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A letter to Modern Christians on Church Attendance...

On March 22nd of 2020 an unprecedented event occurred. This wasn't the first time that a widespread disease afflicted human-kind, nor was it the first time that health measures were taken by a human government in order to mitigate the risk of an epidemic. The unprecedented event that occurred on Sunday, March 22nd of 2020 was the physical absence of worshippers gathering as the visible Church of Jesus Christ in the United States as well as other places around the world. The 10 person gathering limit issued by the Centers for Disease Control led to the widespread closure of house's of worship across the country. Up to that point in Church History there had never been an example of this magnitude in which faithful Christians avoided the physical gathering together to worship Jesus Christ and study His Word in a community of fellowship.

The typical reason offered by many Christian leaders in an attempt to justify the temporary closure of churches was something like this, "Christians in the past didn't have the technology that we do in order to gather virtually." This explanation sought to make a case that because of technology and livestreaming we can still fulfill the Biblical command to gather together by simply doing so virtually. And in many ways this led to the death of about 1 out of every 5 churches in America according to Barna research group. In my opinion it was a mistake to convey that a virtual gathering was a viable substitute for in person gathering, even with good intentions and on a temporary basis. Hindsight being 20/20 (no pun intended) we can now see clearly that many Christians have opted to make virtual church attendance a permanent substitute for the physical gathering of believers, and this phenomena has only exacerbated the problem of anemic Christianity in the United States and abroad. 

Before you read any further I want to make a few things clear. 1.) Livestreaming and technology are useful tools for advancing the message of Christ to unchurched people. 2.) Regular in-person church attendance is the normative expectation of faithful Christians but there are limited exceptions for those who are vulnerable and immuno-compromised during a pandemic. 3.) Church attendance as a legalistic concept is wrong. However, the Bible does present church attendance as a community driven way of life for the believer in general. Livestreaming is not a viable substitute for the Biblical command to gather together, except in very rare. extreme, and special cases.

This article is primarily concerned with the Biblical expectation upon Christians in general to attend church and engage in Biblical community as a lifestyle of obedience to God's Word. Christians who are highly vulnerable and immuno-compromised are outside of the general scope of this article and I would advise that person to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit as it relates to your schedule and practice of church attendance. I would also emphasize that whether you find yourself in a high-risk group or not, God is calling you to engage in daily spiritual disciplines to grow in obedience toward Him, even if you are unable to attend church for a season.

Hebrews 10:25- "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrew Christians of ancient times noticed that some of the believers were failing to join the weekly assembly of Christians each Sunday for worship. In response to this observation he wrote commanding them to "not forsake the assembling of ourselves together." He also points out the purpose of gathering together by saying "but exhorting one another." It's clear from this passage of scripture that we as Christians are commanded by God to gather together each week for worship and that the goal of our gathering should be to build up each other's faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Before we go any further let me respond to some hypothetical objections that may arise in response to the command of church attendance in Hebrews 10:25.

Objection # 1- It doesn't say "specifically" that we have to gather together every single week. To this objection I would say that the historical context must not be ignored when we seek to understand the meaning of a particular scripture. Historically speaking Christians gathered every single Sunday even in the face of widespread and intense persecution. So when the author of the book of Hebrews refers to the "assembling of ourselves together" he undoubtedly was referring to the weekly gathering of believers to worship on Sunday, that was the very definition of the assembly as it is even to this day. Nevertheless, it's true that this passage is not pursuing a legalistic framework regarding church attendance in general. For example if you miss church due to traveling or for some other reason that is not breaking the pattern of regularly engaging in your church community then it's safe to say you are not in violation of this New Testament command. But the person who engages in the habit of avoiding the assembly without special circumstances is the person that the author of Hebrews has in mind when presenting the command to assemble together.

Objection # 2- I gather with other Christians on a regular basis, I just don't go to church, doesn't that fulfill the command of Hebrews 10:25? This objection must take into consideration of what the New Testament means by "The Assembly." The Assembly was not considered an informal meeting of Christians at any time of the week. Although the New Testament encourages the meeting of Christians informally throughout the week it does not present these types of meetings as something that replaces the Sunday gathering. The New Testament presents the Assembly as an organized body of believers led by Church elders and servant leaders who are called by God to shepherd His people in obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19, Acts 6:16, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, Acts 20:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Therefore, when the author of the book of Hebrews said "don't forsake the assembling of ourselves together" he was referring to the Sunday gathering of believers under the direction of qualified, called, and anointed church elders and servant leaders, not informal Christian gatherings. 

Objection # 3- I had a bad experience at church and so I don't want to attend anymore. Can't I just practice my faith from home? The grace of God does give us space to heal from situations in which we were sinned against in church. If your bad experience was an instance in which you were sinned against there are instructions from the Word of God as to how we can pursue reconciliation (Matthew 18:15-20). After you have pursued reconciliation you can either remain at that church and keep engaging in community through obedience to God or find another local church to join with the help and leading of the Holy Spirit. In summary, it's never a healthy spiritual alternative to disengage from the community of believers. There are still many good churches out there and we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us to the one that He has in mind for us. We must understand that churches are full of people and that means there will always be situations in which hurt can occur, but our motivation of engaging church community is not for people but for the Lord Jesus who was crucified for us. In cases of severe church abuse, I would not be able to give direct, comprehensive instructions here as that is outside of the scope of this article, but I would note that this must be dealt with on a case by case basis and with much care. The Holy Spirit is ultimately able to guide us.

Objection # 4- We live in a virtual world and I find it easier to connect through online attendance. Why must I attend in person? Let me start by saying that I am happy that people are engaging in church at any level. I see the online ministry of the church as a crucial component of what God is doing in our generation and I celebrate the vast quantity of souls that have come into the Kingdom through hearing the gospel online. I myself do a significant amount of online ministry. Secondly, I would say that a very straightforward reading of Hebrews 10:25 indicates that online ministry is not the same thing as the in-person gathering. God has created us in His image (Genesis 1:26) as personal, community driven beings. The Bible indicates that engaging in physical church community is more than just a small part of our faith, it is the main part of our faith (Acts 2:42, 45, Ecclesiastes 4:9:10, 1 Corinthians 12:25:27, Hebrews 10:24-25). Lastly, I would remind you that even though it may be easier for some to connect with church online, God is not calling us to do what is easy. God is calling us to do what He commands. We should utilize online ministry but recognize it as a catalyst which is intended to lead us into the physical church community.

The growing trend of disengagement in the physical community of the church ought to be alarming to every faithful follower of Jesus Christ. We need to be equipped to reason with our brothers and sisters who have forsaken the assembly as to why we miss them and want to see them back in community once again. We need to be able to show that scripture teaches us as believers to attend church as a way of growing in our faith and service toward others. We need to be modeling an obedient life of church community engagement and growth. We are living in an age of great apostasy and the Apostle Paul warned us of this (2 Thessalonians 2:3). It's more important than ever for believers to throttle up their obedience to God not the opposite. The world wants to frame church attendance as an archaic thing of the past but this is from the enemy, God loves nothing more than to see His people assemble together in the unity of His Spirit (Psalm 133). 

Written by: Kyle Bailey, D.Min.


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