When I get to heaven, I plan to make two requests: First, and for obvious reasons, I will file for an exception to the no-marriage policy for Michele and me. Second, Vasiliy, “my Russian friend,” and I desire to be next-door neighbors for all eternity.
I hope to bring Vasiliy to Lewis Lake soon and ask him to recount how, in his younger years back in the Soviet Union, he used to wake up in the middle of the night (a different night each week), make his way down dark streets and alleys for a mile or so, careful to not rouse the dog stationed outside every house, sneak into a dimly lit, tightly shuttered home where he’d find a small group of Christians slowly assembling. To minimize suspicions they spaced out arrivals and departures, since being found out by the KGB could mean years in a Soviet prison, and believe me, that was no picnic. Finally assembled, a few songs were quietly whispered, prayers would be offered, someone would read the Bible, someone share a few words, then he’d slip silently back home, crawling into bed around 4AM, only to get back up at five to begin a grueling day of labor under the cruel, corrupt communist regime.
Meanwhile, many American Christians are willing to risk almost nothing or suffer the mildest inconveniences to assemble and worship.
I sometimes envision this meter; on one end is “I’d rather die than go to church,” and on the other is “Give me church or give me death!” Unless I miss my somewhat educated guess, a significant percentage, particularly of larger congregations are comprised of those hovering pretty close to the middle of the dial. Maybe they’ll go, maybe they won’t. Not too much else going on, but I don’t feel that great either. Let’s make a game-time decision.
Churches do lots of things to try to tilt that needle to the yes side. That’s why they make use of entertainment, so people feel like they’ve really missed something special if they don’t come. It should be remembered, of course, there are no grounds to believe that the more mind-numbingly boring our worship is, the happier God is about it.
I try to put myself in Vasiliy’s shoes – if gathering together to worship were illegal, and if being caught doing so was punishable by hard prison time, and if the only “safe” time to do so was at 2am, how much would that drag my needle toward the “definitely not going to church today” end of things?
But an even more intriguing question is this: how did those things not drag our Russian siblings’ needles down to the point they just stayed safer at home? What drove these brothers and sisters to suffer such inconvenience (as if that word could even apply in this case) and take such risks, just to be together for a few moments? I’ll ask Vasiliy that when he comes to Lewis Lake.
A couple weeks ago, unrequested and without provocation, I asked, then proceeded to not really answer, how essential is gathered, corporate worship for a Christian? All of us have had various meaningful gatherings stripped away in recent months, and we’ve discovered we can do quite well without many of them, or have found different ways to do basically the same thing.
Let us be frank: It’s just possible that the church itself is non-essential, and that might be a bit scary for those who, like me, make their living by it. After all, where does the church fit into the ABC’s of salvation?
Admit you’re a sinner,
Believe in Jesus,
Confess your sins,
Voila! we’re in.
We don’t actually need the church, do we, with all its quirky people and troublesome politics? Besides, here in rural Minnesota, we’re somewhat hermitish by nature and enjoy our alone-time. If we wanted to be around people more, we’d live in Minneapolis. Speaking of nature, many are delighted to have lots of nature to worship God in, which being translated means: We’d rather hit the lake early on a Sunday morning, and when the beautiful sunrise pops up we’ll be sure to say, “Wow, thanks God!”
Advanced worshipers of God in nature can successfully hum hymns in the deer stand. It’s the best of both worlds. Especially this one.
Extracting tongue from cheek for a moment, Protestants are theologically and historically right to be suspicious of any person or institution which inserts itself as an essential part of the Christian experience, as if we needed anything in addition to Jesus. Sin boldly (Luther is rumored to have said), die happy, go to heaven.
Last time I wrote this:
We must begin to understand the assembly of the saints is of a fundamentally different kind than the assembly of hockey fans.
Okay, I’ll try.
The church is comprised of two distinct but overlapping and interdependent elements: spiritual content, and spiritual communion.
Almost any assembly (like that of the aforementioned hockey fans) is some kind of content consumer, and the church is no different. Furthermore, God has gifted the church with content-creators – a few doing things the majority consumes. They preach, teach, sing, administer the sacraments. Without these essential activities a church is not a church. After all, three Christians bumping into each other in the cereal aisle a church doth not make, the Reformers would have insisted.
