Monday, July 18, 2022

Anonymous Asks (206)

“Are Christians obligated to attend every meeting of the local church?”

The way you instinctively feel about this question will likely depend on the type of church you attend. Christians in a declining work that is still trying to run all the programs it did when the meetings were better attended often put pressure on one another to get more involved and to fill the empty shoes of the departed with any fresh body they can draft into service. On the other hand, a highly organized institutional church may be paying people to fill those roles, with the result that Christians can easily come and go from church as they please without feeling that their presence at any particular meeting makes much difference to anyone else.

Of course, the more important question is What does the Lord think?

Modern Churches

Let’s be frank, most modern churches have a lot of meetings: as many as three on Sundays plus a mid-week prayer and/or Bible study session, but also all kinds of programs tailored to meet the needs of various demographics. There is Sunday School, Youth Group, College and Careers, Women’s Coffee Hour, Men’s Prayer Breakfast, weekly Life Groups or small group fellowships of one kind or another, outreach programs, choir, special music and so on. Concern about lack of interest in these latter programs usually comes from believers who are deeply committed to the full slate of weekly events agreed to by church leadership, and troubled that not everyone associated with the local meeting shares the same exercise of heart they do about the programs they are involved in.

On one hand, this is a reasonable concern: you can’t run programs without people attending and helping out. On the other, we have to watch that our enthusiasm for our favorite parts of church life does not become a bit Martha-like. All the same, for the purposes of answering this question, let’s limit ourselves to the meetings of the local church that every Christian of any age may attend, rather than the various satellite programs a church might run. That would usually include the Sunday meeting(s) and perhaps a single mid-week get-together. As much as we may love our programs, they are not crucial to the core responsibilities acknowledged by the early church (teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer), and it is unreasonable to expect others to share our passions.

Forsaking the Gathering

The verse most applicable to our question is the oft-quoted favorite from the end of Hebrews: “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.”

The word translated “neglecting” in my ESV and “forsaking” in others is actually a fairly strong term. When Demas “forsook” Paul, it was because he was in love with the world and had taken off for Thessalonica. When the Lord cried, “Why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, it was because he felt completely isolated as he bore the sin of the world. Peter uses the word in Acts 2 when quoting David, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades”. In short, it means to turn away altogether. I do not think intermittent coming and going was precisely what the writer to the Hebrews was correcting.

Furthermore, the instruction is not to forsake meeting together. The word for “meet together” is episynagōgē, which can certain refer to local church meetings, but can also refer to other kinds of gathering. For example, Paul writes to the Thessalonians about “our being gathered to him”, meaning the great final gathering of the church universal to be with Christ forever. The issue in question is not weekly attendance at a specific local gathering so much as fellowship with Christians more generally.

Stirring Up and Encouraging

The writer to the Hebrews puts the onus on the individual believer to take advantage of such opportunities to “stir up” and “encourage” his fellow Christians. There is no specific mention of breaking bread, worship, prayer, singing hymns or formal Bible teaching. These expressions of body life often result in encouragement, but that is not the primary reason we do them; rather, encouragement is a very pleasant by‑product of following the pattern established by the early church. Though this instruction may certainly apply to church meetings, he seems to be emphasizing the importance of not giving up Christian fellowship in hard times. The idea is not to consider what you can get out of Christian gathering, but what you can do for others.

In short, inconsistent attendance is not what this verse is condemning, and merely showing up to fill a seat in a service every week will not accomplish what the writer to the Hebrews is after. Interestingly, I almost never hear these verses used when chasing down professing Christians who formerly attended the church but have gone missing for weeks or months and do not appear to be seeking fellowship anywhere else, yet that seems to me to be the most legitimate application for them in the present day.

Inconsistent Attendance

There are many reasons Christians can be inconsistent attenders. Some are better than others. Young families with both parents working can find it difficult to be present all the time. A wife whose husband is unsaved (or vice versa) may find it necessary to consider her spouse’s wishes about what she does with her time. Christians have different work schedules, and some are on call. Christian camp volunteers may disappear for entire summers. Gifted teachers often go out on the road on Sundays to share the gift God has given them. We generally consider most of these reasons for being absent on Sunday morning legitimate. We might consider them less so if we never saw these folks at all.

But there are other reasons believers steer clear of organized services that have more to do with what is going on in their local church. Some churches do not give much thought to the need to give young mothers a break from their children so they can actually pay attention to what is going on. Singles, divorcees and older believers can feel unappreciated and discouraged in the same atmosphere in which families thrive. Mid-week prayer meetings can be poorly organized and discourage participation or the use of gift. “Open” Bible studies can inspire aimless talkers to hold the floor and waste time in unprofitable rambling. Even on Sundays, much precious time may be wasted in banal platform chatter and tepid, contentless sermonizing that simply fills the hour rather than inspiring worship or increasing our knowledge of God, while the gifts of others in the congregation are never considered or used.

We may feel that other believers are being unfaithful when they decline to sit through such exercises week after week, but it may be that they simply have more productive things to do with their time.

Consumers and Participants

Generally speaking, where church meetings are built on the consumerist model, Christians should not be surprised if the “consumers” vote with their feet. That’s what we do with movies, TV shows, football games, new flavors of coffee and everything else we consume. If the product is worthwhile, we’ll enjoy it so long as that lasts. When it isn’t, we won’t bother.

On the other hand, where believers are working together all week long to build one another up in the love of the Lord and the understanding of the word of God, to help each other develop spiritual gifts, to live out the life of Christ within each of us, to care for the strays, to be hospitable to fellow believers and visitors, and to look for opportunities to encourage others and to draw neighbors and friends into the orbit of the local fellowship, there will probably not be much need to worry about indifferent members of the local body.

There won’t be many.

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