“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. When I was eleven, there were times when I would have preferred to stay home on Sunday and play with my Lego bricks, rather than go to church. I knew that going to church was a good thing to do, but it seemed to me that going to church once or twice a month was good enough. That was my logic as a child in a Christian home.
One problem in the Christian life is that some adults use this same logic: going to church is good, but 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. I know there are legitimate reasons why some people can’t meet for worship regularly (illness, emergencies, etc.), but there are also illegitimate ones (sports, TV shows, video games, etc.). For now, I want to answer the following question using Scripture and biblical principles: What is wrong with habitually neglecting public worship?
1. It is against God’s will. In Hebrews 10:25, Scripture clearly rebukes Christians for “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” 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 (see Acts 2:42). But later, when Hebrews was written, some in the church were very irregular in their attendance, and they were clearly called out for skipping church (see WLC 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.
2. It is harmful to the Christian’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). We call preaching an ordinary means of grace because it is one of the primary ways in which God showers his grace upon his people (see WLC 154). If we habitually neglect preaching, we habitually neglect God’s showers of grace (the same can be said of the sacraments). And neglecting showers of grace allows the seed of faith to wither, rather than making it grow in our hearts. So think of habitually neglecting to worship like habitually neglecting to water and fertilize a garden in an arid climate. The plants will not grow. Likewise, our faith will not grow if it is not regularly watered by the Word and sacraments.
3. It hinders Christian fellowship. Hebrews 10:24–25 not only talks about attending worship services, but 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 to love and good works, and also to 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. 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). A true Christian doesn’t say, “I love Jesus, but not the church.” If a person frequently skips worship, he is questioning the importance of fellowship and love for God’s people (see also WCF 26.2).
4. It diminishes God’s praise. The Bible is full of examples of God’s people publicly singing praises to his name and honoring him together. For example, Psalm 34:3 says, “Oh, 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 him—praise that 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 services means habitually neglecting to praise God with his people. This even sets a bad example for unbelievers, who might begin to think that one can be a Christian without attending public worship services. Indeed, it is inconsistent for a person to call himself a Christian, but not care about praising the Lord with other Christians.
5. It confuses other Christians. Christians have been called “churchgoers,” and this is a biblical way to think. When a Christian frequently skips worship services, other Christians may begin to wonder why this person is not going to church. 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. The Bible teaches that if a person is truly a Christian, he sticks with God’s people (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.
6. 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.” Habitually avoiding worship services makes 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. 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.
7. It makes pastors’ and elders’ tasks difficult. God has called the pastor(s) and elders of a local church to care for the flock, to pay attention to it, to love it, to set good examples for it, to pray for it, and so forth (see Acts 20:28–31; 1 Tim. 3:4; 1 Pet. 5:1–3). 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 them 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, 17). When a Christian constantly dodges the worship services that the elders have called for, he is not obeying and submitting to his leaders or showing honor to them (think also in terms of the fifth commandment). Despite the fact that most Americans don’t like authority figures, the Bible is quite clear: we must honor the elders and pastors that God has put in authority over us. Neglecting worship services makes pastors’ and elders’ jobs difficult.
8. 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; Pss. 50:14; 116:14). When a Christian joins one of Christ’s churches, he makes certain covenantal, public promises. In the OPC, a person vows, among other things, “to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline.” 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 the ninth commandment comes into play (see also WCF 22.5).
9. 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 relax on the deck than sing to Jesus with other Christians. 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.”
10. 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 Pet. 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.
11. 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 doesn’t just command us to worship regularly with the assembly; it also warns of the hellish punishment awaiting those who forsake Christ. If someone is truly a Christian, he will not leave the flock. However, those who left for good “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). William L. Lane wrote this on 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. (Hebrews 9–13, p. 290)
I realize that more could be said on this subject. I also know that many people have very busy lives and find it hard to manage their time. It takes commitment, resolve, a sense of duty, and self-discipline to worship regularly with God’s people. This is something we should all pray about and ask God for grace to carry out. Thankfully, when we do go to church, we hear the gospel of Christ and are refreshed and renewed in the Christian faith.
Since my list above is a negative one, I’d like to end on a positive note. Using the same points as 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 other Christians up, (6) helps keep Satan’s attacks at bay, (7) keeps you from straying off the path, (8) inflames true piety, (9) makes the pastors’ and elders’ jobs easier and more enjoyable, (10) helps you keep your church vows, and (11) is a sign of strong faith.
See you on Sunday!
The author is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV.