I never thought I would see the day in Canada that Christians would be unable to come together, in person, to worship. Then again, I never imagined a Global Pandemic either. The joke with pastors is that we all skipped the class on pastoring in a pandemic.
I’ve been asked many times if what we are seeing is persecution. We’ve all seen the news stories and reports of pastors and churches who have defied the authorities in order to worship together. Often while flaunting public health protocols.
They’ve been arrested and fined, and they’ve had their churches locked up and fenced off.
And they often provide scriptural justification for their actions. They have defiantly stood on the front steps of their church, while quoting Hebrews 10:25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
But the same bible that contains the words of Hebrews 10 also contains the words of Romans 13:1–2 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.
The Church, capital “C” has been gathering together for 2000 years. In good times and in bad times. During the times they were persecuted, during the times when they were promoted, and during the times when they were simply tolerated. But that doesn’t mean the church has been gathering in large groups and buildings for all those years.
Now I like it when the church gathers together. The fact that I’ve led four different building projects through my years pastoring would be a hint that I like when the church gathers together in buildings called church buildings.
However, I don’t feel that we’ve been persecuted because we’ve had to follow the same restrictions as other public gatherings. I’ve never been persecuted for my faith, but I have met and talked with pastors who have.
In Sierra Leone, I have preached in churches that had bullet holes in the roof. They were stark reminders of the civil war. I spoke with pastors who told me how they watched as their church members and family members were executed in front of them.
In Egypt I have preached in churches, that technically weren’t churches because it was illegal to build a church that wasn’t government approved.
So that fact that we have been following basically the same restrictions as other public gatherings may be annoying and frustrating. Sometimes when other things open a couple of weeks earlier than we can, it doesn’t seem fair. But to me, it hasn’t seemed like persecution.
This past year has been the strangest year that I’ve encountered in my 40 years of pastoral ministry.
We’ve had services without anyone present other than Stefan and I, that were livestreamed and we’ve had services that were recorded earlier in the week and then streamed. We’ve had services where we met in person, but all that happened was that we had a scripture reading and a message. We’ve had services where we’ve met in person with a worship team and children’s ministry, and we livestreamed those services.
We’ve held one service on Sunday, two services on Sunday and three services on Sunday. We’ve met in one location and two locations. We have started in-person services with three days’ notice, and we have cancelled in-person services with three days’ notice. Weird times we’re living in.
This is week three of our Spiritual Health series. In week one we looked at where it all began. How our spiritual life begins with a spiritual birth, and then the expectation that in the same way as a baby grows and matures that a baby Christian will grow and mature.
Last Sunday Pastor Rob looked at how we need to train for our spiritual health and introduced the concept of spiritual disciplines. Three of those are sabbath, community and worship, and for two thousand years those have made folks think of corporate worship.
This week we are going to look at how we were never expected to be spiritually healthy on our own.
The church sometimes gets a bad rap, I remember reading a statement years ago that said “The church is like Noah’s Ark, if it wasn’t for the judgment on the outside, you wouldn’t be able to stand the stink on the inside.” And I chuckled and wrote it down.
But the more I thought about it, the crankier I got. The church isn’t just a human institution; this is a God ordained institution. The local church was put into place for a purpose, and sometimes we blow it, and sometimes we embarrass ourselves, but the church isn’t just another social club.
And I know that there are those who would say, you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. In answer to that Kent Hughes wrote “On the most elementary level, you do not have to go to church to be a Christian. You do not have to go home to be married either. But in both cases if you do not, you will have a very poor relationship.”
Let’s start with Acts 2:1 On the day of Pentecost, all the believers were meeting together in one place.
It’s here we see the Precedent. The church was the church even before there was a church. The day of Pentecost happened fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. This is what Jesus promised in Acts 1:8 and what the early believers were waiting for with a sense of anticipation. Acts 1:8 Jesus told them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
So, at that point, the Holy Spirit hadn’t come yet.
The believers were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. They were waiting to receive power. They were waiting to become witnesses. They were waiting to become the church. And they were waiting together.
And so, from the beginning, the believers were together. They weren’t waiting in their own homes. They weren’t waiting on the beach. They weren’t waiting on the golf course. They were waiting together.
Now granted, they weren’t waiting in a church building. There were no church buildings yet, but they were waiting in a common spot. They had found a space large enough to accommodate the group, which we are told was around 120 in total.
