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Our Purpose for Assembling

by Al Maxey

Issue #471 ------- January 14, 2011
Above all we need the reassuring presence
of a visible community, an intimate group that
enfolds us with understanding and love, and that
becomes an object of our spontaneous loyalty.
Lewis Mumford {1895-1990}
The Transformations of Man

Our Purpose for Assembling
Are Christians Failing to Perceive the
Divine Design for their Gatherings?

I sincerely believe that most of us realize, at least on an intellectual level, that time spent in company with fellow believers is vital to the success of our daily Christian walk. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews counsels us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some (Heb. 10:25). Yet, there have always been, and always will be, those who fail to see the relevance of these assemblies! Thus, they rarely come together with their spiritual family, and, though they seem not to perceive the fact, are all the poorer for this forsaking of their assemblies. I've dealt rather extensively with this troubling failing, and its consequences, in Reflections #174 -- Abandoning Our Assembling, which I would urge the reader to carefully examine. I must admit that my thinking has evolved slightly since the writing of that article.

One of the keys to reversing this trend is to be found in understanding the primary purpose of our times together with other believers. Many stay away from these assemblies because they simply fail to perceive the point of them. If we can instill within their hearts and minds a sense of their worth, and an appreciation for their divine design, we will quite likely see a very dramatic increase in the number of those who flock to these gatherings. On Thursday, 30 December 2010, I mailed out a Special Request to all my readers in which I said, "I would like to examine our purpose for these gatherings (when believers come together at specific times and places). Not in light of what these assemblies have now become, but in light of what the Lord originally intended them to be."

As I have done a number of times before during the past eight years of this Reflections ministry, I sought your input on this vital matter, and, like before, you did not disappoint. The response was immediate and overwhelming. I received literally hundreds of responses from all over the world. I went through half a ream of paper just printing out the emails, not to mention the phone calls I received, and those nearby who spoke to me in person. Some of you even mailed me books you thought would be helpful, and I now have quite a pile to read through (which I'm loving). Thank you! Your insights were of tremendous value to me, and a number of them will be shared in this current study.

Why do God's people assemble together? What is the point? A number of my fellow believers apparently have been unable to find any satisfactory answer to these questions, for they have chosen to frequently absent themselves from these gatherings. Others attend somewhat grudgingly, out of a sense of duty or fear of reprisal, but are the last into the place of assembly and the first out. I am convinced that such actions may well reflect a tragic failure to perceive the true purpose of our times together. And the blame for this can't all be placed on those who choose not to come; it must also be borne by spiritual leaders who perhaps have themselves failed to perceive the divine design for these assemblies, and thus fail to adequately provide what is needed by the flock entrusted to their care! Shepherds, do not expect your sheep to come running to an empty trough, or one filled with fodder! If the fold is not a place where our sheep earnestly desire to be, the problem may well be with the fold, not the flock (although we have to admit that some sheep will forsake both flock and fold no matter what the shepherds do).

To be perfectly honest, there are a great many reasons why disciples of Christ Jesus may choose to assemble themselves together. For example, in Acts 6 we find that "the Twelve gathered all the disciples together," and then they charged the group with the task of choosing from among themselves men who could be given the responsibility of seeing to the daily needs of the widows. We might classify this as a "ministry meeting." They were there to discuss the needs of the group, and how best to minister to those needs. Clearly, there are times when disciples today need to assemble for similar planning and proposing of how best to serve our Lord and one another. In Acts 15 we find the saints assembling to consider a serious problem that was occurring within the Body of Christ. Various interest groups spoke up advocating their own views, and a rather heated debate took place within this assembly. Ultimately, however, the Spirit worked through the leaders of this gathering and a resolution was proposed that would serve to promote God's grace over law. Again, there are times today when brethren with varying views need to assemble to dialogue with one another over vital issues facing the Body of Christ.

The apostle Paul commanded the saints in Corinth to discipline one of their erring members "when you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:4). Therefore, it is not inappropriate for rebuke, reproof and correction --- even for the casting out of one who will not repent --- to occur within an assembly of God's people. Acts 12:12 describes how several disciples "had gathered and were praying" in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. May God's children assemble for the specific purpose of praying? Of course! In fact, there was a time when our middle of the week assemblies were known as "prayer meetings," for they were largely characterized by fervent prayer and supplication. Frankly, I would love to see more assemblies like this! A large group of disciples was gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem awaiting Pentecost (Acts 1 -- and during this gathering an apostle was chosen to take the place of Judas). Disciples in Troas gathered together to "break bread" (Acts 20:7). They also dialogued with Paul, who just happened to be passing through their area. In Jerusalem, the early disciples "continued to meet together in the temple courts every day. They broke bread in their homes and ate together" (Acts 2:46). Yes, we can even assemble together to share a meal in our homes, or assemble together as Christians in a public place.

