At the age of 17, my grandfather enlisted in the Army. At the time, the US was embroiled in conflict in Korea. Being underage, he couldn’t enlist without parental permission, but my great-grandmother wasn’t all that keen on her teenaged son going off to war. However, they struck a deal. If she would sign the forms, he would join the infantry. If not, he would join the more dangerous paratroopers when he turned 18.
Fast-forward one generation. American sentiment toward the military had drastically changed. The events of Vietnam left a sour taste in many mouths so that rather than running toward enlistment, many ran for the border.
The point of this contrast isn’t to commend or criticize patriotism or Vietnam or draft-dodging , but rather to simply demonstrate how there was a huge cultural shift that took place from the 1940s and 50s to the 60s and 70s in regards to thinking about military service. What was once a welcome opportunity to serve had become mere duty and begrudging obligation. Many factors played into that change, but it was a change nevertheless; and while there were some who avoided the world wars and others who volunteered for later wars, there was nonetheless a noticeable and significant seismic shift in the culture at large.
What does that have to do with theology? Well, a similar seismic shift has occurred in ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. What was formerly viewed as a privileged opportunity and joy is now viewed by many as a burden or inconvenience. Namely, the privilege of being a part of and attending church.
What should be thought of as an invitation to joy and flourishing has been reimagined as a summons to some unwelcome responsibility.
What’s been the result of this cultural shift?
Here’s one symptom: whereas the average church member a few generations ago attended about 48 weeks a year, surveys & statistics suggest that the average member now attends around 35. This is true even though the number of weekly services has decreased from 3 (Sunday morning & evening & Wednesday evening) to one (with some churches offering a handful of service times to choose from). Not to mention the fact that transportation and technology has made attending easier than ever before.
So what happened?
There are a lot of cultural changes that contribute to our current context. For instance, the ability and even expectation to work on weekends, the rise of individualism, greater affluence, online options, etc. I went into some detail on this in a teaching at The Parkway Church if you want to consider more of those reasons.
That said, the biggest factor leading to anemic attendance is a weak ecclesiology. In other words, people simply don’t understand and treasure the centrality, necessity, and beauty of the local church. They haven’t been discipled to love and long for the gathering. Rather ignorance and indifference influence those who should know and love better.
Consider the example of the early church from passages like Acts 2.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)
What do you feel when you read that? Is that foreign to you? Is it appealing? Does it stress you out? Does it feel liberating or enslaving? Obligation or opportunity?
Your participation in the gathering will always be limited by your own desires or lack thereof so if that vision of fellowship & community isn’t appealing, then you’ll always desire to remain on the fringes and parasitically consume from the church rather than be an active member of the church.
Here’s another litmus test. Consider the commands of Scripture that we love one another, encourage one another, and not give up meeting together as we consider how we might stir each other up to love and good works. For example:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 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 10:19–25)
I want you to notice something. Notice how not neglecting to meet together is related to stirring up one another to love and good works and encouraging one another.
In other words, you attending church isn’t just about what you get out of it, but what you contribute to it. If you attend church only for yourself and God, you’ve missed a major biblical motivation. A large part of why you should be actively participating in the local church is in order to love, serve, edify, and encourage one another. In other words, a failure to prioritize regular attendance is a symptom of self-centeredness.
That’s part of the problem of virtual church or just staying home and watching services. It facilitates the idea that church is about consumption rather than contribution. It is a sleight of hand in that it implies that you can have church without having the gathering of other people (even though the term church by definition refers to a gathering of people).
But we see here that church attendance begins with affections and desires. Those who love and treasure the weekly gathering will prioritize attending, regardless of work, hobbies, leisure, technological advancement, etc.
Imagine receiving an invitation to spend a weekend at Buckingham with the Queen or a weekend on tour with U2 or an all-expenses paid trip to see your favorite team in the Super Bowl. Now imagine a summons to jury duty or to appear before the HOA to defend your landscaping choices. How do you feel in each case? In each case, there is a request for attendance and yet I would assume there is a strong contrast of feelings. With the invitation, we actively try to rearrange our schedules to make it happen, with a summons to jury duty, we actively try to think of excuses to get out of it.
So which describes the way you think of church attendance? An invitation to joy and flourishing…or a summons to just begrudgingly do your duty?
In the end, a simple resolution to attend a few more times each year isn’t the goal. Intention without conviction is shallow and short-lived. What the church needs is not people who just decide to do better or give begrudging obedience, but rather a people who are passionate for the glory of the local church and eager to join in the work of making disciples for the glory of God.
So with all of that by way of introduction, let’s talk about the gathering by answering 3 questions.
