“Do we have to go to church today?”
This is a question my parents remember me asking more than a few times when I was growing up. I’m sure other parents have heard their own children ask the same question. I certainly have! This request is somewhat understandable from a child’s point of view. I admit that when I was eleven, there were times I would’ve rather stayed home to work on my Lego catapult than go to church on Sunday. I knew going to church was good; I would have agreed that God wanted us to worship Him together. But I might have argued that going to church once or twice a month was good enough. That was my logic as a child in a Christian home. It’s not the best logic, but from a child’s point of view, it is somewhat understandable.
One problem in the Christian life is when adults use this same logic: going to church is good, God wants us to worship together, and going once or twice a month is good enough. It’s one thing for a child to reason this way; it’s a very different thing for an adult to do it. So I’d like to spend a little time on this topic. There are legitimate reasons why some people can’t meet for worship frequently (illness, emergencies, legitimate travel, etc.). However, I believe that most of our reasons for neglecting worship are not legitimate (ball game, boating, too tired, etc.). But that’s the topic of a different article.
For now, I want to open the discussion by asking questions like these: What are the dangers of neglecting public worship? How does it hurt a Christian when he or she frequently misses worship? What does it hurt to skip church? Or, to repeat a child’s question, “Why do we have to go to church today?”
The following answers to those questions are based on Scripture and biblical principles. I don’t want to come at this topic from a legalistic point of view (you must worship in order for God to accept and save you), nor do I want to come at it from a traditionalistic point of view (we worship every week because that’s the way we’ve always done it). Instead, I want to give reasonable, wise, and biblical answers to these questions. So again, what does it hurt the Christian to habitually skip public assembly?
It is against God’s will. In Hebrews 10:25 Scripture clearly rebukes Christians who habitually neglect public worship. To paraphrase, the verse says, “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some people today.” Without debating the number of worship services these people were missing, it is safe to say that the early church was regularly meeting together to worship Christ; for one example, Acts 2:42 says God’s people were “continually devoting themselves” to meet (NASB). By the time and context of Hebrews, some in the church were very irregular in their attendance, and they were clearly called out for skipping church. So our Larger Catechism says that sins forbidden in the fourth commandment include “all omissions of the duties required” in keeping the Sabbath and “all careless, negligent, and unprofitable performing of them” (WLC Q/A 119). It is displeasing to God when His people habitually neglect public worship services; it does not bring Him glory and honor because it is against His will.
It is harmful to the Christian’s faith. Missing public worship services hurts a person’s faith. God has promised that through His Word He will powerfully bless His people. Faith in Christ comes through hearing His Word (Rom. 10:17), and that faith is strengthened through the same Word. The Word of God’s grace is able to build you up in faith (Acts 20:32; see also Ps. 119). This is why we call preaching an ordinary means of grace—it is one of the primary ways God showers His grace upon His people (see WLC Q/A 154). If we habitually neglect preaching, we habitually neglect God’s showers of grace. And neglecting showers of grace makes the seed of faith wither rather than grow in our hearts. The same can be said of the sacraments, which are signs of Christ’s work for us—other means God uses to strengthen our faith. So think of habitual neglect of worship like habitual neglect of watering and fertilizing a garden in an arid climate. The plants will not grow. So our faith will not grow if it is not regularly watered by the Word and sacraments.
It hinders Christian fellowship. Hebrews 10:24–25 not only talks about attending worship services, it also talks about Christian fellowship in the same sentence. Alongside the exhortation to stop missing worship services, the author of Hebrews tells God’s people to stir one another up in love and good works, and encourage one another in the faith as we await Christ’s return. Assembly, encouragement, love, and good works go hand in hand. This kills our self-centered, individualistic attitude and helps us think and live in a more covenantal, corporate way. We should regularly assemble with other Christians so we can encourage one another in the Christian faith and be encouraged by one another. One commentator put it this way, “The entire community must assume responsibility to watch that no one grows weary or becomes apostate. This is possible only when Christians continue to exercise care for one another personally.” After all, Christianity is not a solo endeavor, nor does it square with the individualism of our culture. Jesus said “by this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NASB). This is why the Westminster Confession says, “Saints by profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God” (WCF 26.2). A true Christian doesn’t say, “I love Jesus but not the church.” If a person frequently skips worship, he is casting his doubt on the importance of fellowship and love for God’s people.
