They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers… And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common. – Acts 2.42, 44
From the very beginning, God designed the church to be together. Due to the recent spread of the coronavirus disease, a vast majority of congregations have decided to cancel their regularly scheduled weekly services.
It should be noted that those churches which have chosen not to assemble are not simply acting out of fear. Even faithful Christians who do not fear death feel a deep level of love and concern for those who are most vulnerable to the disease, as Wesley Hazel has articulated so well here.
It should also be noted when churches temporarily cancel services due to extremely unique health concerns, this is not “forsaking the assembly” as several others have effectively explained.
- On Cancelling Worship Services During a Pandemic
- Misunderstanding Forsaking the Assembly
- Church Attendance, The Coronavirus, and Guilt
As Jack Wilke has rightly observed, now is not the time to disregard the authority of our elders, or to “downplay [another congregation’s] autonomy, diminish their eldership, and place ourselves as an arbiter of their of their church’s decision.”
If you are struggling with guilt over your congregation’s decision to temporarily cancel services, I encourage you to carefully consider the points these brothers have raised, and then search the scriptures to see if these things are so.
At the same time, if you are missing your regular routine of gathering with other Christians, that’s a good thing! When Christians can’t assemble, they should miss it! From the very beginning of the church, Christians have prioritized the practice of assembling together. Live-streamed worship services and social media interaction is a great blessing that can help us temporarily fill some gaps while we are separated, but they will never be a suitable replacement for Christian assembly.
Christians Miss Praying Together
Of course we can and should pray individually while social distancing (Mt. 6.5-6). But the early church had a practice of praying together.
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them…” – Acts 4.24
So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. – Acts 12.5
It is important to pray with other believers. Praying together encourages us and unifies us as we share our common faith. Those who may be alone and struggling, can be greatly encouraged as they hear others praying with them. It also builds up love and concern for others as we intercede together.
The good news is that this is not completely impossible during this time of separation. It may require extra effort, such as calling someone, and (though it may feel awkward at first) inviting them to pray with you over the phone. Churches should also take care to livestream prayers along with their livestreamed lessons.
Christians Miss Singing Together
We often think that “teaching and admonishing” are tasks reserved for teachers and leaders in the congregation. But Paul’s command was for the entire church, not just the leadership. We all have a role to play in helping one another grow in wisdom, love, and knowledge. Paul also tells them that one unique way to do this is in our singing. Our songs are indeed directed vertically, as praise towards God, but they are also directed horizontally towards one another. The words we sing can teach, inspire, strengthen, and lift up our brothers and sisters. This is something that we can’t do when we are separated, and we should miss it.
Christians Miss Studying Scripture Together
Once again, private Bible study is important. But it was important for the early church to be “devoting themselves to the apostle’s doctrine” while gathering together (Acts 2.42, 44). Although nothing requires that Christians must do this in large assemblies of hundreds of people, Luke observes the practice of the early church in this way:
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. – Acts 5.42
When Christians study Scripture together, we have built in “checks and balances”. A group of Christians studying together are less likely to all make the same interpretation mistake as one individual. We all come to the passage with slightly different eyes and backgrounds, and are more likely to discern the author’s original meaning when we work together. Studying scripture together builds relationships and unifies us around a common understanding of the truth.
When the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, they also took the time consider God’s message together (Acts 20.7).
Speaking of breaking bread…
Christians Miss Sharing the Lord’s Supper Together
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. – Acts 20.7
One of the most important reasons the church gathered on the first day of the week was to break bread together. The Lord’s Supper is something we are supposed to share with one another.
Is not the cup of blessing which we bless as sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. – 1 Corinthians 10.16-17
This is something can’t do when we can’t assemble. Of course we can, and should, partake of the Lord’s Supper in our homes, and as we eat that bread, we should be mindful of our brothers and sisters scattered all over the world who are sharing that bread with us. But the Lord’s Supper is designed as something we share together. That’s why Paul instructed the church at Corinth to “wait for one another” before partaking (1 Cor. 11.33).
Sharing that one bread reminds us that we are one body. Bodies are not designed to be separated, and when they are separated, it should be painful and it should be temporary. Separated body parts don’t survive long without being reattached to the body. We must reassemble as soon as we possibly can.
Christians Miss Sharing and Giving
The early church was noteworthy for the way they came together to share with one another.
And those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. – Acts 2.44-45
When necessity arose, the church systematized their giving, by giving on each first day of the week when they gathered together (1 Cor. 16.1-2). When Christians gather together, this makes it easy both to identify the needs of one another and it becomes convenient to give. When Christians give together, we are able to hold one another accountable for our generosity.
We are facing a time when many Christians are, and will be struggling. Layoffs and income reduction are happening everywhere throughout our economy. Financial needs are higher than they have been in a long time. Yet without the convenience of the weekly assembly, almost every congregation is experiencing a significant decrease in their contributions.
Yes, we can and must give even when we can’t assemble. We should be reaching out to our elders and asking them how. But we certainly miss the convenience and accountability that comes with Christian assemblies.
Christians Miss Love and Encouragement
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10.24-25
The word translated “forsaking” is a word for complete abandonment. Temporarily canceling services is not “forsaking the assembly.” But we must emphasize the word “temporary” and we must assemble together again as soon as possible, even if only in groups of ten meeting in back yards in the open air with ten feet between each chair.
According to this scripture, one of the purposes of assembling is to stimulate love and good deeds. In other words, by assembling together, Christians have an opportunity to deepen their relationships with one another and to encourage one another into deeper involvement in the works of the church. When Christians can’t assemble, relationships and involvement both suffer.
“Let Us Go to the House of the Lord”
It is to be hoped that as churches go through this time of separation, that Christians will grow to appreciate the privilege of assembling more than ever before. It may be that this will help us all to develop an attitude like that expressed by David in Psalm 122.2
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD”
The New Testament nowhere teaches that we must assemble in large crowds. In fact, the early church didn’t meet in church buildings. They met “from house to house” in crowds that were small enough to fit inside a single home.
It may be a very long time before we can gather back together in large church building auditoriums. But we must not forget that Christian assemblies are critically important. When Christians can’t assemble, we miss out on numerous blessing and opportunities to encourage one another. To some extent, when we are apart, relationships will weaken, involvement will wane. It is likely that many weaker Christians will not survive this time of separation.
Any separation from the assembly must be as temporary as possible. Online worship services, social media, and text messaging are all great tools that can help alleviate the pain of separation. But there is no replacement for Christians assembling together.
If this coronavirus crisis drags on for longer than we expect, the time may come when we need to take some measured risks so that we can assemble – even if only in small groups in back yards. Christian assemblies are absolutely indispensable.
May we never take lightly the privilege of Christian assemblies. Let us pray together that the LORD will hasten the day when we will hear those word again: “Let us go to the house of the LORD”. I will be glad. Won’t you?