- What is the Gathering?
- Why is it Important?
- How can you Prioritize the Gathering in your own Life and Home?
What is The Gathering?
We mentioned earlier that one of, if not the primary reason that worship attendance has declined is because of a weak ecclesiology (doctrine of the ekklesia or “church”)?
The word ekklesia is used in the NT just over 100 times & in about 90% of those uses it is just translated as church. But, its also translated as assembly or congregation in other contexts.
For instance, in Acts 19, Paul is in Ephesus and there is a riot and all of those who assembled in the riot were called an ekklesia.
Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. (Acts 19:32)
This was the way that the term was also used in the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT. I’ve included a couple of references there. All of the underlined words are translations of ekklesia.
- how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ (Dt 4:10)
- Then David said to all the assembly, “Bless the Lord your God.” And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads and paid homage to the Lord and to the king. (1 Chronicles 29:20)
- And many people came together in Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month, a very great assembly. (2 Chronicles 30:13)
- Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! (Psalm 149:1)
So, basically, any assembly or gathering of a group of people for a shared purpose is an ekklesia. When that gathering is composed of Christians who are gathered for the purpose of worship, we call that the church.
The gathering is the assembly of believers gathered together for the purpose of vertical worship and horizontal discipleship, through edification and encouragement.
Where and when a church gathers can change. Some churches have their own buildings, others meet in borrowed spaces like schools, others meet in people’s houses. Some meet on Sunday mornings, others on Sunday afternoons or evenings or Saturdays or whatever. There is no command that specifies when and where a church gathers, but there is a command THAT they gather. We read this passage earlier:
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 10:25)
We see here a biblical command that the church gathers, assembles together for a specific purpose. Again, that’s why online church isn’t church. Virtual church isn’t church. There is no gathering. No assembling. No togetherness. Some of the functions of the church can be replicated online, but the church can’t, by definition, because the church is a gathering.
Notice that in the Bible you aren’t just commanded to sing worship songs, and pray, and hear a sermon, and take communion, but you are commanded to do those things corporately, together. You are commanded to gather.
Yes, if you are sick or out of town and can’t make it to services, I’d highly encourage you to watch a live stream or listen to the audio later, but in doing so, you haven’t done church. Those aren’t exact substitutes, they are shadows of the real thing. They are a helpful alternative when the real thing is impossible, but they themselves aren’t the real thing. They are vitamin supplements when you don’t have access to food.
So we are commanded to gather. And in that, we are invited into a means of grace.
What are means of grace?
- “The means of grace are any activities within the fellowship of the church that God uses to give more grace to Christians.” (Wayne Grudem)
- “those means which God has ordained for the end of communicating the life-giving and sanctifying influences of the Spirit to the souls of men…” (Charles Hodge)
- “external, humanly perceptible actions and signs that Christ has given his church and with which he has linked the communication of his grace.” (Herman Bavinck)
And the church has traditionally held that there are 3 primary means of grace: preaching, sacraments, and prayer.
“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.” (London Baptist Confession of 1689)
Notice where those three things (word, sacrament, and prayer) combine? Within the gathering of the church.
The only place where all of the historic means of grace overlap is the church gathering which is why the church service is so central for discipleship and sanctification.
There is a synergistic sort of relationship between the various means of grace. Each of them in and of itself is great, but when they’re all combined, there is a synergistic effect. Reading and preaching the word empowers our prayers and informs the sacraments and raises our worship and so forth.
Its kinda like wanting to lose weight. You can either eat healthier or work out. OR you can do both & it makes each more effective. When those elements are added together, each is more productive.
Likewise, the church is where God has intended for these means of grace to collide for our sanctification and joy.
Which means that if you aren’t prioritizing life in the church then you aren’t prioritizing holiness because that is the main conduit through which God works in the life of His people.
It would be like saying, I want to lose weight, but I don’t want to eat healthy or exercise. Is it possible to lose weight without eating healthy or exercising, theoretically, but you have cut yourself off from the primary means. That’s like attempting to grow spiritually without prioritizing the church.
So let’s talk about why the gathering is so important.
Why is the Gathering Important?
Our appreciation of something increases the more we understand the importance of that thing. So why is the gathering important?
- The Bible expects and even commands it. Again, churches have a lot of freedom to declare where they gather and when they gather, but not whether they gather. This was why there was such a dispute during COVID over churches not meeting, because meeting isn’t optional. You might need to cancel services one weekend because of a really bad storm or you might need to stop meeting for a few weeks for some other reason of emergency, but always with the goal of regathering as soon as possible.
- We need the gathering for nourishment. As Scripture says, man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. So we need to hear the word, & sing the word, & pray the word, & speak the word to each other.