It diminishes God’s praise. The Bible (especially the Psalms) is full of examples where God’s people publicly sing praises to His name and honor Him together. For example, Psalm 34:3 says, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (cf. Ps. 95:1–2, 6; Rev. 19:7). When we rarely sing praises to God with His people, it diminishes our praise of God—praise which we should want to give Him together with His people: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Ps. 122:1). Habitually missing worship service means habitually neglecting to praise God with His people. This even sets a bad example before unbelievers; an unbeliever might begin to think (wrongly) that one can be a Christian without attending public worship services. Indeed, it is inconsistent if a person calls himself a Christian but does not care about praising the Lord with other Christians.
It confuses other Christians. To put it in common terms, Christians have historically been known as “church goers,” and this is a biblical way to think (see the first point above). When a Christian frequently skips worship services, other Christians who notice begin to wonder why this person is skipping. Or, if a child in a Christian family notices that a certain other family never comes to worship, that child might wonder why that family is not worshipping. I myself have been confused by those who call themselves Christians but rarely worship publicly. The Bible teaches that if a person is truly a Christian, that person doesn’t depart from the body but sticks with it (1 John 2:19). In other words, if a Christian frequently skips church, he is setting a poor example for other Christians and causing them confusion (rather than building them up as he should). Perhaps people who frequently skip church need to think more about how this might harm other Christians. Habitual neglect of public worship is a blemish on a Christian’s profession of faith that can cause other Christians to stumble. Certainly no Christian should want to be a stumbling block for another Christian!
It obstructs true piety. In the church’s liturgy God’s people learn the rhythm of the Christian life: praise, confession of sin, forgiveness of sin, prayer, hearing God’s Word, and learning how to live for Him. These elements of worship help keep our Christian life oriented in the right direction; liturgy is like a Christian recalibration. God’s law gives us moral clarity, a biblically informed conscience, and leads us to recognize and confess our sins. Hearing God’s forgiveness helps us fight guilt and shame, and learning how to live a life of gratitude helps us live for His glory. Habitually avoiding worship services make us forget the right way to walk as disciples, casts confusion on morality, messes up our consciences, makes us prone to shame and guilt, and throws a fog on the realities of God and His grace. Someone who constantly skips worship is exposed to the world and often falls into the sin of worldliness. As a friend recently reminded me, the psalmist’s confusion about reality was cleared up when he went into the sanctuary of God (Ps. 73). Neglecting worship services gets in the way of true Christian piety.
It makes the pastor’s and elders’ task difficult. God has called the pastor and elders of a local church to care for the flock, to pay attention to it, love it, set good examples for it, to pray for it, and so forth (see Acts 20:28–31; 1 Tim. 3:4; 1 Peter 5:1–3, etc.). In fact, church leaders are accountable to God for how they lead and care for the flock (Heb. 13:17). When a person habitually neglects public worship, the pastor cannot preach to that person and the elders begin to worry about that person’s faith and life. Certainly pastors and elders should do their duty even outside the public worship service, but it is very difficult for pastors and elders to do their task of shepherding when someone constantly misses worship services. In fact, Hebrews says that Christians should “obey” their leaders, “submit to them,” and “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7, 13). The Bible even talks about Christians honoring elders (1 Tim. 5:17). When a Christian constantly dodges worship services the elders have called for, he is not obeying and submitting to his leaders, nor is he showing honor to them. One might even think of the fifth commandment here, which implies that God’s people must obey those in authority over them. Despite the fact that most Americans don’t like authority figures, the Bible is quite clear: we must obey elders and pastors that God has put in authority over us. Neglecting worship services is a failure to obey authority and makes pastors’ and elders’ jobs difficult.
It is making light of membership vows. Although some churches today care little about membership, historic Reformed churches have membership vows that are taken from various places in Scripture (cf. Deut. 6:13; Ezra 10:5; Ps. 50:14; 116:14, etc.). When a Christian joins one of Christ’s churches, he makes certain covenantal (and public) promises: that he believes in the triune God, that Jesus saves him from sin, that he wants to live a godly life, and so forth. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a person vows “to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline.” One of the vows in the URCNA is a promise to share “faithfully in the life of the church, honoring and submitting to its authority.” If a person makes a vow in church and then bails on the church by habitually forsaking worship, that person is not keeping the vows he made. Here is where one might discuss a violation of the ninth commandment (see also WCF 22.5 on vows and oaths).
