Throughout much of college, I didn’t have a strong tie to the local church. Regrettably, I just didn’t think of being connected to a local body, and attending church on Sundays, was that important for Christians. I thank God for the people he brought into my life who encouraged me in my walk with Christ and helped me to see the importance of gathering together with other sinners around Jesus’ Word. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a pastor in those days who really helped to shape my thinking.
He was from Chicago and happened to be a huge fan of the Chicago Bears. Growing up in San Diego, I knew what it was like to have a home team that you grew up watching and rooting for. This pastor took me under his wing, and we were having one of our discipleship meetings at a local Starbucks. He said something during our time together that stunned me. “Even if I had tickets to see the Bears in the Superbowl on a Sunday morning, I wouldn’t go…”
I laughed out loud as if to suggest that he was crazy. “Are you serious?” I replied. He was. At that moment, I thought he was a little extreme. I remember thinking to myself, “What’s the big deal? The Super Bowl is once a year! If they make it, your team probably isn’t going to go again in your lifetime!” He was being absolutely genuine though. “No,” he said with a slight grin. “What’s more special than being gathered together around God’s throne, with God’s people?” It was hard to argue with him. I just hadn’t met many Christians who actually believed that at the time. My thinking had been: “yeah, the church is important, but the Christian life is really about your relationship with Jesus. You don’t need to be in church to have a healthy relationship with God.”
Sitting under this pastor had a profound effect on me. It’s the same effect I hope to have on the people I get to minister to. He loved the church, and you could tell. When he talked about missing out on the Bears game to be with God’s people, it was as if it was a no-brainer. He made me feel like I was the crazy one for thinking otherwise. Looking back now, I believe that I was.
Sometime later, I came across another shocking statement from a different pastor. Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a 3rdcentury bishop in the Christian church. He famously said, “outside the church, there is no salvation.” Now, I know what you’re thinking, “There are Christians throughout the world who don’t have access to fellowship, how could anyone make such a claim?” The sentiment of Cyprian is hard to sell today because we’re so used to making a rule out of the exception. Yes, there are extraordinary circumstances that keep the sheep from hearing the voice of the Shepherd on a Sunday morning through a called preacher. But ordinarily speaking, to neglect Christian fellowship and the means of grace through which God grants us communion with himself is a terrible sin. And not only is it itself a sin, but it often leads to more sin.
Scripture reflects the same high view of corporate worship that these pastors believed in. The author to the Hebrews said, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:12-13) 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.” (Heb. 10:23-25)
The New Testament sets an example for us.
For the New Testament believers, weekly Christian fellowship under the apostles’ teaching was a non-negotiable (Ac. 2:42). There were accountability and submission to qualified and ordained elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-16), both for the sake of the genuine spiritual care of the people of God. To forsake this is to set aside what the apostles themselves delivered to the church as the normal structure God ordained for discipleship. Being connected to a church through membership, under the oversight of elders, is something every Christian should long for; and church on Sunday is integral to our Christian growth.
I understand as a pastor that there are weeks where we just can’t make it to church. Illness keeps us closed in, or some other unexpected barrier to worship presents itself. But I want to ask you, what to you is more exciting than gathering with God’s people around God’s throne? Have we so lost sight of what is taking place in worship that entertainment has become more captivating? Do we think that somehow we’ve surpassed our predecessors, and no longer need to gather together, and encourage one another? That the deceitfulness of sin is no match for the modern Christian?
I sometimes feel as though this is the case for many of us. Of course, who would admit it? But the reality is, we often live as though there are many things more important to us than gathering with believers under Jesus’ Word. We’re like the religious leaders who made excuses not to go to the king’s banquet, “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused… I have bought five yokes of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused…I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” (Lk. 14:18-20)
The reason that flippantly missing church is so grievous is that the King himself is the one summoning us to the feast. And get this: more than demanding you bring your gifts to him, he’s bringing his gifts to share with you! Those gifts may come to us through humble means: the lips of a stuttering pastor, some bread and wine, etc. but they’re promised to you by God. I think that understanding is what I was missing for several years. It’s easy to have a low view of church attendance when you view the service as revolving around your work instead of God’s. In reality, this is the Divine Service. The King who summons us and washes us. If you’re like me, that’s not something you can afford to skip.
May God help us recover the joy of Christian worship, gathering together with other sinners eagerly looking to Jesus. When we see it for what it is, I think we’ll join my pastor friend in believing that there’s no more special place to be than gathered around God’s throne, with God’s people.