The Gathering Of God’s People
I hear people say, “I love God. I read His Word. But I don’t see any good reason to go to church. I can be a good person without going to church. Besides, so many of those people are hypocrites!” What reasons do you hear from those who don’t attend church? Do you think their reasons are legitimate?
Let’s look to the New Testament to discover God’s plan for the church, and how church could make a difference in our lives.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
During His time on earth, Jesus trained his disciples (later called apostles) to carry on His ministry and establish His church (Mark 3:14; Matthew 16:18). After Jesus’ death, the apostles led the first church in Jerusalem, but eventually went out establishing churches everywhere, turning the leadership over to qualified believers (Acts 6:1-7; I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
SO, WHAT’S A CHURCH?
The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “gathering.” It’s a gathering of believers who are committed to following God, ministering to one another and taking the message of God’s love to the world.
In one sense, it’s an organization, structured with regular meetings (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2) and official leaders (I Timothy 3:1-13). In another sense, it’s an organism. Believers are members of God’s family (Ephesians 2:19), so that we are spiritual brothers and sisters (Luke 8:21). Through this gathering, we draw closer to both God and other believers.
For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20)
From Him (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:16)
Once you establish a set of solid relationships, you’ve found a sweet fellowship that can change your life.
Some might object, “But can’t we draw closer to God simply through walking in the woods and draw strength from other believers by visiting at a coffee shop?” Sure. But for some reason the church gathering makes this happen in special ways that other methods can’t. Perhaps that’s why Hebrews challenges us:
God wired us to function best in the context of significant relationships. We need each other.
Since we don’t know people’s hearts or their private lives, it’s often hard to tell the sincere from the insincere. So don’t get turned off when you meet hypocrites at church. We should expect them! Even one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples was a hypocrite: Judas. But once you establish a set of solid relationships, you’ve found a sweet fellowship that can change your life.
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…. (Hebrews 10:25)
WHAT THE CHURCH IS NOT:
A GATHERING OF PERFECT PEOPLE
At a typical church service you’ll find some dedicated believers who came to worship, others who came to please a spouse or parent, others who came to make business contacts, and still others who came to find someone to date. Even the committed believers aren’t perfect (I John 1:8). Some are more mature than others. Some have better people skills than others. Some are downright obnoxious.
Here are a few of the reasons that God wants us to get involved with a local church.
1. For Fellowship
God wired us to function best in the context of significant relationships. We need each other. Successful individuals have often discovered the value of regularly hanging out with those who have similar interests and goals.
Twenty-two-year-old Albert Einstein and likeminded friends met frequently in each other’s homes and talked on hikes, sometimes all the way through the night. These conversations had an enormous impact on his future work. They called themselves “The Olympia Academy.”
Fifteen-year-old Bill Gates met regularly with other computer enthusiasts who called themselves “The Lakeside Programmers Group.”
Benjamin Franklin met every Friday for decades with a diverse group of civic- minded thinkers called “Junto.” Many of his great accomplishments were a result of cross-pollination from this group.
Writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met with a group called “The Inklings,” on a weekday morning and Thursday evenings at Lewis’ house, often reading their manuscripts aloud to get input. I think it’s significant that the groups were organized enough to have names: “The Inklings,” “Junto,” “The Lakeside Programmers Group,” “The Olympia Academy.”
If the synergy of such gatherings can make people vocationally successful, doesn’t it make sense that regular gatherings with committed believers could make us spiritually successful? So what is it about fellowship that helps us spiritually thrive?
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
First, fellowship stimulates us through the sharing of ideas (Hebrews 10:24,25). These extremely successful people found that the collaboration of several minds produces more wisdom than the sum of their thoughts working separately. It’s the same in our spiritual lives. When I read the Bible on my own, I come up with a few applications to life. But when I study it with others, I discover a whole array of life applications that I would have never come up with on my own.
Our spiritual fire will diminish if we forsake meeting with motivated believers.
Second, fellowship keeps us balanced in our thinking and our lifestyle (Ephesians 4:11-16). On our own, we gravitate toward certain teachings while ignoring others. I suppose that’s why the New Testament authors had to spend so much time warning believers that they’d gotten off course with their understanding of grace or legalism or spiritual gifts or the second coming. Each believer offers wonderfully unique insights into Scripture and life that keep us out of spiritual ruts and guard us from extremes.
Third, we build relationships that motivate us spiritually. Close together, the sticks in your campfire burn brightly. Spread them out and the fire quickly goes out. In the same way, our spiritual fire will diminish if we forsake meeting with motivated believers.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24,25)
Fourth, we find support and encouragement for difficult times (I Thessalonians 5:11-15; II Corinthians 1:3,4). When my wife was ill with cancer, church folks brought meals and offered other practical help. Raising four boys, working, and caring for my wife overwhelmed me. I needed help. The church came through. But those relationships don’t generally come from just having your name on a church role and showing up at Easter. It comes from developing solid relationships through participating in small groups, learning and serving together.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR OTHERS?
Fellowship isn’t all about me. It’s also about helping others. God’s equipped each of us in special ways to build up, encourage and instruct others. You may not think you have much to offer. But God’s Word says that each of us has been given gifts that are critical for the health of the church.
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others….(I Peter 4:10)
“But I don’t know what my gift is. How can I serve?” you might ask. I’d suggest, “Start serving wherever you see needs.” Spend time with the lonely, encourage the discouraged, give advice to those needing counsel, keep the nursery, assist in a small group, help with clean-up, build wheelchair ramps for the needy…well, you get the idea.
There are many gifts and ministries (Romans 12:3-8; I Corinthians 12:1-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; I Peter 4:7-11), so start trying them out! The more I serve, the more I discover what ministries I enjoy, what people say I’m good at, what I’m most motivated and equipped to do. Ask the leaders of the church you attend to help you find areas of service that are appropriate for you.
