The public worship gathering for Christians is a controversial topic. If you have been living in a closed country such as North Korea, Afghanistan or Somalia, gathering as a Christian today is just as dangerous as gathering as a Christian last year. The only difference is the police will knock at your door in North Korea, and today it might be a Virus. With gatherings being so dangerous, is it wise for people in persecuted or pandemic-stricken places to meet? How important is a corporate worship gathering? Do I really need it?
I think that question has some obvious layers to it. We need to peel these layers back to get to what Scripture says and then from that lens look at our lives and see the direction we need to take our lives.
One of my pet peeves from people in non-pandemic times is to say something like, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” When a person says that, what they mean is, “I don’t need people around me to live my life out as a Christian.” Or perhaps their core issue is, “I am afraid that people who are Christians will look down on me for my lifestyle that doesn’t conform to what Christians expect and so I prefer not to be around them.” So many of us good natured peace-maker types don’t push back, because we are normal civilized people and are not wanting to make something like going to church the main thing.
So I think a blog post is necessary to talk about why the gathering is necessary and why it is also essential to the Christian life. Hebrews 10:23-25 is the usual go to verse on this subject.
Hebrews 10:23-25 says
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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."
Verse 23 the confession of our hope that we need to hold on to is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead.
Verse 24 we need to think about how to stir up each other to do love and good works. The greek word for stir up is actually παροξυσμὸν (paroxusmon) which is from the root word which means to incite or irritate. NIV translation goes with spur. Like the way a rider would kick into the flank of the horse to motivate it with a pointy object on the back of the boot. It seems that being a Christian at times might be uncomfortable. At our church we always say, “it’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.” At times we can all want to sit in our misery or in our darkness. There is even scriptural precedent for it. Psalm 88 has not one phrase of hope. It ends with darkness is my only friend. It is a Psalm talking about the sheer hopelessness of life. But of the 150 Psalms, only 1 ends without eyes looking up to God. At some point the healthiest thing a person in a state of despair can do is look up. Look up to God and cry out for the intimacy of God that gives us the ability to walk in grace.
Verse 25 builds on verse 24 of the need to irritate or incite or spur or stir up one another to love and good deeds by not neglecting to meet with one another, and all the more as you see the day that Jesus returns drawing near. This verse reminds me of the bumper sticker years ago, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” However for Christians the day of Jesus return is not one of fear, but of hope. However, we only have a limited time until his return and therefore we should be preparing our hearts and consecrating our lives to be more like him. But Christians need to meet for the purpose of spurring and stirring one another on to love and good deeds.
At our church, every Sunday we want to preach two messages simultaneously. We want people to hear that they are loved. That the God of the universe cares for them and that Jesus is looking to build a relationship with you. He wants you to come to him if you are weary and burdened. He will give you rest.
But the second message we are trying to convey to everyone is that the rest we find in Jesus allows us to do His work which is our purpose. He said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Within that phrase is that Jesus is in charge. He doesn’t say come to him for a permanent vacation from the issues that caused you to run to him. He strengthens you and trains you to go and stand up under the weight of life.
That’s why we call people to come to gather together to rest in the hope that we have in Jesus. Remind our souls corporately that there is someone greater, someone more powerful, someone in control when all feels anxious. And then spur one another on to grow through our times in the valley. An old mentor of mine used to say, God grows us in the valley and gives us vision on the mountain. Don’t forget the vision when you head back to the valley to grow.
Now obviously not everyone is excited about the gathering. Odd, because the literal meaning of the greek word for church is ekklesia which means “the gathering.” But there are reasons why people resist corporate worship. And we see these reasons in scripture.
In Nehemiah 8 as Ezra read and explained the law of God, the people wept under feeling the weight of their lack of following God’s law.They realized how far from God they had strayed. In 2 Kings 22 the King’s Secretary read the book of the Law to King Josiah. When the king heard how he and his people had not followed God’s law he tore his clothes and wept. The Word of God exposes us.