But even before that, in the Gospels, Jesus told the disciples how they were to function as a group. He lays out what to do when conflict arose. Matthew 18:15–17 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.”
I’m not a big fan of the Message, which is a paraphrase of the Bible from the 90s, but I do like how it translates that last line. Matthew 18:17 msg “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”
It was just two chapters before when Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and in response, Jesus tells Peter. Matthew 16:18 Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.
So, the church wasn’t a mistake, it wasn’t just something that happened by accident or happenstance, it was divinely inspired. From the very beginning, it was part of the plan.
The church wasn’t just a good idea, it was God’s idea. Oh that’s good, let’s try it again. The church wasn’t just a good idea, it was God’s idea.
The next question then is, who makes up the church?
Let’s read one of the earliest descriptions of the church, Acts 2:42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
Let’s move from the precedent to The People
The understanding in the bible seems to be that those who called themselves believers would gather together, as believers.
2000 years ago, attending Church was not the socially acceptable thing to do, so it really was a gathering together of those who believed or those who were sincerely curious.
The early church didn’t have people who came to church just because it was something they had always done, or because it was expected of them.
But, it would appear that if you were a believer that you were expected to be involved in corporate worship of some kind.
The church was the church, not because it was a group of people who had gathered together for a common purpose. It was the church because it was a group of believers who had gathered together for a common purpose.
It was A. W. Tozer who wrote, “One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organizations do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team. The first requisite is life, always.”
If you’ve read the account of the Apostle Paul’s conversion, Acts 11:25–26 Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.) Did you catch that, before believers were called Christians, they were called the Church?
But for every what there has to be a why? If the church was God’s idea for his people, why?
It wasn’t just so believers could hang out together.
Romans 12:4–5 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.
The Purpose This could be a sermon by itself, and has been. But we come together because the church isn’t complete without all of us. There are things we do together that we can’t do individually.
Throughout the New Testament the body is used as a metaphor for the church and we are told that no one person can make up the church any more than one part of our body makes an entire body.
Listen to what Paul wrote concerning the church. 1 Corinthians 12:19 How strange a body would be if it had only one part! And, 1 Corinthians 12:12 The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. And Ephesians 4:12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. Not to mention, Ephesians 4:15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.
And having an arm in Bedford, a leg in Sackville and a head in Hammonds Plains does not a body make.
But, it’s not just to be complete.
We come together for corporate worship, and I know that worship is more than singing, but singing is a big part of worship. And I know that we can worship with YouTube or Apple Music, but God has called his people together for thousands of years to worship together, from the time of the tabernacle in the wilderness, to the temple in Jerusalem to the early believers gathering together in an upper room. There is something in coming together, with the altos and sopranos, the tenors and the baritones, and all the instruments, that allows us to lift up a complete offering to God.
And it’s when we come together that we make sense of the teaching and preaching. I call it collective wisdom.
Being together and learning together keeps us from going off the rails in our theology and biblical knowledge.
And we come together for accountability and encouragement. Is it any wonder that John Wesley said “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
So, the question remains, what is it that the church does when they come together?
Acts 2:42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
The Program Through the years I’ve had the opportunity to talk to various people who want to tell me how different their church is from Cornerstone.
When I was actively involved in the church planting community, I was often told by church planters how their new church was going to be different from traditional churches.
The boomers said their church experience would be different from the one they grew up in. Gen X said their church experience would be different and better than the boomers. The millennials, they know what is really needed in church, in order for it to be relevant for today.
Robert Heinlein said, “Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every generation is wrong.” And every generation thinks they’ve come up with a new way to do church, but they’re wrong.
After two thousand years, churches around the world, regardless of the flavour, all have services that have the same elements. There’s teaching, singing, communion and prayers.
Oh, their songs might be different. They might read their prayers instead of being extemporaneous. They might use wine instead of grape juice or a common cup instead of little cups. Their teaching might be 20 minutes or 40 minutes, or include questions and answers, but at the end of the day, there’s teaching, singing, communion and prayers.
How many of you have eaten at an Irving Big Stop? It’s a little different from eating at a McDonald’s or a Burger King. If you go to a McDonald’s in Bedford, or Sackville, or Hawaii and order a Big Mac, you going to get a Big Mac.
