Sermon: When All of God’s People Get Together
Other messages in this series:
- Sermon #1: “Rethinking the Priority of Worship” (Sept 5)
- Sermon #2: “Worship You Don’t Have to Go To” (Sept 12)
- Sermon #4: “It”s What We Bring to Worship That Matters” (Sept 26)
Scriptures: Psalm 68; Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:19-25
When one of my younger siblings—I think it was my sister, but I can’t say for sure—was getting ready to head off to the sr. prom, the question came up about whether or not she should have to go to church the next morning. Prom was on Saturday, and, like most everyone else attending the prom, it was likely she’d be out quite late that night. It’s my recollection that my parents had the expectation that regardless of what time she got home, they wanted her to be in church the next morning. I remember going to bat for my sister and sharing my thoughts that allowing her one Sunday off wouldn’t be the end of the world. Because the fact was, she was in church every Sunday. From my perspective, giving her the option to sleep in the day after the sr. prom was no big deal. Now, while my parents understood the logic of my argument, and even agreed with me in principle, their concern was that giving her an “out” for this special occasion would send the message that going to church is optional when the circumstances make it more challenging to do so. My response was, “You’ve spent the last 18 years instilling in her the priority of Sunday worship; missing one will not invalidate or erase all of that.” To be honest, I don’t recall if she went to church or not the next morning. But I thought it was a good illustration about some of the tension and ambiguity some of us probably feel when it comes to prioritizing Sunday worship.
Take, for example, the question about what age is most appropriate to let students decide whether or not they’ll go to church. Or whether or not it’s appropriate to give them that option. I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel every time I heard a church member ask, “Why do so many kids stop coming to church as soon as they’re confirmed. And why do their parents allow them to do that? When I was a kid, my parents never gave me that option. We just went to church, period.”
To be honest, trying to understand why it seems many students do stop participating once their confirmed is a fair endeavor. However, be forewarned that getting to the bottom of that might reveal some other issues which make it harder to simply lay the blame on the students. In other words, it may not just be about their level of commitment. It might reveal something about the church! Anyway, at some point every family with middle and high school students has to decided how they’re going to handle the issue about whether or not going to church will be mandatory.
After 28 years of pastoring six different churches, here’s what’s become clear to me: requiring youth to go to church doesn’t guarantee that they’ll go to church as adults. Making them go every week, especially if it’s against their will, doesn’t guarantee that they’ll adopt the same value for Sunday worship that their parents have. Yes, sometimes it works out, that in the end they come to see the value in making worship a priority, and then make that choice for themselves. But for others, it can have the effect of driving them away. And so, I admit that parents are caught between a rock and a hard place. If we give them the choice when they reach the age of accountability, which is about the age most of them go through confirmation class, and they make the choice to not go, then it feels like we’ve failed to instill in them the value of Sunday worship. On the other hand, if we make them go because “it’s what we do as a family,” we take the chance that they may come to resent it. Now, it’s also possible that giving them a choice will result in them choosing to come on their own, and that’s wonderful. And it’s also possible that making Sunday worship a family priority while they’re still living at home might instill in them that value, which they adopt for themselves—and that, too, is a good thing, right? Ultimately, though, wouldn’t you agree that participating in the life of a church is something we have to do by choice?
There’s no getting around the fact that gathering together with other believers furnishes us with a capacity for growing in faith that just doesn’t happen in private worship.
All of this begs the question, What’s so important about corporate worship? Why should we order our lives so that getting up every Sunday morning and worshiping with the community of faith is a high priority, especially when there are half a dozen other worthwhile activities vying for our time and attention?
No doubt you’re familiar with the idea that there’s strength in numbers. When it comes to worship, there’s no getting around the fact that gathering together with other believers furnishes us with a capacity for growing in faith that just doesn’t happen in private worship. Meeting with others along this path of faith we’re all on creates a synergy that you just can’t get from sitting at your dining room table and doing your morning devotions. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with doing personal devotions, and even though I didn’t specifically make this point last week when I talked about worship on a personal level, having a regular and intentional devotional life is absolutely vital for spiritual growth. Meeting one-on-one with the Lord every day is where the “rubber hits the road” in our spiritual journeys. It’s where we learn to discern God’s voice. It’s where we can take the time to stop and listen to God, which is something that’s pretty difficult to do in this setting.
