After 18 months without church on Sunday mornings, why would we want to revive the habit of weekly church attendance? What’s the point of gathering anyway? Why not join every now and then? Or why not prioritise Bible study and prayer with a few friends?
Four Bible pictures help us to rediscover what church is about: the people of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God. These show us that we are the church. And that we gather to God, to one another and for the world.
These pictures show us that the church is filled with mind-blowing, soul-reviving and heart-captivating vision. In a time like this, the church stands as a living message of divine hope. I want to be a part of that. You, too?
What is church again?
Out of sight, out of mind. An apt saying for a year and half without church gatherings. The habit of attending church on Sunday mornings is no more. And now that we hope to gather again after summer, it is time to consider our hearts. What do we find there when we think about church? Is it anticipation? Or hesitation? Or even doubt? Some can’t wait to join in with the crowd again, others look ahead with reservations for safety or simply because we aren’t used to large groups of people any more, or because we quite like sleeping in on a Sunday morning.
What or who do we look to in order to prepare well? What does God say? What is church again? Why do we gather all together?
Here are four pictures from the Bible, a psalm, and a hymn to help you refresh your memory and prepare your heart for (re)gathering.
1. God’s people
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:10)
God has always been gathering and saving a people, not just a few individuals. In Genesis, he promised Abraham to turn his descendants into a great people. In Exodus, we find them as slaves, but God brings rescue and forms them indeed into his people, marked by the Passover and the Presence of God on their way to the Promised land. The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of this nation set apart for God’s glory. And that God regularly brought them together to meet; to assemble. For example at Mount Sinai to hear God’s law (Exodus 19), at the annual festivals (Deuteronomy 16) or at Jerusalem for David’s final speech (1 Chronicles 28).
This idea is captured in the Greek translation of the Old Testament word for “assembly”, ekklesia, which is used to refer to the local church in the New Testament. It is simply the term for a gathering, but in light of the Old Testament it carries the meaning of standing together as God’s people.
Jesus had this in mind when he said – “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) and told his followers to “gather in my name” (Matthew 18:20). Paul affirmed this when he said: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). And Peter explained the gospel by saying that God’s mercy brought us into the people of God (1 Peter 2:9-10; see also Ephesians 2:11-22).
This means that now we are God’s people, who are saved by his grace, empowered by his Spirit and fed by his word, who walk by faith and stand together on his promises, who enjoy and share God’s love, who gather as church of Christ. Believers go to church because we are the church. A local church is an assembly of God’s people. Without meeting, there is no church. Of course we gather, that is what makes church church!
2. Temple of the Holy Spirit
We gather to God
“In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22)
God is omnipresent. He is present everywhere. But he also chooses sometimes to localise his presence, as he did surprisingly for Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6). But now, we get to be the place where God dwells by the person of the Holy Spirit. Because we are ‘in Jesus’, the church is now God’s dwelling place on earth, the new temple. This means that when we gather in his name, we can expect that he will be with us.
God is with us from the beginning of our gathering. In fact, it all begins with God. God gathers us to himself first and foremost. Matt Merker puts it like this: “God the Father grants us to honour him in and through our mediator, God the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” What brings us into the presence of God is the death and resurrection of Jesus alone. So “God serves us before we serve him, he ministers to us, he blesses us, he reveals himself to us, he pours out grace upon undeserved grace. Then, we serve him with the strength that he alone provides.”
The gathering not only begins with God, but it is also for God as he gathers us to bring glory to him. We get to praise him with gravity (reverence), gladness (rejoicing), and gratitude (recognition). And we get to enjoy communion with him, which also brings him glory. We encounter God through Jesus by the Spirit, who is with us in our fellowship, when we sing, during the sharing of bread and wine, and when the gospel is preached.
But we also encounter God through one another as we are filled with the Spirit. In God’s temple, we all play a priestly role (1 Peter 2:9). We offer two types of sacrifice: praise to God and good works to bless God’s people (Hebrews 13:15-16). And that brings us to our next picture.
3. Body of Jesus Christ
We gather to God and to one another
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
God surprised the cosmos with the incarnation of his Son. God became man in order to save mankind. The surprise continued when we found out that we are saved through union with Jesus. By faith we become one with Christ, one with his death and his resurrection, one with his body. We do not belong to ourselves, but are members of Christ’s body, and get to live this out (Colossians 3:1-4).
