Just across the road from our home is a beautiful church. Many of our neighbors go there on Sunday morning to worship. My wife’s parents were married in that church, and her great grandfather donated the land on which it is built. I like the worship service. It is dignified and meaningful, and the congregation shares my preference for traditional hymns and music. The pastor is a good friend, and from time to time he has asked me to stand in for him. The people good-naturedly appreciate my clumsy attempts to handle the unfamiliar liturgy, and some have told me they wish I would come more often.
So why, most Sundays, do we make a round trip of about 100 miles to attend “our” church in the big city? That is the closest congregation of the denomination in which I have membership and am ordained. But it is not just a matter of brand loyalty. I feel more or less at home in most Christian churches, and I believe they are valid places to worship. The styles might be different, but I suspect that we are more concerned about styles than God is. Wherever and whenever Christians gather together in his name, Jesus said he would be there, too. Then why do I drive to my relatively distant congregation instead of just walking across the road?
Does it matter?
I think about this sometimes as I make the Sunday morning drive. Does it matter where we go? Are we at liberty to just pick a church out of convenience? Or even to go nowhere? Many people feel it is acceptable to watch a church service on television, never committing themselves to regular assembly. Others say that just talking about God and religion with friends at work or at an informal gathering from time to time is all the “church” they need.
But the Bible places a high importance on belonging to a congregation — and not just belonging, but supporting and participating in its life and work. One reason is that a congregation provides the opportunity for fellowship and joining in worship and communion. Another reason is that a congregation also requires accountability, something that, ironically, is often put forward as an excuse for withdrawing from regular congregational worship, and even leaving a church. We don’t like accountability. It implies restriction, discipline, correction and expectations about our time and money — things we resist.
There are often some disagreeable aspects of congregational life. We tend to get ourselves bogged down in distracting details and stir them into the church mix. But the primary thing God is concerned about is our relationships. Jesus taught that lasting, productive relationships, based on mutual love and respect, are the substance of Christian life. Human societies and organizations rarely put the highest priority on this; they have different agendas. But a congregation of fellow believers should be a safe place to nurture, maintain and, if necessary, repair relationships. To deny ourselves this environment is to miss out on a key aspect of the central dimension of our Christian lives.
I am not suggesting that regular church attendance makes us more righteous, or that to stay away is unforgivable. My long commute to worship does not make me more acceptable to God. Nevertheless, I think he does want me to have a strong commitment to my not-so-local congregation, and I do not take it lightly. The extra effort is definitely more worth than it is trouble.
The early church
People tend to interpret the scriptures about congregational worship in terms of our modern situation. But those instructions were not written against a backdrop of what has become the world’s largest religion with over two billion adherents and a bewildering variety of sects, groups and denominations. We need to see what was written in the context of the first-century church.
After the initial surge, the church settled down to a slower growth pattern. The typical congregation in New Testament times seems to have been a relatively small number of people meeting in homes or public places. Some congregations were in contact with one another, and there is evidence of some rudimentary organization and central authority. But most of the time the churches were on their own.
Paul himself seems to have been the linking factor in the churches he founded. Most of his letters have the flavor of a personal, intimate communication to people he knew rather than that of a large, general audience. He never dreamed that his words would be endlessly dissected and analyzed 2,000 years later in churches on continents he did not even know existed. He wrote to people he knew, gathered in little groups around the Mediterranean Sea.
Unlike today, where we have many choices, the early believers were a small minority, struggling to exist in what was often a hostile environment. With enemies, physical and spiritual, waiting to pounce, unity and harmony within the group were vitally important. That is why Paul and the other founding fathers focused their letters so much on koinonia, or community.
One of Paul’s favorite analogies was to see the congregation as a building that was a work in progress (1 Corinthians 3:9). “God is building a home,” he reminded the church at Ephesus.
He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day — a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. (Ephesians 2:19-22, Message Bible)
In such a building, every part is needed. “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16, NIV). This does not imply an easy-going “come when you feel like it” approach, does it?
These first Christians were, like us, frail and flawed human beings. Like us, they had their politics and quarrels. So how to handle such problems is often discussed. For example, when two long-standing members of the congregation at Philippi had a serious disagreement, Paul urged them publicly to settle their differences:
I urge Euodia and Syntyche to iron out their differences and make up. God doesn’t want his children holding grudges. And, oh, yes, Syzygus, since you’re right there to help them work things out, do your best with them. These women worked for the Message hand in hand with Clement and me, and with the other veterans — worked as hard as any of us. Remember, their names are also in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3, Message Bible)
Was Syzygus successful? Let’s hope so. Paul valued both Euodia and Syntyche, and did not want to lose either of them. So Paul urged them to reconcile quickly, for the good of the whole group.