But when we come together, we find strength for the journey.
- It’s here that we hear and learning the songs of our faith.
- It’s here that we pray as one body.
- It’s here that we hear the Word of God proclaimed and taught.
- It’s here that we can be encouraged by the personal testimonies of others.
- If we so ordered ourselves, it’s here that persons needing prayer could meet and pray as a small group at the close of worship. It’s here that we connect with others.
If there’s one thing that became very clear during the time we were unable to meet in-person for worship, it’s the importance and power of being with others.
When I was in seminary, I made plans to go to a Six Flags amusement park with my friend, Brad. The morning of, he called and said that he’d been called into work and couldn’t go. But since I’d already set that day aside, I decided to go by myself. Big mistake! I’ll never, ever do that again. There’s nothing fun or amusing about spending the day alone at an amusement park. It’s just something you have to do with others. That’s kind of how I see worship. There’s something powerful about worshiping alongside others.
Years ago, I heard a saying and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s a response to those who claim that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. And while there’s some truth to that claim, it fails to take into consideration another truth, one I believe has a greater significance. Here’s the saying: An ember apart from the fire quickly goes out. We’ve all seen it happen. You’re sitting at a campfire when it suddenly pops, and an ember flies out and lands on the ground. And within seconds, it stops burning. Yes, for a while it’s still hot to the touch. But after a while it cools off completely and loses all its heat.
Well, the community of faith, specifically, the gathered community of faith, is the fire. Staying intimately connected to the community through corporate worship helps us to “stay hot” in our faith, so to speak. But when worshiping with the family of God starts taking a back seat and our participation wanes, it can result in a slow decay in spiritual fervor. An ember apart from the fire quickly goes out.
An ember apart from the fire quickly goes out.
Now, I feel the need to briefly address the fact that there are some persons within the church who are unable to physically come to church, or whose situation is such that it’s terribly difficult to do so. My previous comments are not directed at them. My concern is for those who intentionally choose to not participate in corporate worship, and to those who find themselves in the place of making it a lower priority than other things. For those who can’t be here, it’s wonderful that we’re able to broadcast our worship service, both on the radio and online. These platforms allow those who can’t be here for one reason or another to be a part of the gathered community of faith from afar.
Now, there are lots of other reasons why the Sunday worship service is an important aspect of living out our faith. I’ve only touched on a couple. But after all is said and done, the bottom line really is this: we make corporate worship a priority because God tells us to make it a priority. In Hebrews 10:25 God says (through the author of the letter), “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.” Don’t stop meeting together with other believers. Instead, come together. Why? So that you can encourage each other in your faith and practice.
We see them meeting together as new believers right away. After Jesus ascended back to his eternal glory, Acts 1 says they immediately returned to Jerusalem and “went upstairs to the room where they were staying,” where they were joined by “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with [Jesus’] brothers. For what purpose? Verse 14 says “they all joined together constantly in prayer.” They came together and worshiped.
We see this practice continuing in Acts 2, which depicts the church in its infancy, right after the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. Starting in verse 42 we read that “the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers… Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes” (Acts 2:42, 46). As the book of Acts unfolds, we find the church growing. Into city after city the Good News of Jesus Christ was taken by those first-generation Christians. And where the message was heard and received, people gathered in homes to worship. They understood the importance of coming together for the purpose of encouraging each other. And nothing in that regard has changed since then.
