There are many centripetal forces that tear at the bonds that hold a congregation together, so it is useful to be aware of them. After all, we live in a remarkably busy world where quiet has almost disappeared entirely. We are connected to each other and to complete strangers in a way that was almost unthinkable just a generation ago. Perhaps the most difficult task faced by a body of elders today is to get worshipers to silence and put away their mobile phones for an hour during worship. Who knows what we might miss in that time? In 2019 an hour has come to seem like a lifetime. Ironically, just as we are more connected than ever before people report that they feel more alienated from others than before. Thus, fellowship or the communion of the saints is no small thing.
One writer wants your smartphone to replace the worship service altogether. In a recent article this self-described, “online pastor” proclaimed “Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over.” In an article in Christianity Today Courtney Ellis argues that churches need a play day, even on Sunday, in place of worship. She notes the value of the communion of the saints away from church. She draws an analogy between the biological family and the church family. Just as biological family bonds are strengthened by doing things together, so too the bonds in a congregation are strengthened by being together, even playing together, apart from church.
Experience tells us that this is true for biological families and it is probably true for congregations too but as she makes her case for the value of being together outside of formal church activities she describes the approach of two church planters in Slovenia:
Lovse finds that occasionally replacing traditional worship with play can strengthen bonds of friendship and fellowship, especially in the group of young adults who comprise the bulk of his congregation.
“There have been times when we canceled our church service and all went out for coffee,” said Lovse. “When we grew distant and needed to reconnect with one another, through play we got to know and appreciate each other.”
Here we see a great illustration of the importance of one of the great Reformation slogans: sola scriptura, according to Scripture alone. This maxim is often misunderstood and misapplied but properly understood and applied it helps us navigate this issue safely. Christians, of course, ought to study nature, including human behavior but they must never use nature to leverage or control holy Scripture. When it comes to deciding how the church as church ought to grow spiritually, however important nature might be in other respects, it must take a back seat to holy Scripture, which alone regulates the worship of the church and the Christian life.
In this case, the Slovenian church planters and Ellis herself have confused nature (their observations about human behavior) and grace (Scripture) and that confusion has caused them to lose sight of the unique importance not only of Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life but of the means that God himself has instituted for strengthening the bonds between believers. Reformed churches and theologians call these “the means of grace.” They are essentially three: the preaching of the Word, the use of the two sacraments instituted by Christ (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. All these occur in public worship.
As important as it is for congregations to bond together horizontally, person to person, it is even more important for the, to be united together in meeting face to face, as it were with the living God. The Biblical paradigm for meeting with God, of course, is Mt Sinai. Repeatedly, in the Exodus, the Lord demanded that Pharaoh release his people so that they may come to the mountain to worship him there. Pharaoh refused and the Lord sent 10 plagues upon Egypt to persuade him. Finally Pharaoh released the church and the Lord delivered them out of Egypt, out of bondage, by his sovereign, gracious power (Ex 14:21–31). There he met with them (See Ex 19 [all]; 20:18–21).
The pastor to the Hebrews, Jewish Christians who were tempted to leave the new covenant church and to try to return to the types and shadows (He 8:5; 10:1), appealed to that meeting to remind them that they had that for which Moses was hoping.
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39–40; NASB)
According to Hebrews, Christians (Jew and Gentile alike) have a better covenant than the Mosaic covenant (7:22; 8:6; 12:24). They have greater Mediator than Moses, Jesus (8:6; 9:15; 12:24). The same Son of God who thundered at Sinai has quenched the demands of the law for all his people and now represents them at the top of Mount Zion (Heb 12:24).
This is why the pastor to the Hebrews urged them to exactly opposite what Ellis encourages:
and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near (Heb 10:24–25; NASB).
The place where are most connected to Christ our Mediator, our representative before God, the head of the body (Col 2:19) and, in him, most connected to each other is not the coffee shop (however edifying that is) but it is when we are gathered together, mystically united by the Holy Spirit to Christ (at the top of Zion, as it were) and to each other. This is why Paul appeals to the conjugal image in Ephesians 5:23. In other words, in public worship, we could not be any closer to each other than we are. When we come to the communion table, we are communion together on the same body and blood of Christ. Jesus communicates the body of Christ to us mysteriously not by changing the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ but by operating through the elements to feed us on Christ. When someone is baptized, he is identified outwardly with Christ, and initiated into the visible covenant community. He becomes a part of the body and we a part of him.
Church softball or basketball is great fun and it does build relationships within the body. Meeting for coffee or for service projects is good for everyone but it is not corporate worship. That event truly is sacred. It cannot be replaced by anything else. God has not promised to feet us on his body through a coffee klatschnor through a softball game but he has promised to be with us uniquely, as his covenant people, when we are before his face in corporate worship. That’s grace, which cannot be replaced by nature (e.g., softball).
One final word. This article is also a great example of the modern evangelical propensity toward pragmatism (whatever works) and the continual desire to find new sacraments, signs and means of God’s communion with us and of us with one another. Late modern Evangelicals seem incapable of distinguishing nature and grace and seem bent on replacing the means of grace instituted by Christ with sacraments (coffee, sports) of our own inventing. The pastor to the Hebrews warned the Jewish Christians to whom he wrote in the strongest possible terms about the dangers of turning away from Christ, whether it be “tasting of the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5) or trampling underfoot the Son of God or profaning the blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29).
He wrote this way because he had a reverent respect for God:
Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28–29; NASB).
Late modern Evangelicals seem to have lost this sense of reverent respect for the sacred, for God, and for his eternal kingdom. It has become another of the centripetal forces that tears at the fabric of the church. Thus, however valuable their insights may be regarding life regarding Monday through Saturday, when it comes to our gathering at the feet of our Savior, they are not the soundest of guides.