It is a sign of apathy in the faith. If a person loves the Lord with fervency, loves His Word with passion, and loves other Christians, he will want to worship Christ with other Christians (cf. Ps. 122:1; Isa. 2:3). I don’t know of any Christian who fervently loves Jesus but never sings to Him with His people and doesn’t care to sit at His feet with His people to hear His Word. I do, however, know of Christians who grow lazy in the faith and would rather watch a football game or fire up the barbeque than sing to Jesus with other Christians. The Larger Catechism says one of the sins that the fourth commandment forbids is “being weary” of the duties required on the Sabbath (WLC Q/A 119). John Newton once wrote a letter to his congregation on this very topic. Among other things, he said, “Most of you agree with me that Scripture is God’s revelation. But do not some of you act inconsistently with your acknowledged principles? Your business and entertainment indispose you for due observation of our church services. You have other things to do, so you miss many sermons. . . . Many people can give their attention to trivial entertainment for several hours without weariness, but their patience is quickly exhausted under a sermon where the principles of Scripture are applied to the conscience.”
It invites Satan’s temptations. I once saw a clip on a nature show on hyenas and how they hunt for food. They often look for and hunt the antelope that is a bit removed from the herd since there is protection in numbers. Similarly, Satan and his demons often attack Christians at a vulnerable point: when they are alone, not accountable to anyone, not hearing God’s Word regularly, and not benefiting from Christian strength in Christian numbers. Satan is no idiot—he knows the best times to attack. It is no coincidence that Peter says Satan is like a hungry lion on the prowl (1 Peter 5:8). The church is Christ’s flock, and straying from the flock is spiritually dangerous. To remove oneself from the assembly is to expose oneself to Satan’s attacks and invite his arrows of temptation.
It is a step down the road of apostasy. The track record of apostates is to go to church for a while, then less frequently, then not at all. Hebrews 10 (mentioned above) doesn’t just give a command to habitually worship with the assembly; it also warns of the hellish punishment for those who forsake Christ. If someone is truly a Christian, he will not leave the flock. However, those that left “were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19 NASB). One commentator wrote this of Hebrews 10:24–25: “The writer regarded the desertion of the communal meetings as utterly serious. It threatened the corporate life of the congregation and almost certainly was a prelude to apostasy on the part of those who were separating themselves from the assembly. The neglect of worship and fellowship was symptomatic of a catastrophic failure to appreciate the significance of Christ’s priestly ministry and the access to God it provided.”
I realize we live in a world of a thousand distractions and ten thousand entertaining things to do on the weekends. Our weekday schedules are overcrowded to the point where we’re completely drained by Sunday. It is very hard to get our priorities right, manage our time well, and live for the glory of God without falling in love with the world. It takes prayer, tears, effort, Scripture reading, encouragement from Christian friends, and firm resolve to habitually attend public worship.
I plead with readers to ask God’s forgiveness if they’ve failed in this—and to ask Him for grace, motivation, and desire to regularly worship Him with the saints. God is gracious, He hears us when we ask for help, and He is patient with our weakness and lethargy. Rest in God’s grace and (re)commit yourself to habitual worship! Remember this: I’ve never heard anyone say, “My faith has grown weak and feeble ever since I started going to church more often.” Trust that God will bless you as you gather with His people to worship. Trust that the gospel of grace will encourage, refresh, comfort, and motivate you in the Christian faith.
My above list was a negative one, so I’d like to end on a positive note. Using the same points above, we can positively say that regularly attending public worship services 1) is God’s will for you, 2) strengthens your fellowship with other saints, 3) helps you praise God better, 4) is beneficial for your faith, 5) builds up other Christians, 6) helps keep Satan’s attacks at bay, 7) keeps you from straying off the path, 8) enflames true piety, 9) makes the pastor’s and elders’ jobs easier and more enjoyable, 10) helps you keep your church vows, and 11) is a sign of strong faith.
Dear Christian, you are called to be salt and light, to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, to live a strong Christian life, and to enjoy, glorify, and praise God while on this journey. God has not left you on your own to do these things. He’s given you His Word, His sacraments, and His church to help you on the way.
See you on Sunday!
(A shorter version of this article appeared in the August-September 2015 issue of New Horizons.)
Rev. Shane Lems is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, WI. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the English Standard Version.