Now, there’s an important aspect of corporate worship that I need to briefly touch on. I can tell you now that you’ll be hearing more about this in the months ahead, so today I’ll plant the seed. Corporate worship at its very best is INTERGENERATIONAL. Corporate worship is most effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ when people of all ages are present together in the same space. We’re talking worship where there are crying babies, fidgety children, middle school students, high school students, college students, young adults, middle-aged adults, and, of course, the most senior among us. Worship at its best is designed so that every member of the church family has a welcomed place in the space. Probably the biggest challenge for congregations like ours, where the majority of people in the sanctuary are, shall we say, well beyond their child-rearing years, is getting used to a worship experience that feels a little “chaotic” when babies and young children are present. For the entire worship service. Not just the first ten minutes or so, but from prelude to postlude. And I’m talking about them being welcomed and wanted, not just tolerated.
Elisabeth recently told me about an experience she had at a church she worked at a number of years ago. She said that at any point in the worship service, whether it’s mid-sentence in the sermon, a pastoral prayer, wherever, if a baby begins to cry, the pastor stops and asks the congregation, “What’s worse than hearing a baby making noise in worship?” To which the congregation responds as one, “Not hearing a baby making noise in worship!” Do you realize the absolute power of that statement? Imagine being a first-time guest in that church, and you have young children, and you hear the entire congregation make the statement that the only thing worse that hearing noisy children in church in NOT hearing noisy children in church. 1 to 10, what’s the likelihood you’re going to return to that church the following Sunday? From 1 to 10, I’d say 100!!
Let me pose a similar question. If being a vital and active part of a congregation’s worship life is not the experience of their children and youth, what’s the likelihood that they’ll go to church when they head off to college? If for seventeen or eighteen years, Sunday entails attending Sunday school, what’s going to happen once they “outgrow” the youth Sunday school class? To a certain degree, worship is taught and worship is learned. Put another way, we learn to be good worshipers by doing it on a regular basis. And I am a strong proponent of figuring out how to make what we do here every Sunday from 9:30 until 10:30ish something which is intentionally designed to foster the spiritual growth of all of God’s people.
A little while ago we called ourselves to worship with portions of Psalm 68. Verse 24 mentions a procession of people going into the sanctuary. That is, the temple, their place of worship. They come into the House of God with singing and the playing of instruments for the purpose of praising God. The final verse says, “God is awesome in his sanctuary. The God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.”
When God people—all of God’s people—gather together to worship him, he showers us with his Spirit and fills us with his power. Let’s pray.
Our Heavenly Father, just like your people have done since the beginning, we offer our praises to you for who you are and what you’ve done. You are God! The only God. You created all that is, and you called it all into existence from nothing. You set it all in place and called it good. Creation is good, and we praise you for all of it. Today we join our voices with the countless saints of the ages to worship and adore you; to give you the praise that you alone deserve.
We know that wherever we are at this moment, we’re on holy ground. It’s holy on account of your presence. When we come together, whether in this house of worship or in a home or in a breakroom at work, you’re there with us. So, bless the hallowed ground where we meet you, and draw us closer to you.
God, show this church family how we might design worship which speaks to people of all ages. We confess that a big part of us prefers worship that’s predictable and quiet and orderly. But we also know how important it is that the young people in our church family come to know the joy of being a part of the community at worship. So, help us to re-order our lives so as to make this a reality. We don’t anticipate that it’ll be easy. In fact, we anticipate that it’ll be quite challenging. So, that’s why we need your help.
And now, O God, we thank you that you hear our prayers and listen to the thoughts of our hearts as we lay before you our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows. We pray for your Church, throughout the world, and all who call themselves Christians, that they may live in unity and strength. Help us treat each other and our neighbors with consideration and respect, to celebrate what we have in common and to peacefully accept our differences. Guide us all in we do to serve You.
Help us not to despair of our world’s politicians. We pray that our world leaders would have a passion for justice and truth, honesty, and transparency. We pray for places where there is conflict; where peace seems so far away and so many have lost everything. We pray for our city and community. Help us always to put you first, our neighbor second and ourselves last of all. Help us to be submissive to your will for us and to live our lives genuinely trying to be your servants to all in this place, just as our Lord commanded. Loving God Lord, we pray for all who are suffering from physical, emotional, or mental illness. Help them to see you through their pain and give them courage to face their future whatever that may bring. In a moment of quiet, we pray for those persons we know who are in need of your healing presence….
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trepass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.