The early church was taught to see membership in a congregation as a privilege and a responsibility. It was not a “useful option” or an “added benefit” to take advantage of if and when one felt like it. The instructions have the feeling of “this means you, so listen up” rather than “here are some general principles that you might want to think about in your planning meetings.” Hebrews 10:25 was an urgent warning to “not giving up meeting together” because of a trend that needed to be nipped in the bud.
Breaking up is hard to do
Members who persisted in unacceptable or disruptive conduct might eventually have to be denied fellowship — but only as a last resort, after all other efforts to reconcile had failed. Even then, it was not done out of revenge or punishment, but as a last-ditch effort to bring the erring member to their senses. To be barred from fellowship was a serious matter. You couldn’t just shrug your shoulders and find another church that would have you. There was nowhere else to go.
Does this mean there is never a reason to leave a congregation? No. A church that is controlling and abusive does not deserve your membership, and you are better off out of it. But most congregations are not like that. They are just a group of imperfect believers struggling with the trials of life. Membership in a group like that should not be discarded lightly. In our modern world, nearly every relationship is fraying—marriage, family, neighbors, friends. What should be strong committed relationships have become casual and negotiable. Sadly, that includes membership in a congregation.
Reasons for leaving a congregation often sound righteous—a disagreement over a doctrine or a change of worship style. But often, the real reason is hurt feelings and wounded pride. We draw ourselves up, puff out our feathers and say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” But what we mean is, “Here I go, I can’t stand the others.” The result is that people who were once friends now cross the road rather than pass the time of day.
If we are having difficulty with relationships in our church, it is all the more reason to stay and try to work things out. Jesus and his apostles urged their people to solve problems quickly. They knew that, if left to fester, hurts and grudges could spread to others and eventually destroy the koinonia, the fellowship. How much stronger, more robust and more influential would the Body of Christ be today if we would commit ourselves to working out differences rather than endlessly splitting and dividing?
A lesson from persecution
Some years ago I met a man in eastern Europe who published a small Christian magazine on an underground press in his basement. The Communist rulers of his day ruthlessly suppressed Christianity, and this man had endured years of prison and persecution. As he drove me around his city, he showed me a dramatic account of what life had been like under Communism.
We stopped in front of a pile of rubble. “We built a church here, but they bulldozed it,” he told me. We drove on, and after a few minutes, he stopped again and said, “We started a new church here, but they knocked this one down too.” He drove us to another site, and another and another, each time repeating the story.
“Finally,” he said, “once the authorities realized that European Communism was collapsing, they began to relax the restrictions a little.” They summoned the Christian leaders and told them they had permission to meet. There were two conditions. One was that they had to all meet together at a time and a place that the government chose. Second, the government would appoint the pastor. The man selected was not the best speaker, nor the most educated. But it did not matter. Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox, Pentecostals and even Jehovah’s Witnesses would share a common service. “We were so happy to be able to meet that our differences did not matter.”
Then, when the Communist government finally fell apart, Western evangelists rushed in. Soon the group broke up into the various sects and denominations again. That brief moment of harmony has been replaced with competitive congregations glaring at each other due to their different teachings. “We appreciate the freedom, and we do have our different religious traditions,” explained my friend as he showed me yet another demolished building. “But in some ways we were never happier than when we had no choice but to get along together.”
No one wants persecution. But today, where we have freedom of worship, many of us use that freedom to reduce our commitment. Then we wonder why our witness is not as effective as it could be.
A place of safety
A church should be a safe place where there is genuine interaction—sharing the fun, pain, hope, joy, forgiveness and reconciliation of life. You can’t experience that as a lone wolf, any more than you can experience baseball, basketball or soccer by chasing balls all by yourself. Real living must be experienced in community and fellowship.
Bryan Leech’s popular hymn, “We are God’s People” puts it nicely:
We are a temple, the Spirit’s dwelling place,
Formed in great weakness, a cup to hold God’s grace;
We die alone, for on its own, each ember loses fire:
Yet joined in one the flame burns on
To give warmth and light, and to inspire.
I suppose that’s why on most Sunday mornings my wife and I drive out of our little country town and head up the highway to the big city. I’m sure we could find rich and meaningful fellowship with any group of believers, but we find that our long-term friendships and shared history outweigh the convenience of proximity. We’ve been through good times and hard times with our church. We’ve shared hopes, joys, pains and sorrows, disappointments and successes. We feel a commitment there, and despite the long miles and significant tread wear, we would not have it any other way.
Author: John Halford