Why Gather? Thinking About Gathering When Churches Can’t
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With Covid-19 causing churches to put public gatherings on hold, it seems like a good time to consider why Christians prioritize gathering in the first place.
After all, many believers have turned to various forms of technology to encourage one another during this unusual season. We can pray for one another over the phone. We can host virtual Bible studies on Zoom. Pastors can email filmed teaching sessions to their members.
I’m grateful that we can minister to one another in these ways while scattered. And I’m not writing to contribute to the conversation about whether churches should livestream “services” or send out pre-recorded material or such things during this strange time. I simply want to remind us that a church is never less than a gathering. Even though many congregations cannot now meet, assembling is of the essence of a church. Gathering isn’t merely a nice thing to do; it’s part of what a church is.
Of course, just as a husband and wife are still married when the husband is deployed for a 6-month military tour of duty, a church is still a church even when it cannot gather. But such circumstances, thankfully, are historically abnormal for local congregations. And as that married couple longs to be reunited, my hope is that God might use this season when churches can’t meet to make us yearn for the sweet glories of assembling again. Perhaps, in his mysterious providence, one of God’s purposes for this time is to help us treasure the reality that a church is a gathering.
GATHERED TO BE A GATHERING
A local church is an assembly. If a church never meets, it is no church at all.
We easily take this truth for granted. The time of the worship meeting is often the first piece of information a church provides on its marquee or website. “Join us this Sunday at 10:30! All are welcome!”
Meeting, however, isn’t just something churches do. A meeting is, in part, what a church is. God has saved us as individuals to be a corporate assembly.
We see this throughout Scripture. Picture the nation of Israel, rescued from Egypt and gathered together at Mt. Sinai to hear God’s law. Moses later referred to that seminal moment as “the day of assembly” (Deut. 9:10). At other key junctures in Israel’s history, the nation similarly gathered as an “assembly” before their covenant Lord (Judg. 20:2, 1 Kings 8:14, 1 Chron. 28:8).
The word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for “assembly,” ekklesia, is the same word the New Testament writers use to refer to the local church. It’s simply the term for a gathering. But when applied to the church, it carries the rich Old Testament connotations of standing together as God’s chosen people.
So, what does the New Testament teach us about the local church assembly?
- First, we see that churches regularly gather. Paul uses phrases like “when you come together as a church” and “the whole church comes together” (1 Cor. 11:18; 14:23).
- Second, a church assembly is a distinct event. This is evident because Paul provides specific instructions on what believers should do “in church”—that is, in the church meeting. “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:19); “if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church” (1 Cor. 14:28).
- Third, even large churches met as one body in the New Testament era. Thousands of believers belonged to the congregation at Jerusalem, yet they met “all together in Solomon’s Portico” (Acts 5:12).
- Fourth, the New Testament writers instruct churches to do activities that can only be done by meeting together: teaching and admonishing one another; singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16); reading Scripture publicly (1 Tim. 4:13); encouraging one another (Heb. 10:24–25), and sharing the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:17, 11:18, 33). None of these can happen in a vacuum. And while it’s true that many of these things can take place among smaller subsets of the church (such as your Tuesday night Bible study), we should assume that they belong first and foremost to the main congregational gathering given the biblical emphasis on the whole church meeting together.
- Fifth, church discipline is an act of the gathered congregation. Jesus envisions “the church” as a whole, the ekklesia, speaking to the unrepentant sinner. In order to do this, they must be “gathered” in his name (Matt. 18:17, 20). Paul echoes this language as he instructs the Corinthians to implement church discipline: “when you are assembled [same Greek word as gathered in Matt. 18:20] in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4).
What’s the picture? A church is a blood-bought people, devoted to the worship of the one true God. They’re set apart from the world. They’re committed to serve one another and love their neighbors. And they do all this by assembling together in space and time.
GATHERED, SCATTERED, GATHERED
A church is more than a gathering, of course. It gathers, then scatters, then gathers again. Its members continue to be part of the church throughout the week, as they serve and represent Christ in their homes, their workplaces, their neighborhoods. But a church is never less than a gathering.
I used to live a few blocks from the United States Supreme Court. The nine Justices who serve on our nation’s highest judicial body are, in one sense, regular people like you and me. They walk the sidewalks and shop at local grocery stores. You might find yourself sitting next to one of them at a Washington Capitals hockey game or an opera at the Kennedy Center. They’re all influential individuals on their own, of course, but in the deepest sense, they are who they are as an assembly.
When the Supreme Court Justices meet as a court to make formal judgments, they take on a unique joint identity. Together, they wield an authority far greater than the sum of their parts. Thus, lawyers introduce their remarks not by saying, “may it please the Justices,” but instead, “may it please the Court”—singular. The Supreme Court is a corporate institution, one that depends on its nine members convening in space and time.
In a similar way, God has designed the local church as a people who meet. It doesn’t work any other way.
