Churches experience seasons of growth and decline. Some close while others emerge. The church is a global movement in rural villages, white-collar suburbs, and urban centers. People from diverse language and ethnic groups gather at least weekly in every occupied time zone on the planet for prayer, study, ministry, fellowship, evangelism, and worship. The cultural waves of interest and disinterest do not threaten the church’s survival. Instead, it seems the opposite is true. When legitimate followers of Jesus face persecution, rather than shrinking back, the church swells with Kingdom power and cultural impact.
So recovering church attendance is not an issue of church survival. Instead, recovering church attendance in age of options is an issue of how the individual Christian flourishes. How will we live faithful, Spirit-filled, Christ-centered lives without the church? How will we abide in Christ and bear lasting fruit? How will we live on mission for the glory of God? How will we show and tell the Gospel to a world that waits for hope? How will we end well?
It is the follower of Christ who needs the church more than the church needs the follower of Christ. Yet many who call Jesus Lord are not so sure. We have heard that the church is not a building. That is true. The church is a kindred people committed to one another for the advancement of the Gospel. The misguided implication, however, is that the regular meeting of committed Christians in a particular place and a specific time is of secondary importance. It is a good option, but an option nonetheless.
As the writer of Hebrews called us to draw near to God through a new and living way, that is Christ, he also challenged us to hold on to our confession “without wavering” because God is faithful. And in light of the promise that God will not leave us, the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to command us to the same faithfulness to one another:
And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25 not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Apparently as early as the first century, habitual church skipping was a thing. Some Christians had developed a pattern of prioritizing other activities, which kept them away from worship meetings, and they were called out for it. The author here risked being labeled a legalist in order to rebuke believers for neglecting the responsibility they had to attend church. In essence, he reminded them that the church meeting is not an option, but rather an essential practice for the faithful follower of Christ.
Why is that? If we are in Christ, and we love God, why should attending a church meeting every week be a priority? If the church will survive without us, why does it matter? If we are living moral lives and showing respect for Christian values, what is the big deal? If we are practicing other spiritual disciplines, why is the church meeting primetime?
These are legitimate questions. Many of us are very familiar with church, yet we are unclear about the nature of the church. Our view of the church is more sociological, cultural, or familial than it is theological. Church attendance is a common practice in our particular culture, but it is somehow disconnected from our view of God and our part in His eternal story of redemption.
Recent efforts have been made to make the church more relevant with themes like, “the church is not a place, but a people,” or “the church has left the building.” The point is well made that church is not simply an event to attend, but a people who live everyday on mission with God. And now technology allows people to “attend” church by watching the music and preaching through online streaming.
While online access is convenient and potentially gets the Gospel to more people in one moment, it may also invite people into a form of church that falls desperately short of New Testament Christianity.
What seems to be clear is that while the church is not merely a weekly event to attend and it is certainly not limited to a physical location, faithful Jesus followers insist on meeting regularly with other Christians for prayer, Bible study, fellowship, ministry, evangelism, and worship.
We could begin in eternity past where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit met in triune community. Or we could look at Adam and Eve’s relationship in the Garden of Eden. Or we could see how the people of God were organized into a community of faith that met regularly for worship in the Old Testament. But perhaps the most helpful model for us is in Acts. After Jesus’ ascension, His disciples returned to Jerusalem, and they were “continually united in prayer” (Acts 1:14).
And then we read that about 120 believers were gathered together as Peter preached. On the day of Pentecost, they were “all together in one place” and the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the church movement was born. That was a unique experience, but their gatherings did not end there. Soon after that, “every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude” (Acts 2:46).
Throughout the book of Acts, we see God working in tangible ways in the hearts and through the lives of His people as they met together. Christians did not form communes. Instead, they lived out their faith in their homes and in the market place everyday, but they also met in groups and established churches that met regularly for united prayer, study, fellowship, ministry, evangelism, and worship.
Every church was unique. The time of day, the type of place, and the order of service were likely very different as churches were planted throughout Asia Minor, but the priority was the same. This is what the writer of Hebrews commands us to not neglect. In light of God’s redeeming work and His eternal faithfulness, we must not neglect our regular meetings together.
The context of the Hebrews exhortation is important. Our new and living way in Christ compels us to a new and living way with His people. Our personal relationship with God through our perfect High Priest never encourages personal independence. Instead, it is the basis for our interdependence. God’s faithful, never-leave-us-alone relationship with us compels us to build committed relationships with one another through the local church. And it is that kindred heart among believers that validates the message of the Gospel (John 17).
The incarnation of Jesus calls us to an ongoing incarnational ministry to one another, and “all the more as [we] see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 11:25). We do not outgrow our need for congregational life. Instead, as the pressures mount, as the persecution comes, as the stakes grow, as the urgency of the Gospel intensifies, as our window of opportunity closes, our need for the local church only grows.
We have options. The modern era of transportation allows us to go wherever we want in just a day or two. Our affluence also gives us options. In suburbia America, hefty one and two income families lets us to do whatever we want to do. But for the one who has been redeemed by Jesus, the local church meeting is still primetime.
The ebb and flow of messy, imperfect relationships, the experience of listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit with other believers, the roots that grow in the soil of biblical teaching, the sanctifying work of knowing and serving one another, and the courage to live on mission with God everyday—this is the indispensible work of God that only happens when believers meet regularly with their local church family.
So in an age of options, faithful church attendance is not one of them.