All the above references, and there are many more we could provide, indicate that there are very few, if any, restrictions placed on Christians when it comes to the "when," "where" and "why" of assembling themselves together. It should be noted, however, that not a one of these gatherings were without some clearly specified purpose. There was a reason for the people to have come together on that occasion, and they knew what it was, and they regarded it as significant enough to want to be there. It wasn't to fulfill a duty; it was to meet a need. Thus, these assemblies were relevant. They meant something to the disciples, and that relevance drew them to the gatherings like a "grace magnet." This perception on the part of the flock is essential to healthy assemblies! I cannot stress this enough! When the sheep perceive no purpose for coming to the fold, they will stay away. Yes, some will stay away anyway ... that has always been the case. But, when a significant number are staying away, wise shepherds will take a close look at whether they have adequately conveyed to the flock the purpose and relevance of their various times of assembly. Demanding that disciples appear at the building simply because it's Sunday morning and "that's where you're supposed to be on Sunday morning" doesn't "compute" in our current society. If that's the very best rationale one can provide for assembling, then expect to see a continuing decrease in attendance. "Duty" may drive sheep, but it doesn't draw them! This is something some shepherds have yet to appreciate. Yes, good sheep (devoted disciples) will possess a sense of duty toward their Shepherd and their fellow flock members, but that is something that must come willingly from within them, rather than being imposed upon them! It is also motivated by love, not law.

Yes, there are many different reasons why God's people might choose to assemble themselves together on some occasion. They might come together at the funeral of a loved one, or they might assemble at a wedding ceremony. They might gather to hear a chorus from one of the universities sing for them. We could list countless other reasons why Christians assemble, each of which has purpose and significance for those assembled. Generally, however, when we speak of "the assembly" of the saints, most think first and foremost of the Sunday morning "worship service" (although this designation is nowhere found within Scripture). Lumped in with this assembly, but generally regarded as lesser to it, are the Sunday evening and midweek assemblies. For the purpose of this present article I will primarily focus on the Sunday assembly. Why do we gather at this time? What is the purpose for these gatherings? Have we truly perceived God's intent for these times together, or have our assemblies evolved into something entirely different from the divine design? These are some of the questions that I posed to you in my special request, and your responses were very enlightening.

I should perhaps also note, prior to getting into these many responses, that a good many of you were quite thrilled that such questions were even being asked! For example, a brother in Kansas wrote, "Brother Al, let me praise you for approaching this topic with a 'come let us reason together' mindset. In the Church of Christ of my youth, such would not be permitted." Which is precisely why so many are thrilled with this discussion -- for too long it was forbidden to question or challenge our sacred sectarian "cows." Those who dared to challenge their brethren to think were quickly "dealt with" (as some are attempting to "deal with" me). A reader in Oklahoma declared, "Praise God for even raising these questions! Unfortunately, I can hear already the charge: 'That "change agent" Al is on a rampage again.'" The leaders of the legalists are only too aware that the people are tired of tradition being elevated above Truth; that they are ready and willing to engage in thought and embrace responsible change. As a brother in Pennsylvania wrote, "I believe your timing is excellent regarding this topic." "This study has been long in coming," wrote another reader. "I am looking forward to these explorations with much prayer for you, and also for any others, like myself, who have wondered about this, but who have kept our thoughts to ourselves." The time has come for those thoughts to be aired.

