biblical roles of leadership, evangelism, and discipleship among other things.

2. They raise questions of self-centeredness.

When someone desires to break away from being an active part of a local church and instead wants to substitute a gathering of friends in its place, the question to consider is not “Can we?” but rather “Why would we?”

It’s a matter of motivation. If you and your friends feel called to plant a biblical church in your home that reaches the surrounding community, then perhaps God will use your group that way.

But here is where you need to pray and examine your heart. Because if, on the other hand, you are more driven by personal preferences, a desire to be the one calling the shots, tired of being around others, or a host of self-centered reasons, you need to get back involved in a local church as soon as possible.

3. They open our hearts to heresy.

Recent history is replete with dangerous warnings of what happens to those who leave and downplay the necessity of gathering as a local church.

Different aged and different culture Christians are much less likely to be tempted in the same way. A multigenerational, multicultural gathering can serve as a spotlight for temptations more common in specific groups.

When you serve beside those different from you in the church, they can help illuminate blind spots in your life and protect you from drifting into heresy. We help each other.

4. They prevent us from growing as we should.

You and I need other people to be the church. We need other people who aren’t like us to be the church. We need other people who aren’t like us to help us become more like Christ. And part of that process is the natural spiritual sanding that results from this type of gathering.

Other people who are in different life stages than us, have different personalities than us, come from different backgrounds than us, not only protect us from heresy, they help chip away and sand off our self-centered traits.

When we only gather with friends and those like us, we remove much of the way God uses others in the body to refine us.

At its heart, its a lack of humility. The desire to be only with those like yourself assumes that only they can teach you and help you grow. It dismisses the contributions others can (and would) make in your sanctification.

5. They rob us of places of service.

We miss out on so much when we remove ourselves from a local body of believers gathered together as the church. How do you express your spiritual gifts or engage consistently in service?

There are so many avenues for growth and service that can never be yours if you exchange being a part of a church with hanging out with friends.

The church comes together to serve one another using the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has given us and goes out to serve others using the equipping of the saints the church provides for us.

Much like the oxymoron of an “inactive church member,” substituting gathering with friends for church steals so many of the joys and blessings, even if they are unseen, that come from being a part of the local church.


Will you be hurt within the church? Absolutely, but who is to stay Christ will not use that to conform you to His image? In fact, He’s already promised to do so.

I understand the desire to feel connected to God with other people like you, but that’s why churches have small groups and God provides us with friends.

Jesus has promised to be in the midst of even two or three gathered in His name, but He has not called that the church.

If you are gathering with a group of friends to talk about life and the Scriptures, don’t stop. But don’t confuse it with church either.

You and your group should seek to build up the bride of Christ, not try to replace her.

13 Comments

  1. Bob burris

    So…what is a church. You hint at it, but what elements must be present in order to be a local church? Leaders? Regular gatherings? True believers? Established by God, worship, singing, prayer, preaching, ordinances, discipleship, being sent?

    • Short answer? Yes, I think all of those things are part of being a biblical local church. Part of the reason I didn’t get down into that issue is I thought it would take away from the larger point of the post and people define things differently.

      As an example, some see biblical church leadership as only a plurality of elders, while others define it as congregational with a pastor. There are similar discussions about preaching, the ordinances, etc.

      I’m OK with the differences as long as there is biblical support for the position. But I do think you have to have biblical leadership, regular gatherings, preaching of Scripture, discipleship, missions/evangelism, singing, prayer, teaching, and ordinances.

  2. ashlynn

    I feel like a lot of what you said here can also be applied to life groups/small groups/home groups – especially when they are elevated as more important than Sunday morning corporate church meetings, as they have been in some churches. Not that small group meetings are bad, but they are not church and cannot do everything that corporate church meetings do, especially since they tend to be a lot less diverse than the main church.

  3. Karye Ann

    “Recent history is replete with dangerous warnings of what happens to those who leave and downplay the necessity of gathering as a local church.”

