Gathered worship is bigger than coming to a building; it is about caring for each other.
There is a growing apathy in the church toward church attendance. The saints have become comfortable watching worship instead of attending worship. It is true that we can worship God from anywhere at any time; if we are sick, on vacation, or caring for a loved one, we may not be able to physically worship in the house of God. But these are exceptional circumstances that are completely understandable. However, what we are witnessing today is a sitcom approach to worship, where we binge-watch our favorite preachers in our pajamas while we cook breakfast, sip coffee, and catch up on our chores.
Certainly, the pandemic plays a huge role in the mindset of today’s Christians, but this trend started before COVID. Prior to the pandemic, church attendance dipped below 50% for the first time since being measured in 1937. From the years 2000 to 2020, the median weekly attendance decreased from 137 people to 65. Additionally, the median five-year rate of change in attendance decreased for the first time in twenty years by 7% for half of all congregations. The big picture: church attendance was in decline the past two decades.
And yes, since the pandemic, church attendance has further eroded. According to Barna, 53% of practicing Christians stream from home. Let me be the first to confess that my early pandemic Sundays were a lot simpler. I watched my service for one hour and was done. I didn’t have to prepare my outfit, commute to and from church, or stay for two services. But I missed something vitally important: the fellowship of my faith community.
The “We” Church, Not the “Me” Church
What we fail to grasp about “the church” is that we are a community (1 Cor. 12:27). The church is not my individual walk with Christ but our collective life in Him. Just recently I shared with the congregation where I serve as an assistant pastor that “ye” in the King James translation of Scripture is plural, although we tend to apply it individually—“you.” And that is the challenge we find ourselves in today: we are living the “me” of Scripture, when God intends for us to live the “we.”
The author of Hebrews was writing to a community of Christians who were wrestling with their faith in Christ during the midst of intense hardship and confrontation. Those challenges may have caused them to abandon gathering as a community to worship Christ together. He said to them: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25 NLT).
His primary challenge to this community was to think of ways to motivate each other to acts of love and good deeds. When the author exhorted them to think, it involved discovering “something through direct observation, with the implication of also thinking about it.” They were to observe how each other were doing and think about how they could motivate one another based upon their observations. Their motivation was to result in every person in their faith community acting in love and doing good deeds.
Two Ways to Motivate Believers
There were two primary ways to bring about those outcomes as the day of Jesus’s return drew closer: (1) not neglecting gathered worship and (2) encouraging each other. These two participles explain how their faith community (and ours) was to “think of ways to motivate one another.”
1. They were to regularly meet together in their worship of Christ. How else could they observe each other if they did not meet together? They did not have Zoom, livestream, or any of our current technology. They had to physically gather to think of what their brothers and sisters needed. If someone looked sickly, sad, or stricken, the community could think of ways to motivate him. Even today, your doctor still prefers to see you in person before she makes a serious diagnosis or prescription, despite conveniences of telehealth. So why should the church be any different?
Gathered worship is not solely about going to a central place to worship as a community of believers; it is about gathering for the communal care of each other, who are not of this world but still live in this world. Gathered worship is vertical (God-ward) and horizontal (others-ward), and when we only focus on the vertical, it is easy to go virtual and turn our homes into sanctuaries with 50-inch televisions. But we end up neglecting the needs of our brothers and sisters who are dependent upon us to observe and think of ways to encourage them. We similarly neglect ourselves, because we need them to do the same for us.
I find it interesting that he issues this instruction negatively. Our gathered worship is so vital to our communal life that he warns them “not” to abandon their meeting together, as some were doing then and are also doing today. The danger of the scattered church is that it leaves us all vulnerable to the roaring lion who is seeking whomever he can devour (1 Pet. 5:8). No matter what we have deceived ourselves into believing, we need more than me, myself, and I to live the Pilgrim’s Progress—John Bunyan taught us that.
2. They were to regularly encourage each other to hold on to their faith in Christ. The antithesis to isolated worship is community encouragement. The implication is that a lack of gathering can lead to discouragement. Remember, this letter was written to a community that was or contemplated abandoning their faith in Christ because of the persecution they were facing. And he tells them to don’t stop gathering together so that they can console and comfort each other to keep trusting in Christ. What a profound prescription.
Our faith can be strengthened through our continued fellowship with each other. As the body of Christ, we are joined and fitted together to supply what the other members need (Eph. 4:16). When we fail to connect, we fail to supply. And when we are not connecting and supplying, we are not being built up in the faith—which is the goal.
Some people have stopped attending worship all together (in-house or online) because they became discouraged by the pandemic. Others stopped attending because it was more convenient. Today, staying home is less expensive, given the price of gas. But the cost of our isolation is the loss of encouragement from us and to us.
Upward, Inward, and Outward
I am growing ever more pressed by the importance of the communal life of the church. Our communal life points upward to God in worship, points inward to our life together in Christ, and points outward to the world of our witness of Christ. If we don’t gather, then the ecclesia (the church) doesn’t matter. Our theology (teachings) and praxeology (practices) center around community: the Godhead, in whom we find participation, and each other, who live out our life together as the body of Christ.
We live in the age of convenience, but it comes at a cost. We can order food, clothes, groceries, and other amenities from the comforts of our homes, but what we have in the gathered worship of Christ followers cannot be delivered to our doors. The great falling away that we are experiencing is the byproduct of a church that has become discouraged because it has become too convenient.
Rev. Isaac Hayes is the president of Healing of the Soul Ministries. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Illinois, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.
 Joe Carter, “Why Is Church Membership in America on the Decline?,” The Gospel Coalition, March 31, 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-membership-america-decline/.  Scott Thumma, Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview (Hartford, CT: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2021), 3, https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Faith-Communities-Today-2020-Summary-Report.pdf.  Thumma, 12.  “One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19,” State of the Church, Barna Group, July 8, 2020, https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/.  Louw and Nida, 281.