If you go to one of the 15 or so Big Stops scattered around the Maritimes and Maine, the menus are basically all the same. But the food is different at each one. It’s all good, and it’s similar, and the descriptions are the same, but the food itself is different. I presume that’s based on the cooks and the management.
I’ve often said that Wesleyan Churches are like Big Stops, we all share the same menu, but it’s served differently in each one. There’s prayer, and singing, preaching and communion. It’s all on the menu, but how it’s presented and served depends on where you are.
The reality though is that it isn’t just Wesleyan Churches that are like Big Stops. We share a common menu with Full Gospel down the street, and Emmanuel Baptist up the street, and Saint Ignatius in Bedford.
And some people prefer the food at the Big Stop in Aulac, and others prefer it at the Big Stop in Enfield or the Silver Fox in Salisbury or the Blue Canoe in Lincoln. That doesn’t mean that the food is awful in the other locations, it’s just a preference.
Some folks prefer the way the Wesleyan church prepares the items on the menu, and others prefer the way the Baptist or Pentecostals or Catholics prepare it. But, regardless of how it is served, the menu has been the same for 2000 years.
Let’s keep going.
Hebrews 10:25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
The Problem We don’t know why some early believers were neglecting to meet together. We can speculate that maybe it had to do with the persecution that was beginning to break out, and some perceived that it wasn’t safe to meet together.
For other’s meeting on the first day of the week would have meant giving up a day of work, or at least a partial day. That didn’t really hit me until I was in Egypt and the day of worship there, because it is prominently Muslim, is Friday. If you want to take Sunday off, you need to work it into your schedule. Just like Muslims and Jews in Canada have to work their day of worship into their work schedule.
The reality is that we can guess why, but we don’t know. All we know is that there were those who should have been meeting together and weren’t. The writer of Hebrews uses the word neglecting here, and it implies that this was something that should be done, but it wasn’t. People neglected worship by choice, not necessity.
And the reason they weren’t meeting together was fear and apathy. For them, gathering together was perceived as unsafe or inconvenient. And they were challenged to put their fear and apathy away, and to come together to worship together and also to encourage one another.
For the first 39 years of my ministry, those who neglected to come to church did so because coming to church on a given Sunday was perceived as inconvenient. Church seemed to interfere with work, or sports, or vacations, or kids sleeping over, or adults sleeping in.
People would talk about church being a priority in their lives, but that wasn’t evidenced in their lives.
Last year, that shifted, and for the first time in my ministry I saw people who neglected to come to church out of fear for their safety. Not the fear of persecution but the fear of COVID. And that was a valid fear. But with the protocols that have been put into place, coming to church when we open in July will be as safe or safer than sending your kids to school or daycare. It will be as safe or safer as you going to work or going to the gym.
In his blog, Grayson Gilbert writes, “When we get down to it, if you understand the importance of why we gather each week — church should become the “excuse” you use to miss everything else that conflicts with it – – – not the other way around.”
We’ve been providing some type of Live Stream for our Sunday morning services since 2009 and it has been extremely valuable for those who were travelling, or those who were ill. And it has been incredibly valuable resource this year during COVID. But I don’t think it can be a replacement for gathering in person. You can hear the sermon online, you can join with the singing on line, but I would suspect that most folks don’t. but you can’t have community, you can’t serve, you can’t experience the synergy of a room full of believers who are worshipping together.
I might just be old and opinionated, but for me online worship is simply a substitute for in person worship. It’s like watching travel videos instead of travelling. Video chatting with a loved one instead of hugging them. It’s better than nothing, but. . .
I know it’s completely out of context but when I was preparing this part of my message, I thought of 1 Corinthians 13:12 Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.
A while back there was an article in the Spokesman newspaper in Spokane, Washington, and in the article Pastor Steve Massey wrote, “We are not neglecting nor forsaking the assembling of God’s people if we temporarily obey a government order to protect public health. But we are neglecting and forsaking our assembling if we decide that physical gatherings are simply not necessary or relevant for us.”
Massey went on to write, “To Christians who sincerely wonder whether “virtual church” has now proven itself a preferred new normal, the Scripture makes this clear: It’s virtually impossible.”
And there has been speculation from some who have wondered if people will see a need to come back to church, or if they will just continue to watch from home?
Rachel Held Evans, wrote, “Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age. After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.”
And so, this morning I leave you with the words of King David, who wrote in Psalm 122:1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”