I am under the unwavering conviction that unless I am genuinely ill, people are in the throes of death, my legs are rendered inoperable, or we are trapped in our house, church attendance is mandatory. I will not miss it. Even when I’ve had to miss it under those circumstances, which is quite rare indeed, I have hated it. However, for the sake of being completely transparent, this was not always the case, especially early on in my faith. There was a point in my life where I consistently worked on Sundays. I was a Christian and had been for only a couple years at that point, yet I considered myself to be a faithful Christian who was stuck in between a rock and a hard place. I had no other means of income that I was bringing into the family at that time. My wife worked, but we needed both streams of income to make ends meet and care for our newborn—and yet there was a steadily growing conviction in my heart that I should be coming to church every single Sunday.
While the argument could be made that it was necessary for me to miss due to the circumstances I found myself in, the reality was that I needed to swallow my pride, get another job that could allow me to attend church on a weekly basis, and just be found faithful to come. At some point, the conviction came to me that church was a non-negotiable. What’s more than this is that I came to believe church attendance is a non-negotiable for every Christian. The reason this is so is that I believe the New Testament teaches that our time together as believers in formal, corporate worship, is to be one of the most precious things we partake in as Christians. I believe that regular attendance is so important that it reveals our hearts and priorities. It reveals much of what we treasure, and likewise, much of what we don’t. It especially reveals what we understand about the person of Christ and His saving work upon the cross. Right then and there is where I lost several of the readers.
This is one of those areas where many people have it settled in their minds that church attendance is optional. They can miss here and there without any large repercussions to their spiritual well-being, and their own families will not be any worse off either. However, the reality is that I have never known a casual attendee to thrive in any meaningful capacity. I have yet to meet another pastor/elder that can testify to the exemplary faith of the professing Christian who abdicates regular church attendance. I have witnessed seasons of growth from them, yet I have simultaneously witnessed a stunted growth because invariably, they are sporadically absent from the ordinary means God has given them for their maturity, encouragement, and perseverance in the Christian faith. More often than this stunted growth though is no growth at all, or worse, a “back-sliding” of sorts.
At the onset, I will clarify that there are extenuating circumstances that allow for people to miss church. There are always exceptions to the rule, but exceptions exist as exceptions because they are not the rule. Exceptions to the rule prove the rule. Often, people capitalize on the exceptions to the rule because they have no real intent to be found faithful to the rule itself. Thus, they can confidently assert there are valid reasons to miss church, and thereby assuage their conscience. I would argue that not only does this fundamentally misunderstand the point of why the body of Christ gathers together to worship corporately on Sundays, but the thing which garners their focus is the wrong thing. We ought not to be looking for all the reasons we can miss church. We ought to be looking for all the reasons we should come to church.
Instead of trying to find ways we can settle our conscience by neglecting the assembly of the brethren, we ought to highlight the very reasons that coming to church regularly is a benefit to our souls. We ought to find delight that we can be united in a local body that functions together in service to one another (1 Cor. 12:12-27). In this unique giftedness being exercised among the members of a local church, particularly through the gifting of teachers, we then come to grow in maturity as we attain to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:11-13). These teachers also equip us for works of service for the edification of that local church body (Eph. 4:12), which in particular is expressed through bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), encouraging one another (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:11), building each other up in our most holy faith (Jd. 1:20), pushing one another on in perseverance to the end (Heb. 10:23-25), and pouring out compassion (Eph. 4:32), forgiveness (Col. 3:13), love (Jn. 13:34; 1 Jn. 4:7), brotherly devotion (Rom. 12:10)—and even simply putting up with one another (Eph. 4:2).
How can we be found to not only benefit from these things, but be a blessing to our brothers and sisters in Christ if we are regularly missing church? Can we be said to really understand the importance of these things if we are willing to miss out on these benefits in favor of other things, even if only every once in a while? The reality is that we cannot. You cannot even within the company of “two or more” other Christians, for very good reason. Not only does Matt. 18:15-20 have nothing to do with a bonafide definition of the church, God has not designed for these things to be worked out amongst only those whom we would like to be numbered among.