And don’t get infatuated with the gifts that get the most attention, like preaching and singing. The Apostle Paul likens the church to a body (I Corinthians 12:12ff.), with each part doing its part to make the body work. Toes and thumbs may not be glamorous, but if you wake up one morning to find them not working, you’ll realize pretty quickly how important they are!
In other words, there are no small gifts. So take what you’ve got and begin serving.
2. For Learning the Word of God
We’ve just seen how the church is a family that nurtures us. But it’s also a school that teaches us. Sure, I can read the Bible on my own. And I should (I Peter 2:2,3). As the Psalmist said,
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97)
But I also learn from gifted teachers and preachers (Ephesians 4:11-13) who’ve spent years studying the Bible. While a young believer can read a chapter and glean some truth, a mature, gifted teacher can bring in many other related passages to bring balance and depth to that truth.
But just because teachers are gifted doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. That’s why Luke praises the noble character of the Bereans. When Paul taught them, they didn’t blindly follow. Instead, they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) Over time, the nurture and teaching of the church helps us to grow up in our faith, so that we may one day find ourselves teaching others (II Timothy 2:2).
3. For Worship
What is Worship?
Worship is declaring God’s worth—that He is above all else, number one in our lives, the One most worthy of our worship (I Peter 2:9). Someone has defined worship as “setting our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God, praising Him for who He is and what He has done.”
Worship is declaring God’s worth—that He is above all else, number one in our lives, the One most worthy of our worship.
If that’s true, then it’s entirely possible to attend a worship service, but never truly worship! If we’re more excited about our things and our friends than our God; if we sing songs about God while our thoughts are elsewhere, we’re not really worshipping.
First, God is worthy of our worship. He created this vast universe and breathed life into each of us. He sculpted the mountains, filled the oceans with waterand created exquisite beauty with His masterful artistry. He provides rain and sunshine to grow our crops, His Word to light our path, intelligence and wisdom to navigate life.
And even after we failed Him horribly, rebelling and going our own way, He sent His Son to pay our penalty, so that we could experience true life and look forward to an eternity in heaven. Truly, God is worthy of our worship!
A second reason to worship is that it meets one of our deepest needs. Everyone worships something. If we fail to worship God, we’ll find something else to worship, like material things, sex, power or false gods (Romans 1:21-23). But all those objects of worship fail miserably, leaving us feeling shallow and unfulfilled. God is the only object of worship who truly satisfies our deepest longings.
HOW TO WORSHIP
There are many ways to worship God, so don’t get stuck in a rut! In the Bible, we find worshippers speaking, singing, and playing instruments to God. They used a variety of instruments (horns, cymbals, tambourines, stringed instruments) and praised Him in different locations (in a house, in nature, in His sanctuary, in bed, in jail), in different manners (leaping, clapping, dancing, lifting hands), with different content (thanking Him for personal blessings, for His character and attributes, for His creation).
Some people enjoy reading a Psalm to God; others write a letter of thanks to Him. Some sing to Him; others take a walk with Him, thanking Him for the beauty and wonder of their surroundings. Find what works best to keep your mind’s attention and heart’s affection focused on Him.
Often we worship privately, but neglect corporate worship in the gathering of believers (Colossians 3:15,16). “But can’t I worship God just as well in the privacy of my bedroom, or in my car on the way to work? Why commute to worship when I can do it at home?”
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to compare our relationship with God to our closest human relationships. Are you familiar with the concept of “love languages”? In brief, when I want to express my love for my wife, I don’t express it in the ways that mean the most to me. I express love in the ways that mean the most to her—in her love language.
So if I love cold orange juice in the morning and she prefers hot coffee, what do I bring her in the morning to express my love? Obviously, the hot coffee. I don’t have to like hot coffee. I don’t have to understand why she likes hot coffee. It’s enough that she told me that she likes coffee, likes it hot, likes it with a spoonful of sugar, and likes it in the morning. If I want to express love to my wife and her love language involves hot coffee, I will bring her coffee just as she likes it.
I think of worship in the same way. Some may think, “I don’t like lots of people talking to me at the same time. I prefer intimate, one-on-one settings. God’s probably the same way, preferring my individual worship more than group worship. Therefore I don’t need to go to church to worship.”
But if worship is about showing God our love for Him, we’d best pay attention to His love language more than our own. How does He tell that He prefers to be worshipped? Since we know that He established the church, called it His body, and that we see corporate worship demonstrated throughout the pages of Scripture, we have to assume that corporate worship is an important part of God’s love language.
Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, His praise in the assembly of the saints. (Psalm 149:1)
Finally, we worship God by the way we live. He’s not impressed with beautiful voices, lengthy prayers or perfect church attendance on Sunday, if our hearts and actions are far from Him on Monday through Saturday.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:17)
WRAPPING IT UP AND APPLYING IT TO LIFE
Church isn’t a place that we passively attend. It’s a living fellowship where we actively interact with fellow believers and with God. All believers should find a church where they can have fellowship through building relationships, learning God’s Word and worshipping Him.
If you’re not currently involved with a church, make plans to visit a church with a friend this week. Perhaps the person who shared this Pocket PrincipleTM can recommend one. If you already attend a church, make sure you’re deepening your relationships, learning His Word and truly worshipping.
To get more involved, consider praying these three things on the way to church,
“God, today at church, help me to:
•Meet other believers and encourage someone who might need help.
•Learn something from You and other believers that I can apply to my life.
•Truly worship You, rather than just say words while my mind is elsewhere.”
If you want to express love to God in His love language, make church a part of your worship experience.