By Vincent Bacote
Why gather? I have 4 reasons below, though when I look back on my spiritual formation I lament that I was unfamiliar with many of these reasons. This is not to cast blame on anyone but to reckon with a simple truth: I never asked. I was a very curious child and wanted to know a lot about my faith, but it never occurred to me to ask “Why do we come together at church?” This issue poses the question and presents an opportunity for me to consider what I wish I knew then, but I am glad to know now.
- God commands us to do so.
This may seem obvious, but I think it might be fair to state that language of “command” can carry the connotation of a God, less interested in inviting or drawing us to worship rather than “telling” us to do so. It is important we avoid pitting God’s loving generosity against his commands. While some of us may have grown up in homes where church attendance was a legalistic exercise, we have to be careful to not project broken and frail human attempts to demand church attendance onto the God who is our creator. The commands of God are not given to us as burdens but as the guidance for living in accordance with God’s design for us.
A text like Hebrews 10:24-25 gives us language that is both command and encouragement for gathering together. Perhaps one way to think about any hesitancy with command language is to ask ourselves “what gives me hesitation or catalyzes resistance when I bristle at the command to gather together to worship God?” “What will I miss if I don’t gather with the church?” “What does God wish to for me and my fellow congregants?”
- This is public catechesis.
“Catechesis” is a word that is familiar to some of us but absent in other traditions, or more accurately, the word is absent though its function and purpose are active. Catechesis is a term for teaching, and in some traditions, there is a process of catechesis which takes new Christians or new members of a church through a few weeks (or in some cases months or years) of learning the beliefs and practices of a denomination or local congregation. Every church does this in one way or another, formal or informal, highly detailed or lightly sketched or at least in some way gestured. While there may be this form of teaching in the church, the gathering of the congregation is a public catechesis opportunity on each occasion. I sometimes ask my students to tell me about a favorite hymn or worship song or to tell me a phrase that they regularly use when they pray. I then ask why the song or prayer phrases are important and the answers often reveal there is a deep resonance between their faith and their life in this language. Where do they learn this? The local context of worship is surely one of the most prominent places where this occurs. Each week, the songs, prayers, and sermons (and depending upon the liturgy, elements such as confession and pardon) convey and reinforce the faith that we share. Some of the best theological teachings can occur through what we encounter in song and prayer in corporate worship. Each week we gather in a public space to soak in the truth of the faith, and we are being taught by the entire service, whether we recognize it or not. I’ll admit a theologian’s fantasy: it would be quite the experience if a worship leader at some point of the service said, “don’t you just love this public catechesis!” It will likely remain in the dream domain, but I can hope.
- We see our extended family.
Recently I was at my church and encountered an older couple I hadn’t seen in a while. As our conversation progressed, I found myself thinking “these are members of my family”. As churches grow to a certain size it can be easier to be a spectator who shows up and leaves without speaking with anyone or to be the regular attendee who doesn’t develop any relationships because of getting lost in the weekly crowd. With intentionality (and I am certain many large churches already do this in many ways), churches can highlight the great truth that in Christ, God has made us his new family. In spite of the ways that our church family can express some of the exasperating characteristics we experience in our nuclear and extended families, our brothers and sisters in the faith can also be God’s expression of love toward us in times good and bad. The regular gathering together of those who are part of the new creation in Christ and united by His blood can be some of the most rejuvenating relational experiences for us. When we experience the body of believers as our extended family, we are a testimony to something counter-intuitive: people with no “earthly” reason to love and support each other find themselves bound together by the Holy Spirit and prompted to seek the welfare of this larger family. If we resist gathering together, we can miss the joys of getting to know our other brothers, sister, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles.
- We experience a foretaste of the future.
True confession: when I was a child and thinking about what life might be like in God’s consummated kingdom, I was worried because I thought “it will be like going to church all day”. Translation: B.O.R.I.N.G. I don’t think it is children alone who fear the language found in Revelation 21 and 22 about life in the heavenly city amid God’s presence will be nice but not very exciting. Among the truths that helped the scales fall from my eyes was recognizing that my early experience of church was limited and naïve; since as early as my college years I have been in a variety of corporate worship settings (high to low liturgy, reflective to intense) where I have found myself deeply impacted and definitely not bored. The great diversity of liturgical experiences cannot be captured by any congregation; I find myself wanting to experience the best of all of these traditions more and more – impossible here, all time forever and ever in the new heavens and earth. The foretaste of the kingdom in gathered worship is a privilege we should cherish. The best experiences we have as a gathered body are truly wonderful, but they are like the bands that play festivals early in the day while we await the headline act that comes hours later. Think of it this way: when Isaiah had his vision of God he was full of amazement and fear, while in the consummated kingdom we will be full of joy, excitement, and awe as we experience God’s presence. Our gathered worship is helping us to get ready for the biggest headliner ever. One other truth important to emphasize here: we will be together from every tribe, tongue, and nation without diminishing the beautiful mosaic of human culture and with a harmony that emerges from the best blended worship ever. Today we sometimes experience a glimpse of this as well when we gather, though the need for much growth remains.