Several years ago, one sentence changed my paradigm of "church". I grew up in a church where we commonly referred to the building, the Sunday worship service and Wednesday night activities as "church". For the first 24 years of my life, I freely and unwittingly used the term "church" in this fashion. Then, I heard these words: "We don't go to church. We ARE the church!" The reality of this statement hit me like a ton of bricks. Church is not primarily what we do but who we are. God called a people to Himself, for His glory, by the work of His Son to be His church.
This has huge implications. We don't just do church stuff when we go on Sundays but we are God's people all the time sent into our culture to be "salt and light". We are called to go and make disciples as the church in the world. This new paradigm, which has become a popular axiom in the missional church lexicon, did much to correct my ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). However, I also think there is an inherent danger in this shift. If we're not careful, we can pendulum swing too far and inadvertently devalue the Sunday worship gathering. While Sunday worship is not the totality of what it means to be the church, it is an important part of how the church is called to live, and we don't want to "throw the baby out with the bath water".
Here are four reasons why I believe the worship gathering is still valuable and vital:
The Worship Gathering Refocuses Our Eyes on Jesus, Together
Every week when we gather, what is the primary outcome we are after? It's not simply to learn more about the Bible or to have a great worship experience with the best music. If that were the primary purpose, then we could sit home, podcast Tim Keller, and listen to Hillsong. I believe the primary outcome of the worship gathering is to have our eyes refocused on Christ in a way that enflames our hearts, renews our hope in God, and reminds us of the gospel. We gather to sing the truth and to hear it spoken over us so that our souls and affections are moved.
"God is to be praised with the voice, and the heart should go therewith in holy exultation." - Charles H. Spurgeon
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said something to the effect of, "the truth on our brothers' lips is truer than the truth on our own." When our sister in Christ sings the gospel beside us, it resonates more true than if we were to sing that same truth by ourself. When the word is preached, the Spirit works through the live preaching of the word to sear our hearts. When we neglect the gathering, we cut this dynamic out of our lives.
As we depart from the gathering, we are sent into the culture as missionaries. Corporate worship exists as a weekly reminder of the hope and calling we have in Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus sent His disciples into the surrounding towns and then would gather them back to Himself to further instruct and encourage them. We need a consistent reminder of the gospel in a way that only gathered worship in a local church can provide. Sitting under the teaching of elders who are entrusted with the watch and care of our souls coupled with the life-on-life commitment to one another in community provides opportunity to not only know more about Jesus but to be transformed by the gospel and empowered to go and fulfill our calling.
The Worship Gathering Requires That I Think of Others First
Not gathering with the church reveals as much about our love for others as it does our devotion to Jesus. Being a Christian is not an individual sport. We are part of a family. We have received a personal salvation that is being worked out in the context of a community committed to Christ. Therefore, gathering together as the church is about caring and serving one another's needs. In our western culture, it is becoming increasingly easy to make the church all about "me". We think of our time together as a personal worship "experience" instead of an opportunity to encourage and bless each other.
The grand majority of the New Testament, particularly the epistles, is written in the second person plural. It is effectively written to "y'all". There are 59 "one another" statements given as directives on how we are to live and express our faith in Christ toward one another. It is clear from Acts 2 that part of living together included sitting under the Apostle's teaching and daily attending the temple together. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to take an others-focused approach to the gathering:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV)
When we gather for worship, we need to see it as an opportunity to encourage one another to hold fast to Christ, to stir one another up to love and good works, and to encourage one another as we await the return of Christ.
The Worship Gathering is An Apologetic to the World
Our lives tell a story about what we value, what we will sacrifice for, and what hits the cutting room floor when there is not enough space left. Too often, the story Christians tell the world is that worship is important as long as something else more pressing or interesting does not interfere. What we end up communicating is that Jesus is a part of our lives, but not the center of our lives. To be clear, there will be occasions when missing worship is necessary, such as sickness, or unexpected circumstances. There are even seasons of life where weekly attendance is difficult. Many, such as nurses and doctors, are sometimes forced to work weekends or night shifts.
However, when we consistently allow good things such as sleep, vacation, family, and sports to take precedence over gathering with the body, we portray to the world a version of Christianity without Jesus at the center. Further, for those of us who are parents, we may say with our mouths that Jesus is Lord (i.e. ruler over our entire lives) but demonstrate to our kids through our actions another testimony, that other things take priority. We end up discipling our kids to believe that worshipping Jesus is not our highest priority, and that he can be shuffled around our busy schedule.
A few years ago, I was mentoring a young man in our church who struggled to come to worship. There was always an excuse. "I'm not a morning person." "I have to study for a test." The list went on and on. One day, I asked him, "Do you think you have to go to worship?" He responded, "Well, yeah." I told him, "You don't have to come....You get to come to worship!" There should be no place on earth we would rather be than in a gathering with other believers to worship the God who paid for our sins! When we devote ourselves to worship, pausing to rest and rejoice in the gospel, we communicate through our lives that Jesus is enough to satisfy our souls in a world full of lesser joys competing for our attention.
When we consistently forsake the worship gathering it reveals one or more of the following:
1) I don't love Jesus
2) I don't love His bride, the church
3) I think I can get along fine without Jesus and His bride
If you've struggled to regularly gather with the church, know this: Jesus loves us even when we don't faithfully follow Him. There is grace for your spotty attendance! If you have been inconsistent in gathering with the church, I encourage you to go to worship on Sunday. Don't go with your head hung low. Don't go trying to justify yourself. Go set your eyes on Christ, rejoice in gospel, love the body, and let your heart be warmed.