Regular Church Attendance — Our Duty and Great Privilege
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,
as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another,
and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.”
— Hebrews 10:25
(Note: This article by Pastor Schurganoff was minimally edited to compensate for deficiencies in the computer-generated translation from Russian into English of certain words and expressions and to add some necessary wording for clarity. Otherwise we have presented it as far as possible as it was submitted. —Ed.)
Dear brothers and sisters in the blessed Concordia Lutheran Conference,
This is my short article about understanding how we can be and remain faithful members of Christ’s Church, and how we can serve for the benefit of our local congregations and for the glory of God here on earth by assembling with our brothers and sisters to hear and learn His Word.
To begin, I tell you a little parable:
One of the parishioners in a certain congregation suddenly stopped attending church services. Up to that time, he had attended regularly. When his absence became habitual, the pastor decided to visit this man. He went to his home on a cool evening. The door was not locked, so the pastor, without drawing attention to himself, stepped inside. The parishioner was sitting in front of a fireplace in complete solitude. Seeing the pastor, he nodded his head in greeting and, pointing to a large comfortable chair by the fire, offered him to sit down. The pastor sat before the hearth, and now the two men just stared silently at the flame of the beautiful fire.
Suddenly, the pastor took the tongs, picked up a glowing ember, and placed it at a distance from the flame. Then he leaned back in his chair. The silence continued. The removed coal, meanwhile, did not actively burn, but only continued to smolder, even though it did not have it long. Within seconds it was lying, black and cooled down.
Without a word, the pastor stood up to leave; but before leaving, he again took the tongs and put the charred, extinguished coal back into the hearth. It immediately blushed, and in a moment burned again like its neighbors. When the pastor was at the door, he heard the owner of the house say: “Thank you for your visit and for preaching the fire especially. This Sunday I come to church.”
This little parable reminds us that it is very important not to abandon the assembling of the congregation, but to cherish the fact that Christians gather together to “exhort one another” with God’s Word, as they hear it and learn it together. Otherwise our faith can die out, like the brand taken out of the fireplace.
What is the Church?
Most people, when they hear that word, imagine a building built by people for a specific use, namely, for the worship and praise of God and for the carrying out of religious work among them. But it is interesting that in the Bible, the word “church” never refers to a building.
We cannot here cite all the texts on the Church, but we can conclude that the Church — which the Bible calls the ecclesia in Latin and ejkklhsiva in Greek, the “called out ones” — is the gathering of people who have been called out of the darkness of unbelief to believe in the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world and of each of them in particular; but the “church” is not the building in which these people assemble.
The Bible uses the word “church” with only two religious meanings: First, The Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints or “invisible Church,” made up of all true believers in Christ, wherever they may be in the world. For example, the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). And here is what the apostle Paul said of it in his letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up in my flesh the afflictions of Christ for His Body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24).
Secondly, the local congregation of believers — true believers as only God can see them (II Timothy 2:19) and professing believers as men can see them and deal with them, as Jesus says, “Tell it unto the church” (Matthew 18:17) — a group which has a regular “assembling…together” for exhortation (Hebrews 10:25), that is, for the regular use of the Word of God and the Sacraments like the congregation in Jerusalem, whose members “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). That local congregation was persecuted by the apostle Paul before he was converted to Christ, as we read in the book of Acts: “As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8: 3). Here again, the word “church” refers to people, not a building.
But why do some Christians ignore meetings or even leave the church?
The reasons for which a person stops going to church may be a lot. And it is important to remember a simple truth: It sometimes starts with small things. Perhaps it is bad weather or transport problems. And evidently, if it is truly necessary to miss one worship, the next Sunday there may be many more reasons not to go, empty reasons, “excuses” like those of which Jesus speaks in Luke 14:18-20.