In Acts 7 as Stephen preached the history of Israel and then came to his point of application that all needed to repent and turn to Jesus, he was stoned to death. It was just words, but words have power. And when God asks us to change, God asks us to humble ourselves before him, we have a tendency to stone the messenger, or ignore the messenger.
Not long ago Adrienne invited a friend to attend our church. She cried the whole time. She has never come back. She said she felt so exposed. It was like her heart was on fire. She felt the presence of God and it scared her. Every now and then I will see her watching our services online and my hope is that she would have the courage to return. But isn’t it true that people don’t want to be irritated, incited, spurred or stirred up to love and good deeds. It causes too much introspection.
Other people have come up with things like, “I just don’t get anything out of church.” I’m just not being fed anymore. The problem with that statement is that Isaiah 55:11 says,
“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.“
Hebrews 4:12-13: "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account."
I think for some of us we don’t want our heart exposed. We don’t want the uncomfortable truth of declaring our love for God but then refusing to live it out. It’s hard. But at the same time, that is what leads to growth.
What do we do?
We need each other. I know, I know...You are not arguing that we don’t. However, in a pandemic, how can we gather together without putting our family or our community in danger of spreading disease that has killed 3.4% of those infected by it?
- We can gather online. I think this is a reasonable response. For those who choose this option we must overcome the difficulty of sitting through a song on the TV and a sermon when children are around. Somehow in the olden days, there were who churches full of families and children’s ministry was not even a thing yet, and the Gospel went forward. So perhaps this is a great training opportunity for us to discipline and love our children to cultivate a heart of worship with the hopes that our over frustration doesn’t result in them resenting church. We also need to comment and engage through some hearts or laughy faces when we agree with the pastor and grasp the reality that there are houses all over the city worshiping together.
Perhaps better than just a one way experience through YouTube, Facebook or Twitch, another way to manage an online experience is through Zoom. The other night we prayed for Chuck Leyden via zoom. He was the Executive Pastor at Hill Country Bible Church Pflugerville in the hospital with pneumonia. Over a 100 devices logged into the Zoom call and we called on God to heal. There was something powerful in hearing and seeing all those prayers. I can’t quite explain how it affected me, but I couldn’t stop from weeping alongside all those who were calling out to God. He died the following day. It wasn’t that our prayers weren’t answered, but Chuck’s mission was complete on Earth and Jesus called him to be with him. That was experiencing the power of the gathering in a way that was online but felt just as powerful and real as if we were all in the same room. For the future pandemic, my hope is that we will be able to have an online experience through zoom that those who are wanting to worship alongside one another can experience.
- We can gather in homes as pods. Pods are a group of people who agree to social distance and practice measures that the government calls us to practice but get together for social and spiritual interaction. It’s like an extended family. This goes back to a house church model. Inside the house, social distancing is put aside as all have made the decision to become in a sense one family.
- Pods have some responsible for teaching the children, while others worship. And then the two switch responsibilities so that both have an opportunity to worship.
- Pods can also have family integrated worship with songs and message appropriate for the ages of all attending.
- We can gather outside in larger groups and ensure we are practicing social distancing. This gives adults the opportunity to worship without the struggle of keeping children quiet as being outside allows for more distance and for children to be able to wander.
- We can gather at church and be careful. Until there is a vaccine, there won’t be any going back to normal. Restaurants are open and are safe. Home Depot is open and safe. People are working 12 hour shifts with masks on. We can come back together and safely take measures to mitigate the spread of a virus we can’t see.
One of the difficult things that many of us face is that somehow a virus has become political and people become visceral with their opinions whether something is right or wrong. With doctors, scientists, and many disagreeing on this, and since most of us aren’t epidemiologists, we must not let our opinions trump our faith in Christ. Each one should do what God has directed them. We must follow our faith and not our fear. We can’t fear that the Christian faith will die if people don’t physically meet, and we can’t fear that death will be caused if people do meet in person. We must love one another.
Whatever you feel about how to gather, please make every effort to join in the worship of our God. It is for your soul’s benefit and know that when you are not participating with us you are missed...either online or in person. We love you. Let’s gather together.