It was late on a Sunday morning, and I was just waking up. I’d slept in, knowing that I wasn’t healthy and that I needed rest. I was thinking, “I’ll miss church if I don’t get up soon.”
For context, my Sunday morning “Church” is online and I attend by webcast. My “in real life” fellowship is another time during the week. This train of thought applies to both, really.
So I was thinking about what would happen if I miss church this morning, and that turned into an interesting train of thought. “What is my tradeoff? What am I missing if I miss church?”
The accusation crossed my mind that my online church is unnatural, not really what God has in mind for me, so I considered that for a moment. There actually is some merit in the argument that an online “fellowship,” where I am only an observer, not an actual participant, is not really what God had in mind as ideal for me. OK, let’s follow that thought for a moment?
But wait! Isn’t that what most Sunday morning gatherings are like? I’m an observer there, too. Oh, yes, I stand up when they say to, and sing the words they tell me to sing, and sit back down when they say to. But there’s no point during our time together at
Someone will say, “That’s not what Sunday mornings are for. That belongs in a home group.” [And here is where I’ll add my commercial: if you’re not part of a fellowship of believers that meets in an informal setting like a home, then they’re seriously missing out.] that kind of “sharing” is not an appropriate expectation for a Sunday morning gathering, though it would fit in the hallway or the lobby, maybe. There’s merit in that statement: Sunday mornings aren’t really designed for those kinds of things (which is rather a strong argument in favor of my online church – or for house church – but I’m going a different direction here).
So what are Sunday mornings for? What is the church gathering for, really?
Is Sunday Morning for worship? That can’t be right. My best worship is private, and I hear others tell me the same. I find that I believe that corporate worship is at its best when the worshippers have worshipped privately, and I know that I am a far better worship leader when I have worshipped privately. So while I affirm the value of corporate worship, I suspect that it is not the primary motivation, at least in God’s mind, for the gathering of the Saints.
I hear people talking about the value of getting fed at church; maybe the value of the church gathering is in the teaching. And I do value the teaching of my online church! But the Book is clear, and I’m fully committed to the concept that I must learn to feed myself first. The teaching there is good, but it is to supplement my own feasting on the Word. That can’t be the main value of church gatherings.
I’m going to be blunt here: It seems clear that the idea of “the message is the most valuable part of church gatherings” has come from those who preach. And it is from worship leaders that I most often hear that worship is the most important part of the service. (Please don’t assume that I don’t value a well-preached message from a gifted teacher, or that corporate worship isn’t glorious. If that’s what you’re hearing, you need to read this again more carefully!)
The thought crossed my mind, “What does the Bible say about the church coming together?” and as it did, a verse from Hebrews came with it:
It hit me like a freight train: God’s purpose for us coming together is to encourage each other. Specifically, it’s to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” which is how we are to encourage each other.
That’s the reason for coming together as a congregation: encouragement.
There is more extensive teaching on the church gathering together in 1 Corinthians 11, and it’s focused on meals together. Paul touches again on the topic in the midst of teaching about spiritual gifts in chapter 14, and in that context, he says, “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” Same thing: encouragement. Apart from these passages, there is no definitive teaching on church meetings in the New Testament, though Acts shows that the early church met daily in homes and weekly for apostolic teaching.
We could take it all together and form this model: When the saints come together, let’s gather around the dinner table, and let’s encourage one another, and let’s use what God gives us to that end.
My recommendation: learn to worship by yourself, not dependent on a leader and a band, though worship with them when you can. Learn to feed yourself, though supplement that with good, inspired teaching sometimes. But choose the congregation you gather with by this: “Is this a place where we can encourage one another?” And then go there, prepared to encourage, prepared to encourage others.
Let’s think about this for a minute, please. If you and I and a handful of others are gathered in a church on a Sunday morning, or a home group on a Thursday night, then we’d expect the presence of God with us, on the basis of this verse, wouldn’t we? We’re gathered together in His name, after all.
But if I walk to the far side of the room, or step outside the front door, is His presence still with us? How about if I walk across the street? Or down the block? What kind of distance does “together” encompass? If I fly to Djibouti and you remain at home praying for me, is His presence somehow removed because we’re not “together”?
My point is that it doesn’t make sense for us to interpret “together” as primarily a function of physical location. I can see two hindrances to a physical interpretation: a) if we’re defining “together” as “within physical proximity,” then there comes a point when nothing has changed except physical distance, and now God’s presence is no longer with us, and this isn’t particularly consistent with scripture, and b) this passage is talking about a spiritual principle (unity), but “distance” and “location” are physical descriptors, not spiritual ones: feet and inches don’t have significance in the realm of the spirit.
Or another application: what would happen if you and I met at Safeway? Does that qualify as “gathered together”? Do we still qualify as “in His name”? Is His presence still with us in something approximating the way it is on Thursday night at home group?
Here’s where I’m going: I think that “gathered together in My name” should perhaps be defined as a state of covenant relationship existing between us. After all, His presence among us doesn’t begin when the meeting starts any more than it somehow vanishes when the pastor says, “
If you and I are in a covenant relationship, then certainly we will meet together sometimes. We might meet at the same church, the same home group. We might meet at Starbucks (I have a friend who calls it “
OK, if all that’s true – if being “together” speaks of relationship more than location – then God’s presence is in our midst, even when “our midst” is on opposite sides of the city, or the world. If that’s the case, then the necessity of our Sunday Mornings together is reduced: if God is really with us when we are united in heart, then you and I “going to church” will happen whenever or wherever we are “being the church.”
There are some very significant implications from this:
· I can be refreshed, strengthened and equipped by God anywhere, anytime.