This means that we do not gather as individuals seeking to worship God by ourselves, but as a body to encourage one another and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The aim is to see the body grow up in every way into Christ, who is the head. And this happens when all believers play a part in this ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16). All are gifted, every member of the body is needed (1 Corinthians 12). Some gifts serve from the platform, but most flourish in the pew.
When you welcome one another you show God’s kindness. When you sing you serve your brothers and sisters around you to look up and remember God’s faithfulness. When you pray you stir your fellow believers to have faith for God’s power to save. When you prophesy you bring God’s heart into the everyday of the saints. When you testify from the Bible you speak hope into the body. When you gather ready to build up you show that you have put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:11-17).
When we will safely (re)gather together, we will all have covid-year-stories to tell, and likely different opinions. Let’s hear Paul, when he said: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, vaccinated and unvaccinated, insane and sane; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11, adapted)
God’s desire for Christ’s body is that it may reflect his heart, so the world may recognise the Son in us. So, empowered by the Spirit who brings this to fruition, let’s seek unity and:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” (Colossians 3:12-13; also see Romans 14:13-23)
4. Embassy of God’s kingdom
We gather to God, to one another and for the world
“We are ambassadors for Christ…” (2 Corinthians 5:20)
God’s people we are, but we are also exiles as we aren’t home yet (1 Peter 1:1). Being an international church we have many nationalities represented, but actually we are exiles who belong to the same heavenly country. When God promised Abraham many descendants, he also promised to bless them in order that they might bless the world. It has always been God’s plan that his people show his kingdom amid the nations of the earth.
The world is complex and confusing, full of frustration and futility. The pandemic shook many nations. But we are grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28), we abound in hope (Romans 15:13), we know our King will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). The church is an embassy of this kingdom. It means that the church serves to show what God’s kingdom looks like, it is a preview of the coming new creation, it is a living message of divine hope. We represent God’s heavenly kingdom. We are Christ’s ambassadors.
This means that when we gather, we gather as ambassadors and not as consumers. We come to honour the King and make him known; Jesus gets centre stage, not us. And this also explains why we value and submit to the Bible when we come together, as ambassadors faithfully apply the policies set by the King.
Church is like a festive gathering of exiles in a foreign land, which means that church is countercultural, we teach our constitution (sermon), we eat and drink kingdom food (communion), we sing our national anthem (hymns and songs), and we celebrate heaven’s culture of faith, hope, and love (fellowship), yet we welcome everyone to come and join, as we believe it will do them good.
This is how the church serves to show Jesus to unbelievers, to be the light of the world.
After a year and a half of lockdown, will the church be able to stand again? Will it be revived and flourish? Well, our God is in the business of resurrection and he is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and he has always shown himself to be faithful to the church.
Why? Because the church is the gathering of his people, the temple of his Spirit, the body of his Son, and an embassy of his kingdom. But also the bride of Christ awaiting the return of the Bridegroom. And the flock of the Good Shepherd; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. What a mind-blowing, soul-reviving and heart-captivating vision!
Let’s (re)gather to God, to one another and for the world!
A (re)gathering Psalm for giving thanks.
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the LORD, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Hymn of the Church
O Church of Christ, invincible, The people of the Lord, Empowered by the Spirit’s breath And nourished by his word.
His covenant of grace will be
Our portion evermore,
For He who called us will not change, Our help and our reward.
O chosen people called by grace,
The sons of Abraham,
Who walk by faith and things unseen, And on His promise stand,
That every nation of the earth Will hear about this love
That causes broken hearts to heal And pays our debts with blood.
O Church of Christ in sorrow now, Where evil lies in wait;
When trials and persecutions come This light will never fade.
For though the hordes of hell may rage, Their power will not endure;
Our times are in the Father’s hand, Our anchor is secure.
O Church of Christ, upon that day When all are gathered in,
When every tear is wiped away With every trace of sin;
Where justice, truth and beauty shine, And death is passed away,
Where God and man will dwell as one For all eternity.
Vaughan Roberts, True Worship, 2002
Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, Sovereign Grace Ministries, 2008 Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership, 9Marks, 2012
Matt Merker, Corporate Worship, 9Marks, 2021
Matt Boswell & Stuart Townend, Hymn of the Church, 2014