    I think that Camping is an extreme view of those who leave “church” to begin or take part in something else. I know many churches with doctrine that would be consistent with modern evangelicalism’s theology that have formed from a group of people sitting around a campfire or in someone living room.
    Camping is just a fear factor added to keep people where you feel they belong. God is so much bigger than our perceptions of what church should be.

    Heretical doctrine? 99% what we disagree with and are afraid of. The other 1%? Actual dangerous doctrine

    • Thanks for responding, Karye Ann.

      You are absolutely right that Camping is an extreme example. Clearly, not everyone who leaves a church and gathers with friends is going to become a cult leader. I hope I did not come across as arguing that.

      By asserting that I added Camping to “keep people where [I] feel they belong,” I feel as if you didn’t read the post honestly. If you did, you would see I referenced megachurches and house churches, two ends of a very large spectrum of “church” and neither of which I am currently a part.

      You should also have seen where I tried to draw a difference between informal meetings that are moving toward being a church and informal meetings that are simply an attempt at replacing the church. Growing a church plant out of your living room or campfire is great. I pray more of those happen. Meeting in your living room with no desire to reach others and simply exist as a spiritual discussion time for friends can be a good thing, but it can’t be the church.

      God is vastly bigger than my perception of Him, but He is not contradictory to His revealed Word. I’m not trying to limit who God is or where He choose to work. Rather, I’m trying to help us think through what it is we call “church” and make sure it lines up with His Word.

      I’m thankful for your perspective, I just wish you would have interacted with the actual points I raised in my piece about the benefits that are lost when we remove ourselves from a local body of believers and substitute that permanently with a gathering of friends.

  4. Jonathan

    Excellent points. #1 and #3 especially resonate with me. The problem here is that while those who have fallen out of love with how we do church in North America are at risk of what you refer to, many have done so because much of our current church culture is at risk of one or more of these points as well.

    One thing that GenX/GenY/Millennials have learned is to distinguish between talk and action; between the authenticity and mere branding. A company (or employer) that makes claims but fails to deliver…or worse, fails to really attempt to deliver, will not earn the business or employee loyalty of these generations.

    The same is true for local churches…even more so. A church that claims that the Great Commission is the standard by which all ministries are evaluated had better be intentional about making disciples…and it had better be prepared to show a track record of having done so. Unfortunately, we’re in the era of preaching, not disciple making; of elevated monologue, not engaged dialogue; of the talk about the command to make disciples without actually turning disciple making into a real measurable of church fidelity and performance.

    I’ll likely be looking for a new church in the next year or so due to a relocation. Among the questions I’ll be asking of prospective new churches will be something along the lines of “How many disciple makers has your church made in past year, 5 years, etc..?” and “what is the specific training plan/path does your church use to take people from new converts to disciple makers?”

    Those who have left North American local churches for something more engaging, more local, more intentionally called out for something other than a weekly big event to hear a 50 minutes lecture. Do they risk what you’ve written here? Absolutely. But some of them have decided that seeking to do more than talk about being the church without actually being the church is, at least temporarily, worth the risk.

    • cHARLIE

      Jonathan, I said the exact same things that you are saying a few years ago before I studied about the church, and began to love the church as we are taught to in the bible. An important question for you to consider is how does God make disciples? Ephesians 4:11-16 blew my mind a few years ago. It reads, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may not be children tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

      The local church is God’s design for discipleship. It is His creation, and to say, “I know better than him”, is the height of hubris. I like how Aaron described how members are part of God’s sanctification process in our life. This article addresses a very serious problem in our churches today. Why would we take ourselves away from the place where God says, “I am there in your midst”? So the next question has to be what is the church? Historically the church has been defined by three marks. A true church 1) Faithfully preaches the word of God, as the only rule for faith and practice, 2) Rightly administers the sacraments/ordinances, 3) Practices church discipline. Those who take themselves away from the church take themselves away from God’s plan and process of salvation from beginning to end.

  5. Neil coates

    Great article. Well written. Well balanced.

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.