Our present situation increasingly calls for a reevaluation of the church. Why does the church regularly gather? I fear that what was said of the assembly in Ephesus may be said of too many churches today, “most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32). While the church is not regularly assembling our purpose for gathering is being tested and refined. Many are restless and eager to assemble. But is it a restlessness and eagerness for the worship of God? Are we anxious to offer to God public praise, thanksgiving, confession, adoration, supplication, and singing? Are our hearts moved with a keen enthusiasm to serve the saints and build them up in love for Christ’s glory and their joy? Is there a hunger and thirst welling within for the nourishment of our own souls through the in-person teaching of the Word, fellowship, ordinances, and public prayer (Acts 2:42)?
At a time when the church was not able to gather due to the plague in Wittenberg, Luther cried, “Lord, give us any plague rather than the plague of the heart!” In other words, primacy falls to the health of hearts before God. He would rather that the church be separated only to grow in earnest longing for God than that the church gather only to have her heart grow distant from Him. Luther loved the church and esteemed her highly. He knew that these two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, true closeness to God induces true closeness with one another (1 John 1:3, 7; John 17:21). This simply demonstrates that times of separation give rise to thoughtful consideration and the reevaluation of our purpose, priorities, and practices. I pray that we all zealously long to gather again for the right reasons.
At such a time as this, may we place before our mind’s eye the solemn reminder that the church comes together to worship God. The gathering of the church is not primarily therapeutic. It is not primarily for our experience. It is not primarily for us to get our fill. The church does not gather to do what can be done the same elsewhere. The Church of England offers a helpful reminder in this respect:
Every pious member of our Church should endeavour regularly to attend on those days; not only to enjoy the inestimable advantage and privilege of worshipping God ‘in the beauty of holiness’; not only for the purpose of commemorating the great events of redemption set forth in the festivals and fasts, and of celebrating the memories of the apostles and first disciples of our Lord; but also with the view of contributing, by the force of example, to the revival of primitive piety, and to the more general attention to the solemn duty of public worship.
The public gathering of Christ’s church is a public tribute to Him, a making much of Him through Word-directed worship—in our public acts of reading the Word, praying the Word, teaching the Word, singing the Word, seeing the Word (symbolically displayed in the ordinances), and fellowshipping together in the Spirit of the Word.
In our reevaluation of why we gather, we must begin with an intent focus on God. We must cultivate a longing for the public praise of His name. But especially in times like ours, where technology allows us to publicly broadcast His Word, we find that what is most lacking in our corporate worship is our togetherness. The worship of God in the fellowship of His saints presents a glory that honors and delights our Lord beyond the social longings that we might feel. Togetherness is emblematic of the gospel and therefore the worship of God.
The idea of togetherness permeates the thought of fellowship. We are called to meet together, worship together, and together share life. This togetherness is not forced. It is the effect of unity, not the cause. The subject of togetherness is basic to the church.
Richard Baxter once said, “The true distinguishing note of a particular church is, that they be associated for holy communion in worship and holy living, not by delegates, nor distantly only, by owning the same faith, and loving one another … personally in presence.” After acknowledging that in times of persecution or plague the church may indeed be unable to meet for a time, he says, “but they should come all together as oft as they can.”
The early church has left us a wonderful example of togetherness for all to see. One that is more than able to stirs our heart’s affections. “All who believed were together” (Acts 2:44). Daily, they gathered together in one place and then fellowshipped in their homes together (Acts 2:46). They prayed together publicly and privately (Acts 3:1; 4:24; 12:12). They would gather together on special occasions (Acts 14:27; 15:30) and routinely gather together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). They would sing together (Romans 15:6; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19).
The gathering of the church is for God’s glory and her good. It is for the good of the church that she comes together (1 Corinthians 11:17). She is to display her unity in love by coming together (1 Corinthians 11:18). The solemn celebration of our Lord’s Supper is one of her greatest purposes and blessings of coming together (1 Corinthians 11:20). She is built upon the singular Christ and is being joined together and “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20–22). Indeed, she is “held together” and built up in the love of Christ (Ephesians 4:16), because “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Paul expresses his longing for “face to face” fellowship for the purpose that the church “may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Colossians 2:1–2). In Christ, the church is “knit together” (Colossians 2:19) in love “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). The spirit of this love and togetherness is captured in the apostle’s reminder to the church, “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (2 Corinthians 7:3).
The church comes together to worship God. And in this, both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions are put on display. Love for God induces love for one another. Togetherness with God enthuses togetherness with one another. Christ is central and the whole enterprise of the church’s gathering is enabled by the power of His gospel. The gathering of Christ’s church for the right reasons is itself an act of worship. Our longing to gather should be motivated by love—a love to God and one another: “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” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
While we are not able to gather together, as so many local churches across the world today and in various times throughout the centuries, let us prepare in heart and mind to come together with a renewed zeal rightly directed in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
May we have a holy longing for the church to gather, to promote Christ for God’s glory and man’s joy.