Whether we like it or not, the Sunday assembly is still the primary way in which most people engage the church for the first time. I know some may disagree with this—particularly those who read a lot of ministry books. Some of today's most popular ministry books are encouraging people to deemphasize the assembly in favor of more incarnational or relational forms of evangelism and ministry. I personally do not see them as mutually exclusive. Thus, on the whole, I believe the trend toward the incarnational is healthy and should be embraced fully.
Having said that, it seems to me that the need to get away from overemphasizing the Sunday assembly applies best to those who actually overemphasize it. Churches of Christ typically underemphasize the Sunday assembly, and thus encouraging churches to deemphasize something they already don't emphasize enough could be rather unhelpful. True, Churches of Christ have emphasized assembly attendance. That, however, is not what I mean. I'm speaking of emphasizing the spiritual worth and missional objectives of the Sunday assembly. This is altogether different from, at its worst: asking everyone to simply attend because God says we should; asking anyone willing to serve at the last minute in the name of "the priesthood of all believers;" and spending as little money, time, and energy on the whole affair as we must. I'm sure we can increase our care/attention to our gatherings without becoming overly "building-focused," or lacking incarnational witness. We can chew gum and walk at the same time 🙂
The opportunity to gather together for worship is a gift of God to us, and an opportunity to offer God a gift from us. Our communal worship shouldn't be an afterthought or dismissed as something that can happen as easily on the golf course as it can in the church building. When the Body gathers for worship, it's a holy occasion. It's where we take the cup together, read the Word together, listen to the Word preached, recommit to loving one another, and…well I could go on almost forever. This isn't to say that worship itself is confined to the church building. Rather, we neglect the importance of the Sunday gatherings to our own peril. It's bad for us spiritually, and it's bad for us strategically. At its most basic level, the Sunday gathering is our communal offering of worship to God. It's also a vital opportunity to introduce others to God. If there were no other reasons (and there are) those alone call forth our best energies, resources, and creativity.
Let's be frank—in love. In many Churches of Christ, the weekend assemblies are simply not valued…and it shows. It shows in thrown together sermons, slapped together liturgy, and a general aversion to excellence that helps secure a lifeless environment. This is, I believe, underneath much of the current push toward instrumental worship—(with which, to be clear, I have no problem). For some, it's about a strong preference for instrumental worship. For many, though, it isn't really about instrument or not. It's about spiritual vitality or spiritual deadness.
Some mistakenly think that the biggest reason Churches of Christ are struggling is because they haven't embraced instrumental worship. Yet, there are acappella churches growing and a lot of churches with instruments dying/closing their doors. In those cases, as it is with Churches of Christ, leadership is likely the key issue—not the instrument. However, this isn't to say that the larger point isn't on target…there is something missing on Sundays in many Churches of Christ.
We owe it first to God, and then to others, to do absolutely everything we can to offer God our best, our firstfruits, our utmost for His highest. This isn't to say we need to put on the best "show" we can. It's to say that carelessness or downgrading the importance of our Sunday offering to God because "what we do between the Sundays matters most," is a cop-out…and one that costs us dearly in ministry. God deserves our best. Why?
- He is worthy of it. God asks for our best. To choose but one biblical example, recall the offerings of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. It's really the first "worship" scene in the Bible. Abel brings God the first-fruits of His flock. Cain brings fruit of the ground. God is pleased with Abel's sacrifice but not with Cain's. The reason is because Abel offers God the first-fruits…the best of His flock. "Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?"
- It's the local church's primary offering of worship to God. I know some will cry Romans 12 here. I would suggest that Romans 12 is about broadening worship beyond the corporate gathering times to all of life, not deemphasizing corporate gathering. A read-through of 1 Corinthians alone should put to bed the idea that Paul didn't think the corporate gatherings were of much value. There are obviously other ways the church can offer worship to God, but none where the whole body, along with those seeking God, are gathered together for that purpose alone—and where the Body shares the Lord's Table. Sundays are unique. Worship can happen elsewhere, but something special happens when the Body gathers.
- If we cannot worship when we have made the time, the Body is gathered, energy and resources have been devoted to that purpose—let's be honest and admit that it's highly unlikely we're going to do much vibrant worshiping of God between the Sundays. Our Sunday assemblies are, at the least, practice for what we do each day. If we cannot/will not pay it much attention Sunday, good luck Monday morning. If we can't/won't give God our best when the table is set…are we really going to do it when it isn't? Possible. Not likely.
- It's still the primary way non-Christians engage God. One can make the argument that this is changing. True, people often begin talking about Christ with a friend. However, that friend will eventually lead them to Christ and His church. Furthermore, it's usually easiest and most natural for people to invite their friend to "come to church," in the "Come and See" style of evangelism. It's going to be a long time before this changes. People may come on the arm of a friend, but eventually, the church will be a major factor in the process of coming to faith. It will most definitely be a factor in their long-term spiritual health or sickness.
- Communal Worship is a Sustaining Practice of the Church. We can say to ourselves that people shouldn't care what worship is like for them experientially. Of course, this is true when spiritual immaturity causes someone to approach worship strictly from a consumer's perspective. More often, however, this is a cop-out change resistant churches use to excuse them from having to make choices they would rather not make. It's also a favored position for those who have had a hand in crafting/controlling the current liturgy. We shouldn't capitulate to every fad and wind of culture. We don't want to trade out good meat for milk. However, no one should be forced to eat Saltines every Sunday because we refuse to serve the rich food God has given us. This is an abdication of responsibility for the spiritual well-being of God's people. How do we know whether we are serving steak or milk? It will take great wisdom. In truth, much of what is served in today's churches is a glass of milk with a "steak" label on the outside. Serve the good stuff, not the scraps, and watch how God uses it to sustain and grow people spiritually. It's the nurturing people receive when the Body gathers that equips them in marvelous ways to live the Romans 12 life. Trying to the live the Romans 12 life without the worshiping community won't work. Attending church and missing the Romans 12 life is to miss it all together.
Those are just a few reasons why it matters a lot. Now that I've depressed us all (including myself), let me say that I believe Churches of Christ can have spiritually vibrant worship that touches heart, soul and mind. But it will require some devotion on our part. It will require a sense of expectation…a holy urgency…knowing that each time the Body gathers God's Word will be spoken, His Table celebrated, His throne approached in prayer, His glory preached musically through song, and His lost children awake and listening…pondering a return to the Father's house.
Let me say it one more time: What we do on Sundays really, really matters. Let's give God our best. Let's preach like Christ may come any moment, sing and pray like God is near, share like Bread and Cup are Body and Blood, and leave our gatherings ready to live lives of worship. It will certainly help our churches grow in size and strength. Most importantly, it will honor God and bring His blessing.