Worship and Praise

The traditional response to the question, "Why do we assemble together on Sunday?" has generally been: "We assemble to worship and praise our God." Thus the characterization: "worship service." A small number of you (and I was genuinely surprised at just how few) stated the conviction that this was the primary purpose of our "primary assembly." You further declared that you would like to see much greater emphasis placed on the proper observance of and respect for the "five acts of worship." Some wanted more time spent on the Lord's Supper and less on the sermon. Others felt the singing should be improved. "The prayers are too shallow," wrote one woman, "I can almost lip-sync them!" In short, some felt it should be about collectively worshipping our Lord, but that we were guilty of offering up "the sick and lame" in our "sacrifices of praise." The assemblies were in need of modification, but only so that they might be more pleasing and acceptable to God. We weren't "doing it right," in other words, which upsets our God. Thus, our assemblies should be vertically oriented, according to this view. It is all about what God wants, and the "proper pattern" for performing these "five acts" is spelled out in Scripture! As the sign above the door into the auditorium says, "Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve."

Although this is indeed the traditional understanding of the purpose of our Sunday assembly, there has been a tremendous amount of extremely intense questioning and challenging of this perspective recently, especially within the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement (my own faith-heritage). Many are now beginning to realize that, although there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with saints assembling to express their heartfelt adoration for God in worshipful acts, this may not have been the primary purpose for which God desired His people to gather themselves together. It is far more likely our present practice in our Sunday assemblies comes to us from Catholicism, modified somewhat by the Protestant Reformation and the religious evolution that ensued thereafter!! A Christian from Pennsylvania wrote, "I have felt for a number of years now that the typical format for the 'worship service' -- irrespective of one's faith-heritage -- is seriously lacking in terms of ever achieving what God intended for His people." A reader in Virginia expressed it this way: "I suspect that God is not displeased with our efforts to honor Him in our church 'worship assemblies' today, but I also suspect He is concerned and disappointed that we are missing out on what He intended." I can't possibly imagine that God is upset that His people come together to praise Him!! However, I believe that if we perceive these assemblies as the only times we show such worshipful devotion (as too many do), then we have completely missed the point both with regard to the nature of worship and the intended purpose for our gatherings.

An elder in Iowa wrote, "I have thought about the assembly for quite some time, as you obviously have as well. I do not believe they were intended to be 'corporate worship settings,' as we have evolved them into being." A dear brother from Oklahoma states, "It has been my conviction for quite some time now that we have our assemblies all wrong!" A precious sister-in-Christ from the state of Florida summed it up this way: "Yes, we can worship God in our assemblies, but we can also do that anywhere and everywhere. Worshipping Him just might not be the 'main purpose' for our coming together on the first day of the week." Frankly, I believe she's got a very valid point. Genuine worship of our God is not limited to five acts, nor is it limited to a particular time and place. Our worshipful expressions are ongoing throughout our lives. For some reason we have adopted the view that we go to "church," and there we "worship," instead of perceiving the reality that we ARE the church, and our worship of God is daily expressed. "Church" isn't something we "attend," it is who we are --- we are His called out people, and our very lives are expressions of praise unto Him. To limit this to a "service" on Sunday is an absurdity. "The term 'worship assembly' is like fingernails on a blackboard for me! In no place in the New Testament writings do I see where we are to assemble to worship," declared a reader from Oregon. A minister from Mississippi wrote, "I imagine God looking at our assemblies and shaking His head, saying, 'No, no, no! That's not it at all.'"

A Christian Church author from Missouri, whom I have met and greatly respect, observed, "For some months now I've been agitating against people who claim to 'speak where the Bible speaks' calling our assemblies 'worship services.' It would be good if every church in the world would recognize that the apostles uttered not one word in the inspired writings about Christians meeting 'for worship.'" A reader in Texas challenged: "Find a 'worship service' anywhere in the New Testament!! If you can't, then why are our public assemblies designated as such?!" A brother from Kansas wrote, "My perspective is that it was man, not God, who married the words 'worship' and 'assembly' (or 'worship' and 'service') together. Long story short, the concept of formal worship (expressed in five formal acts) emerged in the fourth century, not the first." A One Cup preacher who lives in Missouri declared, "If you look at church signs all over the country, you will see that they all refer to their 'worship' times. In church bulletins all over the country, you will see references to their 'worship' services. I find this very odd, as there is really no such thing as a gathering for the purpose of worship found anywhere in the NT." "My theory is that our Church of Christ 'Fathers' found their proof text for the 'worship pattern' from a lexicon, not from the New Testament documents," opined a reader from California.

