By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25
Church attendance is in decline. This has been shown by countless studies throughout the years. Year after year, more people step away from their local congregation, choosing to define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This trend has given rise to an increasing demographic of people who identify as “Nones”, those who have been raised with little-to-no church exposure. It is yet to be revealed what effect the pandemic has had on church attendance.
As scary as this downward trend may appear, this is nothing new. We sometimes forget that the church throughout the ages has faced similar challenges. The church is always one generation away from extinction. It is precisely for this reason that the author of Hebrews exhorts the Christians of the day to “not forsake assembling together as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). Even in the years following the resurrection, with the explosive growth of the church, there was a temptation to step away from the gathered community.
This fact testifies to the relevance of the biblical words for our lives. The Bible’s exhortations and commands still ring true. Gathering as the community of faith is important and necessary for our spiritual lives. There is simply no way around this fundamental, biblical fact. The author of Hebrews bases the call to “not forsake assembling together” upon three exhortations, all introduced with the language of “Let us…”
What Does it Mean to Assemble as the Church?
Hebrews exhorts Christians to draw near to God with sincere hearts (10:22). Our life of faith is to be a constant movement towards Jesus. Our faith is never to be stagnant and lifeless. There is never a moment where our faith is “complete”; where there is no more need for transformation or growth.
The assembly of faith is the place where Christians draw near to God in sincerity, as the church exists for this purpose. Assembling as the church is not about sitting in the pews on Sunday morning. “Church” is not the building we enter; it is the gathering of people. The focal point of any church, therefore, is the presence of Jesus, who unites us together. As Jesus reminds his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). First and foremost, assembling as the church is about drawing near to the Lord.
The author of Hebrews describes how we are to draw near to God “with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (vs 22). This is an obvious reference to baptism – the act by which an individual became a member of the church assembly. Forsaking the assembly of Christians, therefore, is a denial of one’s baptism.
A solitary Christian life would have been unthinkable for the early Christians. To be a Christian person was to be member of the church. One’s faith in Jesus naturally immersed the person (and the family) into a wider assembly. The Christian life is never meant to be lived alone. If we wish to draw ever closer to God, through an interactive and personal relationship with the Jesus, then meeting together as the church is an indispensable part of this goal.
What Is the Purpose of Meeting Together?
The Christian life can be hard. This was certainly the case for the disciples. The early Christians faced the continuous threat of shame, exile, social abandonment, persecution, and death. There was no “prosperity gospel” for the early Christians. Jesus says definitively that “those who lose their lives for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). To follow Jesus was to walk the way of the cross.
We may not face the same reality today, but there are times where we struggle in our faith. There are times where the ugliness of life gets the best of us. We may experience this through a job loss, a relationship ending, or a global pandemic. The point is, every Christian person faces times of doubt, hardship, or questioning. This was true for the Apostle Paul, it was true for Peter, it was true for the early Christians, and it is true for us.
In times of difficulty, the hope we receive from the gospel can feel distant. Meeting together as the church is a balm for us. The gathering of the community serves as a physical reminder that we are not alone; we are surrounded by faithful brothers and sisters who understand how long the journey of faith can seem. They too have born the brunt of the world’s rejection, they too have gone through job loss, and sickness, and loss of loved ones. Thus, they are able to speak a healing word for us in those times.
But what happens if we forsake the assembly? It undoubtedly becomes harder to hold onto the hope that we profess. We end up believing that we are alone in our struggles and hardships. We may even question if we are abandoned by the Lord. Without the church community around us, these questions and doubts will eventually get the better of us. The fire of our faith will grow cold and the vibrancy of our prayer-life distant.
If we wish to hold unswervingly to the hope of the gospel (10:23), then we must remain connected to the church community. The church bears witness to the hope that stands at the center of faith; it proclaims in word, in prayer, and in song, that even in the darkest of places, the light of Christ shines.
Why Assembling Is for the Benefit of All
When we think about “going to church” we often think about this from the standpoint of the individual. We ask questions such as “Do I have to go to church?” or “Can’t I draw near to God by myself?” We may even ask whether we can worship God just as well from the golf course as from the church pew. Such questions are rooted in the assumption that assembling as the church is solely about my own spirituality. Assembling is about what benefits me and my walk with the Lord.
The book of Hebrews reminds us that meeting together as the church is not simply about ourselves. We assemble to bless others. The author of Hebrews writes “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (vs 24). We come together as the assembly of faith so that we may encourage, bless, and minister to one another. We come to be in each other’s company, not merely for our own benefit, but for theirs.
In every assembly of faith, there are people with questions, doubts, and struggles. The church, it is often remarked, is not a sanctuary for saints, but a hospital for sinners. As Christians, we gather in our brokenness, our need, and our vulnerability. This means that within the church there are people who need us to proclaim the love of Christ to them. As members of the church, our ministry to one another is to testify that hope overcomes despair, love defeats hate, and life rises out of death.
We also encourage one another to do good deeds. Paul reminds us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus Christ to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). The community of faith is the place where we receive our call to ministry. It is the place from which we are sent into the world, empowered by the Spirit. Life in the church strengthens our witness in the world. It is hard to be empowered for ministry if we forsake the very place where we are strengthened and encouraged.
Assembling Is Committing
Hebrews exhorts us to draw near to God in faith, to hold unswervingly to the hope of the gospel, and to encourage one another in love and good deeds. The author of the letter then mentions the only place where all these things occur: the assembly of faith. There is simply no other place where these exhortations are fulfilled.
Committing to the church is an act of faithful discipline. It demands that we step away from the worldly push to self-focused gain and individualism. Furthermore, it means there are times when we must make a choice; where the call to the church runs counter to the lure of entertainment, commercialism, or endless busyness. The call to “not forsake assembling together” demands that we recognize the importance of the faithful gathering. The truth is, if we wish to draw closer to the Lord, be steadfast and hope, and encourage one another, assembling with the community of faith is a must. There is no way around this.
Photo credit: Debby Hudson/Unsplash
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.
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