We must realize that, without receiving “spiritual bread” that we eat through the hearing of the Word, preached and sounding forth in the local church, our inner spiritual man initially will be “hungry,” and, in the case of a protracted “hunger,” can even die. So “let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10: 24-25). That “day” is the day of the coming of Jesus Christ, for which must be prepared each of us. And this preparation takes place in the Church, in communion with the Christians, in personal communication with God through His Word and Sacrament. So those two or three hours of our precious time that we spend to attend the meeting of the church, “the assembling of ourselves together,” is nothing compared to eternity.
There are several common reasons why people stop going to church:
- The cooling of faith, the loss of the “first love” for the Savior and His Word (Revelation 2:4-5), that is, those feelings and emotions that the person has right after believing. The Bible says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). And in many cases, there comes a time when a person first wants to leave, somehow loses interest, and there are doubts: “Do I really have to do this? Why do I need to put forth all this effort?” These thoughts, for example, occur when the “first love” of newly-married lovers grows old and cools, like the coal away from the fire; and learning to live together becomes routine, and boredom sets in. That happens in a Christian whose love is not fueled by the Gospel of Jesus’ love for him. The apostle John writes: “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19).
But such a sinful “disappointment” in the relationship — the loss of “first love” — does not have to be a permanent state. By sincere contrition and repentance, worked in him by the Spirit of God through the Word, it is a “manner” or habit that the Christian breaks and then grows spiritually, receiving the “warmth” of the Spirit, to be back on the same stage. God wants us always to be “hot,” on fire, “zealous” (Revelation 3:19), burning for Him. He warns the lukewarm ones: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth…” (Revelation 3:16). What do you do when it seems that faith is weakening? How do you take a step up? Christ says: “I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:18-20).
- The conviction of self and despair of forgiveness. There are people who no longer attend church because they are sure that they cannot forsake certain sins and thus consider themselves unworthy. But God says that “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6). We do not attend church because we are “worthy” (like the Pharisee in the Temple, Luke 18:11-12), but because we are unworthy, wretched sinners in the sight of God and desperately need the assurance of His forgiveness from the Gospel. In Christ, God reconciled us unto Himself, not imputing our trespasses unto us (II Corinthians 5:19) so that by faith in Jesus’ merits, we can “live…unto Him which died for [us] and rose again” (v. 15). “For a just man [the believer, justified by faith] falleth seven times and riseth up again” (Proverbs 24:16). As we walk in the light of faith, we have the assurance that “the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (I John 1:7). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). When you sin, repent, trust in God’s forgiveness, and go forward with His help to amend your ways!
- The condemnation of others. We often hear people say, “All around are liars and hypocrites, many of them in the churches. I do not like to be in such company. I’m better off being among the ‘honest sinning’ people.” And just who are they?? Are people “honest” by “forsaking the assembling of [themselves] together”? Jesus says: “He that is of God heareth God’s words” (John 8:47). “The manner of some is” that they forsake the hearing of God’s Word. They are “not of God;” they are not Godly; they are not “honest.” Anyone can stumble, and you as well. Because of the sinful flesh, we Christians stumble every day (Romans 7:18). Do not judge your brother without evidence! “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7: 24) according to identifiable facts. But only God knows the heart of man. “Judge not, that ye be not be judged,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 7:1ff.). Our church or congregation of brothers and sisters is our spiritual family. In every family there are times when it becomes difficult to get along with one another and even to stay together. Some annoy one another; some are not faithful in the performance of their duties. Is it because of such small things that one would leave the family?? Consider what the apostle Paul exhorts us: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
- Unbelief. This is the chief (and the worst reason) why people “forsake the assembling of [themselves] together” to hear God’s Word and to be exhorted by Christian brothers and sisters, to be provoked by them “unto love and to good works” (v. 24). Regarding the hearing of God’s words, Jesus told the Jews: “Ye therefore hear them not because ye are not of God!” (John 8:47). Many who despise preaching and the Word of God have already lost their faith entirely and therefore have no interest in going to church. They have no fear, love and trust in God, and that is why they have no interest in His Word. “The Gospel of Christ, …the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), is “foolishness” to them; “the preaching of cross” of Christ is “foolishness” to them; they despise “the foolishness of preaching” which God pleased to use as His instrument to save them (I Corinthians 1:18ff.)