A minister from Tennessee wrote, "I believe our assemblies follow the Catholic/Protestant tradition more than the New Testament one. We have developed our church buildings into a Jerusalem Temple model where we must all 'go' to a specific locale to 'worship,' using as our avenue 'five acts of worship.' Where that is found in the Scriptures is beyond me! I refer to this as a 'church building religion.' This whole concept is built around the activities that take place within the auditorium (sanctuary). In the minds of too many, if you change this, you have changed the Scriptures themselves." Another reader observed, "As long as Christians keep on viewing 'worship' as something to be conducted, localized, formalized, ritualized, professionalized, externalized, organized, advertised, and commercialized, they will continue to be hindered in their efforts to return to what the New Testament actually teaches on this most important subject: living a life of worship. If one was not a worshipper before attending an assembly, I dare say he/she will not become one because of the assembly." A minister in Pennsylvania wrote, "Because I believe the Christian life is one of constant worship, I question whether 'worship service' is even an appropriate description for our Sunday morning assemblies." An elder from Missouri said, "I think we miss so much of the richness of our relationship with Jesus and the Father when we fail to see the 'worshipful' aspect of Christian living. It allows us to place God in a box called the 'worship service' (a term not found in Scripture), and it results in a compartmentalized life."

Evangelism and Entertainment

There were a handful of readers who were of the opinion that the church leaders should plan and structure our assemblies in such a way that they are attractive and entertaining to the general public -- specifically to non-believers. We ought to be offering activities and events that draw the lost into our assemblies so that we can evangelize them! Thus, we preach sermons that will convert the lost, we sing songs that will speak to them in some way, we order our entire assembly time so that it will be "visitor friendly." We advertise in the paper that "everyone is welcome" to attend, and they will all be made to "feel at home." We have "Friend Day" at our building; "Bring A Neighbor Day;" "Invite Your Teacher Day;" etc. One reader lamented, "Too often, the focus of today's assembly is geared to non-believers, and thus they are evangelical in nature." "Evangelism should occur outside the assembly," observed a reader in Oklahoma, and I think he makes a valid point. A reader in Michigan writes, "Although outsiders are not to be shunned, and being 'visitor friendly' is not a sin, real evangelism is to be done by the rank and file, so to speak, outside of the assembly. We have this backward (evangelism being done by 'professionals' inside the assembly)."

A minister for a Christian Church in Arkansas observes, "The modern church growth movement has popularized the concept that the gathering on Sunday is to be primarily an evangelistic opportunity. Consequently, Christians have gotten the idea that their mission is to invite people 'to church.' This has contributed, I think, to the level of ignorance among Christians who are not motivated by the compelling mission of teaching people themselves. Instead, they need only to get their friends to the Sunday meeting where they will be impressed with the show and the oratory. As a result, preachers understand that they are to be witty, entertaining, and not very forceful in their preaching, lest the visitors be offended and not return to the assembly." A dear friend of mine, who now preaches in California, stated, "Today, some churches gather together to watch one person try to convert outsiders (because that's what they pay him to do)." A dear brother here in my own state of New Mexico wrote, "I recall discussing with a mentor during college how the customs of the invitation and the invitation song are of human origin!! A simple reading of Scripture shows how evangelism was accomplished outside the assembly. Most, if not all, of the examples in the NT show converts immersed before they ever set foot in an assembly of the saints. We definitely need a paradigm shift in our congregations!"

A reader from Ohio admitted, "About five years ago we left a congregation whose leadership was intent on following the Mega Church pattern of catering to visitors and designing the assembly to appeal to outsiders. The stated goal was to increase in size to 600 members by the year 2010. In my opinion, this was completely the wrong focus." A preacher from the state of Ohio also wrote that he recently left the inner-city congregation at which he was preaching when a couple of new elders were appointed who immediately informed him that the assemblies would be undergoing a radical change. "The new focus was to be on the visitors, and making the assembly 'visitor friendly'." The Lord's Supper was "taking too long and could be boring to the visitors who didn't understand what was being done," thus it must be modified. The Shepherd's Prayers for members was taking too long and was "boring the visitors, so it was announced that those members who had prayer requests could go out of the auditorium and down the hall to the elders' meeting room during the invitation song and they would be met and prayed over. Thus, in this way the services could be ended more quickly." I don't blame this minister for leaving, and for declaring emphatically, "It's NOT about the visitors!"