WHY THIS MATTERS
What makes the assembly such an important part of a church’s identity?
First, the assembly makes the church visible to itself. Think of a big extended family that gathers for a photograph at the end of their annual reunion. They take the picture so they can see themselves and remember the bond they share.
Similarly, when a church gathers for corporate worship, the congregation is presented, as it were, to itself. Here’s how theologian Everett Ferguson puts it: “In assembly, the church… becomes conscious of itself, confesses itself to be a distinct entity, shows itself to be what it is—a community (a people) gathered by the grace of God, dependent on him, and honoring him. The assembly allows the church to emerge in its true nature.”
This happens whenever a congregation meets. On Sundays at 10:30am, my church, Capitol Hill Baptist, “emerges” in our century-old building on 6th Street. We meet all together—just one service, no separate campuses.
Do you know what I see as this happens? I see Martina, whose husband recently passed away. She tears up while we sing “It Is Well with My Soul.” I see Jared, the successful banker in the back row who is being discipled by Ben, an unemployed guy sitting in the balcony. I see John, a Jewish man who came to faith a few years ago while listening to a sermon here on the parable of the Prodigal Son. His father opposes his trust in Christ, yet he gathers here with his new spiritual family every Lord’s Day.
Are these folks ever at home sick or away on vacation? Sure. But basically, I can expect to see them here every week. As I look across the gathering, I see believers who are helping one another follow Christ through persecution, cancer, miscarriage, addiction, depression, and more. And they’ve committed to do that, in part, by assembling here together. They’re singing the same songs, confessing the same faith in the same creed, hearing the same scriptures read and the same sermon preached, sharing the same bread and the same cup.
Just as the sight of his bride makes a groom’s heart swell with love, church members should overflow with affection for one another when they behold the assembly. This is the people whom Jesus bought with his own blood. This is the people who have committed to care for me, put up with my faults, and point me to Christ again and again.
Second, not only does assembling make the church visible to itself, it makes the church visible to the universe. Why did God join Jew and Gentile together into one body? He did this “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
Think about how this happens in a local church’s assembly. A 19-year old indie rock fan dressed in all black is singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which our pianist accompanies in a decidedly non-indie style; he’s harmonizing with the Colombian grandmother next to him. A man who’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer leads the congregation in a prayer of praise, and then his son-in-law is commissioned for the joyous task of church planting. At the end of the service, a Korean-American college student shares about how she recently placed her faith in Christ because several church members shared the gospel with her, and we all watch as she is baptized. When the gathering concludes, folks hang around for 45 minutes or longer, many of them discussing the sermon or praying together.
This sort of gathering, which by God’s grace is a pretty normal Sunday for us, should leave the world speechless. Where else can you find such a bizarre mix of people, all praising the same Triune God? Where else do folks who have very little in common gather to bear each other’s burdens? This bright witness for the gospel is possible because the church assembles.
The assembly is no less important in contexts that are more culturally homogenous. Even if everyone in the church looks alike (because everyone within fifty miles looks alike!) the congregation should still embody an otherworldly sort of love, commitment, and care for one another—one that they put on display by meeting regularly.
HOW TREASURING THE GATHERING STRENGTHENS CORPORATE WORSHIP
I hope you’re getting the picture. The better we understand the significance of the church’s gathering, the sweeter and deeper our corporate worship will be. Consider how a robust view of the assembly protects us from some of the forces that tend to weaken our worship today:
- A strong theology of assembly combats formalistic worship. Since the gathering is a supernatural event in view of the watching cosmos (Eph. 3:10), it doesn’t make sense to simply “go through the motions” out of a sense of duty or tradition.
- A strong theology of assembly combats individualistic worship. The service is a gathering of those who have committed to help each other endure to the end. This keeps us focused on the good of others, and it prevents us from seeing church as a “program” that’s offered merely for our personal inspiration.
- A strong theology of assembly combats consumer-oriented worship. What God’s Spirit is doing in the whole church is more important than being comfortable or having my preferences met. Each believer experiences the joyful freedom of taking the focus off self and putting it on God and others.
Finally, to put it positively, a strong theology of the assembly reminds us that God delights to pour out his presence among his people. There’s a simple reason why meeting with God’s people brings us such joy, according to the Puritan pastor David Clarkson: because God blesses his gathered people with his Spirit:
The Lord engages himself to let forth as it were, a stream of his comfortable, quickening presence to every particular person that fears him, but when many of these particulars join together to worship God, then these several streams are united and meet in one. So that the presence of God, which, enjoyed in private, is but a stream, in public becomes a river, a river that makes glad the city of God.
**Adapted from Matt Merker, Corporate Worship (forthcoming February 2021), with permission of Crossway. Matt wrote this chapter while serving on staff at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, in Washington, DC.
 Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 235.
 David Clarkson, The Works of David Clarkson, Vol. 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988; originally published 1696), 190.