· I don’t need to invite people to church in order to introduce them to
· I can pray for the sick, or share communion, or instruct people in the Word in the mall or in the church building with equal effectiveness.
· I can count on the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit pretty much anywhere I go.
· Wherever I am,
So does any of this suggest that gathering on Sunday mornings (or Thursday nights) is irrelevant or unnecessary? May it never Be! The Book encourages to gather together “all the more” as time goes by: My responsibility to be the Church is increased, not decreased, by this.
So it’s valuable, it’s important and even necessary that we gather together as believers. But the time and place are maybe not so important. And wherever I am, whenever it is, I am a representative of
One of the most fascinating situations in the Bible is never described. It happens during the latter years of
This time fascinates me intensely, and I believe that it’s a metaphor for where the church is today.
The House of Worship
In that day, the Tabernacle of Moses (also known as the Tabernacle of Meeting) was installed on the hill of Shiloh a good day’s walk from Jerusalem. It encompassed a whole campus of highly ornate tents covering several acres. It was the only place where the entire nation would go to worship, and they went there by the thousands. The Levites and Priests taught the Law, the sacrifices were offered there: sin offerings, thanksgiving offerings and all the rest. Offerings and sacrifices were received from the people in the form of gold, silver and animal sacrifices.
The Tabernacle was a big spectacle: there were gold and silver and bronze and embroidery and bright colors everywhere.
Shiloh had become a noisy place. The crowds of people brought their own noises, and everywhere was the noise of the sheep and birds and oxen that were brought for sacrifice, interrupted by the businessmen selling more animals for sacrifice.
Over all that was the music. Ah, the music! Choirs, trumpets, harps.
The air was filled with fragrances. The animals brought their own smells of course, but the sacrifices and offerings filled the air with the smell of barbecue. And when they lit the incense, the smell of spices filled the place.
Services for thousands of people were led by priests decked out with linen and jewels and fancy robes and sometimes fancy hats. It seemed that the more important you were – and all the leaders were important – then the fancier your vestments were.
The entire nation was commanded by law to come together for a national party three times every year, and when it happened, the crowds swelled from the hundreds or the thousands to the hundreds of thousands. Every hotel room was booked solid for weeks, every restaurateur made a healthy profit when the festivals came to town.
Imagine an NFL football arena ten miles outside your hometown, and then imagine that it was a legal requirement that the entire nation attend the game every weekend. Now imagine that your team is in the Superbowl in that arena three times a year, and that
The people didn’t gather for worship at the Tabernacle of Meeting in rebellion or selfishness; their goal was not spectacle. They were in fact obeying the commands of the Lord, commands about when to worship, how to sacrifice and what to teach. The leaders were installed by the command of God, for all that the hands that were laid on them were the hands of men. This worship service was established by God, and it was perpetuated at His command by His blessing.
They only lacked one thing. God’s presence, the Ark of the Covenant, was no longer there. Other than that, they pretty much had everything going for them.
The Presence of God
The Ark itself had been moved into the city of Jerusalem, and it was now residing in a pup tent in
That little tent would soon be known as
The significant point was that the Ark, and therefore God’s presence was no longer hidden behind layers of ceremony and religious bureaucracy. Suddenly, for the first time since the Burning Bush, God was immediately accessible to His people.
Based on how much the Bible describes
The remarkable thing was that Heaven knew of
Tabernacles and the Twenty First Century
We live in a day like the day that
Heaven is committed to this kind of worship, and this is the pattern of worship that makes God happy: people coming directly to God, coming freely and joyfully, without the pomp and circumstance of the Tabernacle of Meeting, without the religious trappings of the grand ceremony and tradition.
We live in a day where there are large and prestigious and prosperous gathering places on the hilltops, in the public places. They’re in the media and in the eyes of the nation, and the people go there by the thousands to perform the rituals and offer the sacrifices and be trained by the religious authorities of the nation. They have the professional musicians, the professional speakers, the professional media technicians. The ceremonies are moving and the messages are relevant and uplifting. Thousands come to a faith in
They lack only one thing. The presence of God is not in them.
I am not opposed to mega churches, or to Sunday-morning gatherings in general; I repeat: I’m part of one, and I like it. These are not “ungodly abominations;” they are not sacrilegious and they are not (by and large) the work of the flesh, that is, they are not monuments to self or pleasure or our own righteousness. But they’re not following the presence of God (I remind you: there are exceptions to everything I write in this blog!).
These churches carefully following plans laid down by godly men and women, whether that’s the vision of the founders, the vision of the pastor or the directions of the board of directors. They’re doing their best to be what they think a church ought to be. They’re following the law as they know it.
But it is
Tabernacles and Me
The big deal is this: it demonstrates God’s heart! God, it appears, prefers passion to legalism, intimate worship to religious conformity.
This isn’t about location. I’m not lobbying for Believers to run screaming from their churches and worship God in their back bedroom. Location means pretty much nothing.
I’m saying that going to church is not the thing that God respects. I’m lobbying for Believers to worship God passionately, intimately. I don’t really care if you and I worship God in the big gathering or the little one, as long as we passionately worship. The goal is getting crazy for God’s presence. The goal is worshipping with abandon, holding nothing back. The goal is letting nothing and nobody get in the way of our worship, whether circumstances, other worshippers or church leaders.
The reality, however, is that that we often can’t worship that way in our Sunday morning gatherings. When we’re there, we often (and often appropriately) need to conform to cultural standards of the place. If we were to dance in church like
But we must worship. We must worship in abandon. We must be passionate. We must find a time and a place we can be foolish with. We must find a people we can worship among, who won’t be distracted by our passion, because they’re lost in their own.