The lockdown has convinced me that church content creation and consumption can be done almost entirely online. On top of that, content from the best creators is freely available to all, and in these days many are taking advantage of it. Good for them; I do too. Hardly makes sense to listen to the local rural parson, on his best day not a particularly good preacher, struggling like the famous one legged man in a kicking contest, now trying to preach to an iPhone, when John MacArthur’s or R.C. Sproul’s sermons, better in content and production, are just as available. God only gifts a couple such men per generation to the church, and it really would be a travesty not to take full advantage.
We can debate, analyze, measure, compare, replicate, duplicate, recreate, and manipulate the content of the church, and we have, for centuries. Content is tangible. Spiritual communion, on the other hand, is far more mysterious, even if just as real.
Communion, by definition, exists only in some sort of, well, community. Self-communion makes as much sense as a solar-powered flashlight. Of course, as soon as I say that, it’ll be the next Christian buzzword.
Communion truly is essential for human survival. Obviously if Adam didn’t get Eve to *ahem* “commune” with, our own existence would be somewhat questionable. It’s also true that our own well-being requires some measure of communion with other people, as this article graphically illustrates.
If all people need some kind of communion to survive, do Christians, a certain kind of people, need Christian communion to survive as Christians? To put it another way, if we strip spiritual communion from the Christian, can we kill his Christianity? And I think the answer to that is yes.
In Hebrews 10 the writer is urging Christians to carry on in the faith, to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” Those who don’t hold fast, he says earlier, drift away. Or they fall away. In chapter 10 the picture is shrinking back. Drifters, fallers, and shrinkers will be lost for eternity. So he encourages his readers to keep each other, in a real sense, from drifting, falling, or shrinking into hell. How would they do that?
“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
Aside from not being stirred up, which doesn’t seem like the end of the world, what’s the real cost of failing to stir and be stirred up? In short, the ones neglecting to meet together end up being overcome by sin. And…
“…If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”Hebrews 10:26-27
It’s a powerful warning, and sometimes it leaps off the page and sinks so deeply into the soul it’s downright terrifying. Being a serial sinner (distinct, I think, from a deliberate one), I’ve lost sleep over the phrase “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”
But the author concludes his thoughts this way, bringing great comfort:
“We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”Hebrews 10:39
The shrinkers get destroyed; the souls of the ones who have faith are preserved.
How does our faith persevere, so we don’t shrink back? The Christian community stirs each other up to love and good works. This can only happen if they do not neglect assembling together, encouraging each other.
The assembly of the saints, then, truly is essential. So essential the New Testament simply assumes its essentiality without explanation, in the same manner it assumes the existence of God, the inspiration of Scripture, and the law of gravity. Apart from the assembled church with its spiritual content and communion, an individual’s faith shrivels up and dies. Thus God says:
“My righteous one shall live by faith,Hebrews 10:38
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”
So what drove our Russian siblings to assemble all those dark, dangerous nights, rather than just read a few verses and mumble a prayer in safe solitude before a good night’s rest?
I’ll ask my eternal neighbor, but I suspect the answer is something like they were driven there by the unseen hand of the Holy Spirit, who is tasked with preserving the saints by preserving their faith. It was he who led them to assemble, to commune together, stirring and being stirred to love and good works, encouraging each other in the face of death itself: Don’t shrink back!
It is interesting, is it not, that Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”? Usually we think Jesus is comforting us that no group is too small. But in these days, it’s worth remembering Jesus is present in a gathering in a way he is not when we are alone. If you want to be with Jesus, get together with other Christians, and you’ll find him there.
How does the church manage to survive in the face of all efforts ever undertaken to stomp her out? In a storm, sailors gladly toss everything non-essential overboard to spare their lives. How, or better, why have Christians not jettisoned the church when traversing history’s stormiest seas?
Instinctively, Christians have deemed assembly essential to being a Christian. A Christian divorced from the content and communion of the church can hardly be considered a Christian.
In this context Cyprian’s famous words concerning the church can be rightly understood:
“She [the church] keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church . . . is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”Cyprian, Unity of the Church, para.6
You better believe it.