Please don’t neglect your church.
Sometime back, I saw an announcement in a church newsletter promoting church attendance, The announcement quoted part of Hebrews 10:25 as the Scriptural reason. I’ve heard a King James variation of that verse all my life: “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.”
I can understand why churches might want to quote that verse as they attempt to boost church attendance numbers in our current situation. COVID hit local churches hard, and it’s not over yet. While some people stay away over concerns about compromised immune systems, many admit that they’ve gotten out of the habit of going to church on Sunday morning. Meeting halls are still often running at half to two-thirds capacity. “Church services are online,” past attenders argue. “We’re comfortable sitting on our living room couch, in our sweats, and with our morning beverage. Why should we assemble? Aren’t we assembling?”
I must admit. Quoting that part of Hebrews 10:25 to pressure people to come to church bugs me. I’m all for gathering with the community of believers on Sunday morning and any other time we can meet. But that subtle pressure to “come to church” leaves out the rest of the story. Church attendance is far more than filling a space. Hebrews 10:24 and the rest of v. 25 tells WHY we meet in community and WHAT we should be doing WHEN we get together.
Here’s Hebrews 10:24,25 in full:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.Hebrews 10:24,25, NIV
Church attendance is more than attendance.
Did you catch that word encourage? When I meet with my church family, I have a responsibility – to encourage them. And they, in turn, are to encourage me. Hebrews 10;24,25 does NOT say, “sit there and let one man or a few praise band members encourage you.” No, we are to encourage each other. That’s a two-way street, a give and take.
Consider the context of this passage. Paul, the presumed author of Hebrews, wrote this letter to bolster a discouraged group of Messianic Jews. They were asking themselves, “Is this Jesus thing worth it?” They wanted to give up and go back to the complacency of Judaic legalism. Paul wrote them an impassioned message that said, “Don’t give up. Jesus is worth everything.”
After Paul spends nine and a half chapters spelling out his rationale for not giving up, he gives an action call. How do you apply this head knowledge about the superiority of Jesus? Here’s how. Encourage each other. Motivate each other to love those in your group and in the world with God’s brand of unconditional love. In your assembly inspire each other to go forward with good deeds that will live out loud the love of Jesus.
How can I do that?
Sunday morning assemblies last 1-2 hours. I may not see that group of people any time during the rest of the week. We return to our daily lives and try to live out our faith and witness in an ambivalent and sometimes hostile environment. How can I encourage others in the short time I’m at the church campus and with the way church services are structured?
Here are some ideas:
Your presence will encourage others. That’s what June and Harold, Tom and Marilee were for me. Harold and Marilee were both in wheelchairs. Both couples had to get up at the crack of dawn to make it to the 9:30 worship hour. The physical effort of loading wheelchairs into cars was wearing Tom and June out. Yet those two couples were at church every single Sunday despite the cost. Their sacrifice reflected their deep faith and commitment to God. They wanted, they needed to be with God’s people.
Arrive early, stay late.
Give yourself time to have meaningful conversations with people. If other people are to be our focus as Hebrews 10:24,25 suggests, then be intentional about contacts and building relationships with other people, whether it’s the person sitting beside you, the co-worker in the nursery, or the greeter at the door.
I’ve recently volunteered to work in our congregation’s children’s department twice a month. Let me tell you, the workers do a lot of life sharing before the children arrive. What a great chance to get to know these other women, to laugh, tell stories, and pray for each other. It’s encouragement in motion!
When we demonstrate active love toward other attenders, we’re teaching them, spurring them on, to love in Jesus’ name.
Before you leave for church, pray that God will give you an opportunity to show kindness or mercy to a church family member. It might be giving a child or widow a hug, cleaning up spilled coffee, or greeting a stranger with more than a “Welcome to our church.”
Phyllis did that for me. One morning, my three-year-old decided to throw a tantrum in the middle of Communion for no good reason. I carried a screaming, flailing child out of the auditorium. Phyllis followed me. “I’ll take her. You go back in,” she told me, reaching for my daughter.
But I’m the preacher’s wife. I’m supposed to be the perfect parent. “I’ve got this,” I told her.
Her words were gentle. “Sometimes parents need a break from their children and sometimes the kids need a break from their parents. You go back in. We’ll be fine.” And they were. And so was I. Her kindness strengthened me for another week of parenting.
Talk and listen.
I know. Some people have the idea that we should enter quietly, reverently. Our minds should be immersed in praise as we shut out the world and focus on God.
I don’t buy this. How can I encourage others with my mouth clamped shut? And I can’t do it if I don’t know anyone. And no one can encourage me if I don’t open my mouth and spill the heartache of my past week. We’re community. It’s a group thing. We all come together before the Lord.
Listening to others, really listening, is another way to love. Check out this excellent devotion, “What Love Is: Choosing to Love All Year Long” by Kim Sorrelle on Proverbs 31’s Encouragement For Today. Take the time to talk to at least one person while you are on campus. Ask what they’ve seen God do this past week. Ask how you can pray for them. And then, as Kim encourages in her devotion, listen to what they say.
Who do you talk to? Pray before you enter the church building doors. Say, “God who do YOU want me to see today?” I’ve been at this long enough to know God will answer that prayer in amazing ways.
It is a two-way street. We’re supposed to encourage each other. Allow others to encourage you. Be willing to be vulnerable and admit discouragement. No, you don’t have to share your heartaches with everyone. And relationships take time to develop. But showing up each Sunday allows you to become familiar and comfortable with those in your fellowship group. As you deepen your friendships, you’ll find those with whom you can comfortably confide, who will give you that hug, pray with you, or share the wisdom they’ve found through their trust in God.
What if I can’t attend?
If you still can’t attend large church gatherings because of health issues, do what you can do to assemble with others. Several countries hostile to Christianity, restrict church gatherings to only five people and it has nothing to do with COVID. Believe me, the church is still meeting, even if it’s only five people. If you can’t attend Sunday morning, get creative. How can you assemble with other believers so that you can be mutually encouraging to each other? How many people would you feel comfortable having in your home? Do you have the technology to do a ZOOM bible study where everyone participates?
For two years, Lois was not able to go to church because her stage 4 lung cancer compromised her immune system. Her neighbor, Jim who was a retired minister, worked out a system with Lois and Jerry that every week, Jim and his wife, Mary Lou, would call the isolated couple on the phone. Jim would share a brief devotion and prayer. Then the two couples would take communion together, at the same time. Lois and Jerry couldn’t meet with God’s people in the traditional way. But they didn’t let that stop them from connecting with other Christians in the best way they could.
We need each other
We need face to face contact to keep our faith strong. But all of us must be proactive to make it happen. As we start a new year, I encourage you:
If you’ve slipped out of the habit of church attendance, get back into it.
If you are attending, become intentional about encouraging others while at church. It might take creativity and work. But that is God’s command, just as much as not neglecting our assembling with other believers. You need the encouragement. Your church family needs your encouragement.
Here’s a little secret. Interacting with your church family, doing kindnesses, finding ways to encourage others, and allowing them to encourage you will blast open the church doors for you. Worship services will be more meaningful. You will want to come. Why? Because we were meant to be relational, to network, and to be each other’s cheering section. We are much stronger together than when we stand alone and apart.