Beyond these “one-anothers” mentioned above, it cannot go without being stated that another key aspect to attending church regularly is being found in a position of submission to one’s elders (Heb. 13:17). The author of the book of Hebrews issues a straightforward command to obey your leaders, but to do so in an attitude of humility and genuine submission. The reason being: they give an account for your soul, and if you are a person who causes them grief in this task, it will be unprofitable for you. The idea here can be taken to mean that you give them joy by being found in obedience, but also, that you are quite literally just a joy to shepherd. Thus, the natural conclusion to this is that if you are difficult to shepherd, uncooperative, argumentative, negligent, complacent—or simply even non-existent, it doesn’t benefit you in any sense. Beyond this, we are called to consider the outcome of our leader’s lives and imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7); how can we do this if we are not among them on a weekly basis? How can your elders faithfully shepherd you if you are a fair-weather attendee?
There are numerous other, positive benefits to attending church—but at the heart of this post, I really want to address what I believe to be the fundamental issue behind why people treat church attendance as optional: they believe that the church exists to serve them and their felt needs. In other words, they are consumers. They believe the church exists for them and to serve them. They come to the church when it suites them and once they have had their fill, they either move on to another church, or, they simply come at their leisure as they feel some pressing need. In their minds, church is not a place where they can live out their faith in community. It is likewise not a place they feel any meaningful connection with, save for those times they feel a particular thirst for a “dose” of religion. They never move beyond a me-centered approach for why they come to church in the first place, which invariably leads to their departure for one reason or another.
I believe this to be the case because much in the same way, they have treated the Christian faith as a commodity to be consumed. In other words: they have not understood the fundamental principle that while the Christian faith is for them, it is certainly not about them. They have not grasped the truth that even their salvation was not about them. It was for them, but it was about Jesus Christ. It has always been about Jesus Christ; from Genesis to Revelation, the whole of the Scriptures testify—not to man and something winsome within him that merits God’s love—but of the great love of the Father which was demonstrated to the world through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Once we understand this, not only will the whole of our Christian existence change rather radically—how we view the church will also differ. We will become Christ-centered and other-focused rather than me-centered. Our view of the universe will grow beyond the scope of our own nose as we see how we play a part in the grand drama that is playing out before our very eyes. We will become less and less preoccupied with meeting our own “felt needs” and grow more and more concerned with what we can do to meet the needs of others.
Part and parcel to this will be a fuller understanding of the importance of being part of a local manifestation of the body—not simply as we feel like it, but as often as we can, because we will grow more dissatisfied with yoking ourselves with this world in favor of the bride of Christ. In essence, we will begin to see the body of Christ as Scripture portrays her: the spotless bride of Jesus Christ, for whom He died. We will look upon her radiance and loveliness, see her clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and her dear union with her Bridegroom—and we will desire that same union for ourselves. Here then is the fullest reason why we do not abdicate the assembly of the brethren: we are to meet together and encourage one another all the more as we see that great Day coming (Heb. 10:25). In other words: together, as this corporate gathering, we look with great anticipation of the Day when Christ will return and we get to partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-10).
If I could put it even more clearly: we gather with the saints each Sunday, not simply out of obedience, nor even because of all the wondrous benefits found therein. We convene with the local church each weekend because we are betrothed, not as individuals, but as a body, to our Lord, Jesus Christ. We assemble together because He has assembled us together. We gather while it is still called “today” because we will be gathered together in His great halls with the believers of all time. If you can’t stomach meeting with believers today, while they too groan as they await the day of their redemption, in what possible reality can you say with earnestness that you will be united with them at the end of all days? When we get down to it, if you understand the importance of why we gather together each week—church should become the “excuse” you use to miss everything else that conflicts with it—not the other way around.