The number of Americans who identify as Christian has fallen in recent years. To see what I mean, just look up a study from the Pew Research Center entitled "America's Changing Religious Landscape." Along with this decrease in the professedly religious has been an expected drop in church attendance. The most startling aspect of all this is the staggering number of people who retain the title “Christian” but neglect to meet for worship with fellow believers on a regular basis.
Now, there are a couple of common directions we could go at this point. We could simply argue that these “Christians” who seldom dawn the doors of a church, are merely nominal Christians. They are Christian by title, not conviction. Or, we could go down the road of the church-growth movement and ask where we as the American church have gone wrong. Subsequently, we would ask how the church must change in order to regain the attention of the disenfranchised and get their butts back in the pews (or comfy chairs, whatever makes them feel more comfortable, of course).
Well, I’m going to avoid both of these common paths, not that they are unworthy of someone else’s attention. I want to focus on a more foundational issue. Why have Christians made a practice of worshipping regularly in the first place? What should motivate the parent to answer "yes" when asked, "do we have to go to church today?" The answer to this question is not found in your (or my) personal feelings. The answer is historical, theological, and most primitively biblical.
Let me boil it down for the sake of space (I’ll leave recommended readings below). The church is the people of God. God says things like this: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession” (Deut. 14:2). We are many individuals drawn together to be a distinct group, a people set apart for the Lord’s purposes (1 Peter 2:9). We are so connected to one another that the Bible uses the analogy of being one united body (Eph. 4:16). Individuals are made a part of this body by the grace of God in Christ, conferred by faith. Just as the Israelites were redeemed out of slavery in Egypt and gathered as a worshipping community at Sinai, so too the New Testament church is delivered through Christ's sacrifice and gathered to offer spiritual worship all around the globe (John 4:21-24).
But God, in Christ, has not only delivered his people from sin and called them together as a church; he has also given them certain gifts. These gifts are meant to train his church how to live. These gifts are absolutely pivotal for living the Christians life without falling away, as Hebrews 6 warns. These gifts teach, encourage, discipline, and spiritually nourish God’s church. In short, they are the means by which God molds the body of the church to look more like Christ. This is why theologians have called them "means of grace.”
So what are these gifts? They are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. The Word is the Bible read, preached, sung, and confessed. The sacraments are Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which visually present the gospel to us. Prayer is an intimate interaction with God through the mediation of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. These three gifts are uniquely available to believers (Rom. 8:8-9). And, these means of grace have a particular potency when taken advantage of in the context of corporate worship (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Eph. 5:19; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 10:25).
Ok, let’s take it at face value that the hoards of professing Christians who rarely attend worship services are actually Christians, under the biblical definition (Rom. 10:9). Perhaps part of the problem is that they haven't been taught the significance of worship for living the Christian life. What’s more, many church leaders don’t know or don’t believe that corporate worship is really all that consequential. As a result, they deprive their services of a healthy use of the means of grace in favor of more flashy alternatives. But I believe this change, taking place in many of our worship services, is a deadly error. The condition of the church's soul is at stake.
If we really believe that God has supplied his people with what they need to live the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:17), then we better start taking advantage of what He has supplied. Let's not settle for generic, feel-good lyrics, when we could have biblically rich songs in our worship. Why let pastors get away with reading just a few verses from the Bible when our whole services could be filled with Scripture readings? Why should our services be guilty of prayer-anemia when we very well could add extended times of prayer? And of course, what about taking communion more often and having further explanation as to what the sacraments really mean? When the church returns to this biblically rich model, as it did in the 16th century's Reformation and the 18th century's First Great Awakening, we see the Lord bring spiritual vitality and evangelical fervor to his church.
So, what should we as Christians do? Let's start by calling fellow Christians to attend church service. And may we never do this from a desire to win a culture war or see the percentage of church attendance go up. Do not forget — the aim is God's glory and the good of your brothers and sisters in Christ. They need these gifts to live the Christian life! So many are feebly attempting to fight a spiritual battle with earthly weapons. Go and persuade them that God has provided the arms and armor they need to live the Christian life (Eph. 6).
Lamenting our duty to attend worship each week is like lamenting having to eat regularly; it is something that only those in an unhealthy state of mind tend to do. And, remember, we are called to renew our minds through the means of grace provided (Rom 12:1-2). So encourage one another within the church to feast upon the riches found in the Word, sacraments and prayer — for the glory of God and the good of the church!
- Reformed Worship by Terry L. Johnson
- City on a Hill by Phil Ryken
- The Church by Edmund Clowney
- Worshipping With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson
- Worship by Hughes Oliphant Old