- It provides a context for you to nourish others. It provides a place for you to practice some of the various one another obligations of Scripture. Think back to Hebrews 10, we are not to give up meeting together SO THAT we might have opportunity to encourage and edify one another. If you aren’t gathered together, you can’t do that. You can’t serve and disciple each other without being together.
- It provides an opportunity to have your own inherent self-centeredness crucified. Maybe you feel like sleeping in or staying home to watch the Cowboys, getting up and coming to church helps mortify that. Or, maybe you have a tendency to overly-personalize the faith, having to gather with others helps take your focus off of yourself so that you’re forced to think of others. In other words, it provides a context for corporate worship. Worship should not be primarily a personal and individualized experience. It should be communal. Your singing, for instance, doesn’t just glorify God, but also encourages your brothers and sisters.
- It provides a context to serve the body. Not all opportunities to serve happen on Sunday, in fact most don’t, but still there are some. Plus, gathering on Sunday gives opportunity to hear about needs to serve the body Monday through Saturday.
- It provides a context for fighting division and disunity. Coming together each week helps keep accounts short and removes opportunities for accusations and bitterness and resentment to fester.
- It provides an opportunity to partake of the ordinances or sacraments of the church. Now, obviously, this will only be compelling if you have a theologically-robust understanding of the sacraments. If you understand the richness of the sacraments, then this is a very strong argument for the importance of the gathering.
With all of this in mind, you can see how church membership is not at all like gym memberships. How often does the ideal gym member go to the gym? Zero times. As long as your credit card is up to date, that’s all they care about. So you can be a great gym member and never come, but church membership isn’t like that. When you are not here, you AND the church suffer.
So that’s why the gathering is important. Let’s talk briefly about some practical steps to prioritize church attendance.
How Can I Prioritize the Gathering?
- Study theology. If you want to change your action, then you must change your affection and if you want to change your affection, it begins with your attention. As Romans says, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. In other words, the way to change the hands is by changing the heart and the heart is changed by fueling the head. Our theology drives our practice. I have a quote in my office that reads: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). In other words, the better that you understand the purpose of the gathering and the significance of the church, the more you will long to be here. So begin there. If you are going to long for the endless immensity of the sea, then you need to know something about that sea. Likewise, if you are going to long for the gathering you need to understand the importance of sermons and sacraments and singing and the importance of the church and the corporate nature of the faith and so forth.
- Learn to love the church. I’m not trying to guilt-trip you into coming, I’m trying to awaken your desire to attend. One of the ways to cultivate that is by being involved. When I say, love the church, I don’t mean love the church leadership, or love the building, but love the people. You will prioritize seeing those whom you love the same way that you prioritize seeing family and friends. So get to know others, ask people out to lunch, come early and help set up, stay late and linger at the brunch, make it a part of your rhythm and routine. If you’re just coming to church and not talking to people, you aren’t really doing church. You are attending church, but not doing church, not being the church. So learn to love and know the people.
- Invite others in to your life to keep you accountable to regularly gathering with the church. Think about it like this, if you were to suddenly disappear, who would recognize that you were gone? And who would have capital with you to actually ask you hard questions about your priority if you regularly miss? Is that something you would be offended by or is that something you would eagerly long for? If someone were to say, “hey man, it seems like you miss church quite a bit, is everything okay,” how would you receive that? What if they then said, I hear you, but in love, I don’t think that is a great reason to miss as often as you do? How would you respond? I think one of the ways that you can prioritize being here is by removing outs, removing excuses and closing doors that the flesh might take advantage of. By inviting others into your life…that’s part of what being the church entails in the first place.
- Make sacrifices to be here. Discipleship involves discipline and discipline hurts. If your discipleship doesn’t cost you, then it probably is too easy and too comfortable. Discipline hurts. Sometimes a commitment to being here means that even though you got in at midnight last night, you get up in the morning. Or that you don’t join that particular sports league. Or that you record the Cowboys even though you prefer to watch it live. If you attend only when comfortable and convenient, then you have simply proven that your priority is comfort and convenience.
- Lastly, embody this to your kids. Your kids learn not just by listening to what you say, but also watching what you do. So rather than looking for a church where your kids have their preferences met, instead find a church where your genuine needs are met, a church where you are fed and you are passionate and you are connected. Training your child in the way he should go means among other things training them to participate in the gathering and to love the church. And that comes through creating healthy habits that prioritize being here.
In the end, if you don’t long to be at church, either something is wrong with your church or with you. If the problem is the church, find a new one. If the problem is you, then repent and seek greater joy and hope in God’s gift of community.