By Kevin Shrum
Pastor, Inglewood Baptist Church, Nashville
In 42 years of ministry I have heard almost every reason conceivable for not attending the weekly gathering of God’s people. In fact, I’ve heard 2,184 of them, possibly more. Forty-two years of ministry multiplied by 52 Sundays in a year equals 2,184 Sundays, and this does not include Sunday and Wednesday nights. If you add those to the equation there could possibly be 6,552 reasons for not gathering with God’s people.
I want to avoid being a legalist when it comes to church attendance. Attending the gathering of God’s people does not save a person. Regular church attendance can become a redundant, boring grind for members who do not grasp that worship is all about God and not themselves. I’m fully aware of all of these concerns and dangers.
However, lack of church attendance is not new. In fact, it is mentioned in Hebrews 11:24-25 where the text notes that there were some in the early church era who were already in the bad habit of not attending the weekly gathering of God’s people.
This could be said of our era as well, especially in what I call the “COVID-19 era” as more and more people use all kinds of excuses for not gathering, including fear. COVID has only added to what was already happening concerning church attendance.
In some people’s minds it seems unsafe to attend a church gathering, but it’s okay to shop at a dirty grocery store where everything has been touched by everyone. Somehow, if you go to the church house you’ll die or get diseased, but it’s okay to go out and get a bite to eat. It’s okay to go to a concert, a play or a ballgame, but somehow if you gather with God’s people you’ll get sick. For some, gathering has become “non-essential.”
These reasons are being added to all the other accumulated reasons as to why people do not regularly attend the gathering of God’s people. So, let’s consider the essential nature of gathering and then three legitimate reasons for missing this gathering.
Gathering as God’s people for worship, study, prayer, fellowship and ministry is essential business. From the earliest times (Genesis 4) in the Old Testament Scriptures, God’s people regularly gathered for feasts, festivals, sacrifices, the explanation of the law of God, and many other essential reasons for the glorification of God and the spiritual growth of God’s people.
In the New Testament the pattern of God’s people gathering was continued. For example, Acts 2:42 states that the church regularly gathered for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and worship. Other examples of gathering can be seen in Acts 4:32-37, Acts 15, Romans 16, and I Corinthians 16. These texts remind us that there is no such thing as a “churchless Christianity” or a “churchless Christian.”
Let me repeat, church attendance does not save. However, you would be hard-pressed to find an example in Scripture where a true believer was not connected to a local fellowship. If we love Jesus then we ought to love the things Jesus loves. Jesus loves individual people and He loves His gathered people. We ought to do the same.
Yes, the weekly gatherings of God’s people can be boring, routine, hypocritical, etc. And yes, the gathering of God’s people can be disappointing, disconnected, dour. And yes, the church can let you down, even hurt people. All true. But maybe it’s true as well that the problem is not with the gathering, but with those individuals who gather with no expectation or determination to meet God, whose agenda is not God’s agenda.
There is no plan B. And there should be no “Lone Ranger Christians.” God has purposed to save His people through Jesus Christ and to have them gather regularly for the benefit of the spiritual growth of members and for the benefit of the world who needs to hear the message and see the mission of God’s saving grace.
Gathering as God’s people may seem, at times, redundant and unimportant, but unless we put ourselves regularly in the place where God can speak to us as a gathered people we may miss that one Sunday that makes all the difference in our lives and in the lives of those we love and care about.
Are there any good reasons to miss gathering? Yes, there are three: (1) Sickness, (2) the occasional and necessary vacation and (3) disasters or emergencies. But none of these, if at all possible, should become habitual.
Let us then reread Hebrews 10:24-25 with fresh eyes — “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.”