By Dana Vogel
We all know it’s important to meet together often as believers for our mutual encouragement. This is true and good. What’s not necessarily true and good, is that many of us equate this with Sunday worship service.
My submission to you is this: weekly service attendance is too much and not enough at the same time. What do I mean by that?
It’s too much simply because there is no command in the Bible to “go to church”. Or to go once a week, or to attend any specific kind of service. In fact, at certain times, a believer may not even have the privilege of any Christian fellowship whatsoever (think of Paul in prison, as an example.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about this a great deal in his book Life Together, where he stresses that fellowship is a GIFT, not a promise. Now of course we are encouraged to meet together if we are able, as the author of Hebrews says in chapter 10:25, “and don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten in the habit of doing.” And Paul certainly talks a great deal about “when you come together”, assuming that the believers were gathering on some sort of frequent basis. But this does not mean our gathering has to be regularly scheduled, or look anything like what we have grown accustomed to today. We have self-imposed these regulations, these restrictions. This is the “too much”. As it says in Deuteronomy 4:2, “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”
What does it mean, then, for us to “come together”? While there is not much Biblical instruction regarding the format of our gatherings, the apostles certainly did not mean for us to simply “hang out” either. Paul continues in that same passage, “and when you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” It is clear that a large part of our gathering together should be to build each other up in a variety of ways. But this can be done in any context, not just a Sunday worship service. In fact, if you simply “attend” a Sunday worship service as your principal expression of church life, you may be severely lacking in being built up.
This is where the “not enough” comes in.
Let’s brainstorm various elements of church expression we find in the New Testament: prayer, worship, instruction, encouragement, spiritual gifts (prophecy, tongues, healing, etc), fellowship, confession, breaking bread, communion, serving the poor, spreading the gospel, etc. etc. etc.! Or consider the “one another” passages. Here is an incomplete list:
Build up one another (Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Admonish one another (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
Teach one another (Colossians 3:16)
Comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Employ the gifts that God has given us for the benefit of one another (1 Peter 4:10)
Pray for one another (James 5:16) Confess your faults to one another (James 5:16)
Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13)
Stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24)
Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
Greet one another (Romans 16:16)
Care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)
Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
These are the things Paul is referring to when he says “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up”. Wow. Consider that: Everything must be done! Weekly services are not enough simply because most Sunday meetings can only facilitate two of these elements (worship + teaching, sometimes communion). Not only that, but Paul says that “each one” is to bring a hymn, teaching, revelation, etc. If you are always the recipient of teaching and encouragement, you are not truly being built up! For everyone must participate and everything must be done. Is that what your current church experience looks like?
If not, please quickly guard yourself against self-condemnation or accusation against your brothers and sisters. Instead, ask the LORD to give you insight into how you might engage with his body outside of or in addition to your “main gathering”. It may be as simple as making a phone call to a friend to encourage them or inviting people over for a spontaneous prayer gathering. Think of Acts 12, where believers were gathered at Mary’s house praying for Peter while he was in prison. That was a special gathering for a special purpose. Let us be attentive to those opportunities as well.
Is it wrong to attend a Sunday meeting? Of course not. Is it wrong to forego the service and meet with the body more spontaneously? Of course not. We should not judge each other for how or when we are meeting with other believers – such things are trivial. It’s OK to meet regularly, and it’s OK to meet spontaneously, as long as we are meeting together and doing the one-anothers!
So I invite you to consider this idea: perhaps the context/format/environment of our gatherings matters very little, and all that truly matters is that we are 1. gathering, 2. experiencing a rich variety of church expression, and 3. engaging in those expressions as both the giver and receiver.
Let us all be attentive to the leading of the Holy Spirit into the ‘further’ and the ‘deeper’ of all these things. Let us recognize that the level to which we experience church life is the level to which, whenever we meet another believer, we ask for prayer, offer encouragement, and glorify God; despite the time or place being priorly deemed as holy, important, or “appropriate” for that kind of activity or not. When I meet up with my siblings who are believers, how often do we read a psalm, or offer encouragement in the faith? When I meet up with a friend to see a movie, do I also ask for prayer or share what the Lord has been speaking to me about that week? This level of devotion takes either an enormous amount of self-motivation and discipline, OR it takes an enormous amount of love for God and his body. The level to which we love him is the level to which we talk about him. And the level to which we love each other is the level to which we encourage each other. If this is difficult for us, perhaps our love for the Lord and our brothers and sisters needs more growth? And perhaps that can be the next prayer of our hearts?
In everything, let us not judge each other. Let us not be ruled by meetings. But let us not stop meeting with each other. Let us listen to the Holy Spirit for how he might want us to meet with his body. Let us be willing to be inconvenienced. Let us look for the ‘more’ of this great Family. Let us love each other deeply. Let us love the LORD most deeply.
The above was written by Dana Vogel in response to our recent online discussion on the book, “Finding Church” by Wayne Jacobsen. Dana is from Lexington, KY, where she is a part of a simple church community with her husband Diego and son Ari. She also happens to be a wonderful singer and songwriter. You can find her music online everywhere and follow her on Instagram @danavogelmusic.