Is gathered (in-person) worship optional for Christians? The question is a profoundly relevant one, especially in our day of endless online services and superficial views of public worship. The Bible’s answer is unmistakably clear: No, gathered worship is not optional. In fact, it’s a divine requirement for every follower of Christ. Indeed, unless providentially hindered by legitimate impediments such as illness or perilous weather, believers are commanded to assemble for worship in the context of a biblically constituted church (Heb. 10:24–25)—that is, a local body of believers who are under the loving shepherding care and discipline of qualified elders. These elders oversee the souls of Christ’s flock and faithfully execute the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the public prayers (Acts 2:42; 14:23; Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). Gathered worship in a biblical church is, therefore, a nonnegotiable—an essential mark and means of Christian piety, discipleship, and witness. The church is certainly more than the sacred assembling of believers on the Lord’s Day, but it is never less than that.
During the month of December, church attendance generally swells. Advent hymns, festive decorations, nativity sermons, and family traditions add incentive to assemble with the people of God for worship. But what about the rest of the year? What about the other forty-eight Lord’s Days? Why is gathered (in-person) worship so vital for Christian believers?
REASONS FOR NOT ASSEMBLING?
Before answering these important questions, perhaps it would be helpful to consider a couple of the typical reasons that many of today’s believers choose not to assemble for worship. We will touch on two of them—individualistic spirituality and negative church experiences.
The first reason that professing believers forsake gathered worship is the growing trend of individualistic spirituality. Rather than identify with Christ through committed church membership and gathered worship on the Lord’s Day, many have untethered themselves from the ministry and mission of the visible church. Instead, they prefer to cobble together a highly personalized spirituality from websites, books, podcasts, and informal fellowship. Many have grown partial to online worship instead of in-person, for reasons of convenience and autonomy. They envision Christianity on their own terms, without accountability, discipline, or shepherding care. The glaring problem with this approach is that nowhere in Scripture do we see this kind of privatized faith. It’s utterly foreign to biblical Christianity. Jesus requires His redeemed children to be active members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–26; Eph. 4:15–16), living in joyful submission to qualified leaders who are charged to “[keep] watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17). A Christian without a church is like a lone sheep in the wilderness, exposed to countless dangers.
A second reason that Christians choose to forsake gathered worship is that they’ve had a negative church experience. More than a few believers have been traumatized by abusive leadership, toxic relationships, and false teaching in the church. For some, the memories are raw. The scars are real. Even so, all churches should not be judged on the basis of negative experiences in some churches. Christ understands the pain caused by bad leaders and unfaithful churches. He also knows best what His blood-bought followers need most—that is, gathered worship, constituted of the means of grace, in the context of a healthy church.
A DIVINE IMPERATIVE
The book of Hebrews was written to first-century Christians who lived under the relentless threat of persecution. Identifying with Christ and His church was costly. Not unlike the remnant of Israel in former times and millions of believers around the world today, the nascent church “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction” (Heb. 10:32–33a; 11). Nevertheless, they were not to forsake the assembly to live in spiritual isolation. On the contrary, despite the circumstances (and even because of them), God commanded His people to meet together for worship:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:23–25, emphasis added)
An unwavering confession of gospel hope, especially in a culture increasingly hostile toward Christianity, requires more than just me, Jesus, and my Bible. Christians need the divinely instituted means of grace. They also need one another. Faith withers in seclusion. God’s people need sound preaching, faith-nourishing sacraments, and earnest prayer, all in the presence of God and His gathered church. God requires Christians to gather for worship because He loves us and knows what’s best for us. Incidentally, it’s what faithful believers have been fiercely committed to since Pentecost: “And they [the Christians in Jerusalem] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Gathering for worship wasn’t safe for first-century believers, but it was essential. It was also their chief joy.
The eschatological dimension of gathered worship is also significant when considering the divine imperative to gather for worship. Understood biblically, gathered worship—regulated by Scripture—is no less than a foreshadowing of heavenly worship on the eternal day, when “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, . . . [gather] before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9–10).
In other words, when God and His gospel are exalted through Word and sacrament in the gathered worship of this present age, Christians receive by faith a foretaste of heavenly worship in the age to come (Matt. 26:29; Heb. 6:5; Rev. 19:9). Furthermore, earthly Sabbaths are meant to cultivate a heart-longing for the eternal Sabbath, that never-ending day of joyful worship and radiant fellowship in the immediate presence of God. Philip Doddridge writes: “Your earthly Sabbaths, Lord, we love, but there’s a nobler rest above; to that our lab’ring souls aspire with ardent hope and strong desire.”
THE MEANS OF GRACE
While living in Edinburgh, Scotland, I procured a lovely antiquated edition of Thomas Boston sermons titled The Christian Life Delineated (1775). In it, the notable Scottish pastor asserts: “To pretend to believe without using of means, is presumption; to use the means without believing the promise, is lifeless formality.”
Boston’s words are important, especially in an evangelical culture plagued by privatized spirituality and religious formalism. God normally saves and sanctifies His people through outward and ordinary means. What are those means? The preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. It’s in the gathered worship of the church—and not separate from it—that God’s people receive Christ and all His benefits through His divinely instituted means. This is Christianity 101 and a central emphasis in Reformed confessionalism.
Worship is the workshop of the Holy Spirit. The means of grace, administered by called and lawfully ordained pastors, are the sacred tools by which God shapes and fashions us into the image of His Son. They are God’s chosen means that, by the Spirit, through the exercising of faith, “are made effectual to the elect for salvation” (Westminster Larger Catechism 154). Therefore, to forsake the church’s worship is ultimately to presume upon God’s goodness and question His divine wisdom.
AN UNBENDING PRIORITY
Dear Christian reader, for these and other reasons that space will not permit me to write, gathered “in person” worship is not optional. It’s a divine requirement with holy ends. Perhaps you’ve developed the unbiblical habit of neglecting gathered worship. Maybe you’ve wrongly convinced yourself that you can manage the Christian life on your own. Perhaps you’ve entered the realm of spiritual indifference. Whatever the case may be, isn’t it time to return to the sacred assembly, that which God Himself commands and promises to bless in the lives of His redeemed children? Isn’t it time to once again nourish your faith on the verdant Christ-centered pastures of the means of grace? Isn’t it time to renew fellowship with the ekklsia (the church)—“the assembled ones” who are traversing the well-trod road to Zion?
Therefore, dear believer, make gathered worship an unbending priority in your weekly schedule. Like every Christian, you need the spiritual nourishment of the means of grace. Like every pilgrim traveling the narrow road from suffering to glory, you need (we all need) the loving fellowship and accountability of the church. Therefore, may we all joyfully express with the psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ ” (Ps. 122:1), for “a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps. 84:10).