Why do you need to go to church?
In the local congregations of His believers, first of all, there is a meeting and communion with God. Jesus Himself is there to bless the preaching of His Word by His under-shepherds or pastors, to bless the hearing of His Word in the ears of their sheep, to bless the reception of His sacraments, to bless the worship of His name, to bless the discipline He has ordained for wayward sheep, to bless the fellowship that His sheep enjoy together in the unity of the Spirit. Even the smallest assembly of His sheep has He attention, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). There we glorify God, offer intercessory prayers for others, get the hearing of faith, and receive guidance for our lives. In addition, participating in the life of the Church in the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters, we express, as the fruit of our faith, our love and reverence for our gracious God through the love that we express and practice toward one another (Ephesians 4:32).
The Christian says: “I do not merely go to church, I belong to her. And I cherish my opportunities to assemble together with my fellow members because of what my gracious God there offers, gives, and seals to me in His Word and Sacraments, and because of the great privilege I have to share those blessings with others in ‘the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10) who have, like me, been ‘called out of darkness into His marvelous light’ (I Peter 2:9).”
Have you ever thought about why the writer of our text, this “holy [man] of God…moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21), wrote to Jewish believers and begged them not to leave their congregations? Without “growth in grace and in the knowledge of [their] Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18), believers are the object of the attacks of “[their] adversary, the devil, [who] as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5: 8). Therefore the Lord Jesus, the Head of His Church, established the local congregation for the regular and consistent nourishment of His sheep and lambs, so that His Word would not go forth out of His mouth in vain, but would accomplish that which He pleases and would prosper in the thing whereto He sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11), namely, for the salvation of poor sinners (I Timothy 2:4) and for the security of His precious bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:26-27).
Over the years of my ministry, I have seen all too many converts to the true faith in the company of friends, or in a country house, or a walk in the park instead of assembling together for the Sunday service, thus neglecting the preaching of God’s Word and the exhortation of their brethren, with the result that they gradually cooled down in the faith and later returned to their old way of life, losing the salvation that the Lord Jesus purchased and won for them. Disobedience to this simple truth, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…” allowed the devil to fulfill his destructive plans in their lives.
As a servant of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, I beg you not for any reason to forsake the assembling of your fellow believers! No matter how you are busy, no matter how many you have any problems, try to find time for regular attendance to the services of your local church. Otherwise, you may not have time to blink as you find yourself trapped in Satan. And he pursues only one goal: To steal your salvation. And this to destroy you (I Peter 5:8). Do not listen to his lie that the assembly of the saints you do not need. He knows that you will be much easier to break when you depart from the exhortation of brothers and sisters in faith, from care and oversight of your pastors. Alone, no one has stood still.
The devil is trying in every way to separate the Christians from the Church. He convinces them that if they sin, their God will never forgive, and in the meetings of His church He will not understand their contrition or accept their repentance. But in fact, God truly desires that the sinner sincere repents and comes back to the church. For there he will find forgiveness, encouragement and consolation from both God and the people.
Do not forget that regular church attendance — it is not only our duty as faithful Christians, but also a great privilege. This is God’s blessing that the brothers and sisters in your country can freely gather and praise our Lord. Keep in mind that not all countries are as well, and many Christians in other countries are experiencing persecution and misery because of their faith. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, stand firm in faith, do not leave your congregation and its opportunities for assembling together, its good pastors and teachers, excellence in the knowledge of God’s Word, as you can help your dear fellowship, and your servants; for every day they care about you before our Lord.
God’s good blessings to all of you, brothers and sisters in our churches! Stand firm in the faith!
Pastor Roman Schurganoff
Orthodox Lutheran Church, Ekaterinburg, Russia