Edification and Encouragement

Okay, if our assemblies are not really about outsiders (non-believers, strangers, curious visitors), and if their primary purpose is not to be a formal "worship hour," then just who are these assemblies for, and what is their ultimate purpose? The answer that I have discerned from my own study of Scripture is: our assemblies are for our Father's children, and the purpose of these gatherings is to provide edification (building up) and encouragement to the local body of believers. In short, it is Family Time!! To use one of the very common phrases of the NT writings -- it is one another time!! A minister in Pennsylvania opined, "I have come to believe that our assemblies should probably look more like a family dinner than anything one typically sees on any given Sunday morning." A brother in Kentucky wrote, "In the Bible, it seems Christians came together for eating, fellowship, learning and most of all, to build the enthusiasm and stamina of their brethren to face the often violent society in which they lived." An elder in Iowa said, "The primary reason I glean from Scripture for the assembly is the building up of one another (edifying the saints)."

This is most certainly consistent with what we find in the inspired New Covenant writings. "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:24-25). Why should believers gather together? Because the times are tough; they need the strength and encouragement of one another in their daily walk. The more often they are able to come together for this purpose, the better! Indeed, in the early church, the disciples of Christ met daily ... they didn't wait for the Sunday "worship hour" to get their weekly "dose of encouragement." A reader from Tennessee stated that the gatherings of the early church "were meant to encourage one another and to help those who were weaker in the faith." It was to be a family support time, and "I cannot experience 'family' by going to a building and looking at the backs of the heads of those in front of me." A reader in Michigan summed it up this way: "The real focus of our assemblies should be horizontal, not vertical." A dear brother in Oregon agrees: "When we assemble it is to edify and encourage one another. Our assemblies are for our horizontal relationships, not our vertical relationship." Perhaps the apostle Paul says it best: "When you come together ... let all be done for edification" (1 Cor. 14:26).

From a dear sister in Florida we read the following thought: "From what I read in the Scriptures, we are to worship God 24/7 in everything we do. When we come together, though, our meetings should be for edifying and encouraging the saints, so that they will be equipped to go out into the world and evangelize the unsaved. Our assemblies should be for US. As we are fed and nourished, we then go out and feed those outside." A fellow minister here in New Mexico admits that he once frequented the assemblies "as a duty rather than a desire. However, I now attend as an opportunity to see, love and fellowship with my spiritual family." A reader from the state of Ohio wrote, "If we think of the Church as our Family, it isn't so hard to see the purposes of our assemblies!" When we gather as Family we do so with "one another" uppermost in mind. We pray together for one another; we encourage one another; we stir up one another to love and good deeds; we laugh with one another, cry with one another, embrace one another. Yes, at times when family comes together, there may be a guest from outside the family. They are always shown courtesy, they are always welcome, but these familial gatherings are not for them, although they may witness our displays of love and long to be part of such a family.

"The assembly of the church, mistaken as a stand-in for OT ritual revitalized, is actually all about the encouragement of God's people to be just that: God's people. It is not designed to lift God up in worship, per se, but is rather designed to edify and encourage individuals to be the people the Father calls them to be," writes a brother in Florida. He goes on to state that "the whole idea of 'assembly,'" as it is practiced today in too many places, "need rethinking." A preacher in Mississippi says, "I believe we have truly missed the boat in making our assemblies about pleasing God, for in so doing we have missed altogether the avenue, opportunity and obligation of edifying and encouraging one another." A reader in Texas wrote, "Our times together, corporately, should be times of mutual encouragement through dialogue regarding blessings and struggles with everyday life, so that we are all better equipped to cope with the world around us." An elder in Wyoming observes, "When we examine the Hebrews 10 passage, we see that these times we come together are to encourage and spur one another to love and good deeds. They are not for converting the lost." A sister-in-Christ in Kentucky said that she perceives our assemblies as Family time; it should be all about "one another." "We worship our Father in our everyday lives," and we spend each day, outside of our assemblies, "spreading the good news and inviting more people into the Family." But, our gatherings are for US. A preacher in Oklahoma observes, "The assembly should be for the purpose of building each other up so that we might successfully face the devil head-on during the week."

Concluding Thought

I like the way a brother in Massachusetts phrased it: "So, why do we, or should we, come together on Sunday? Putting it simply, it is to encourage one another and renew times of fellowship, and, yes, even to praise God collectively for what He has done for us. It is a time for family to be together so they can see each other and celebrate life together. It is a time of mutual encouragement and of enjoying one another's company. It is a time to pray for each other in each other's presence; a time to physically hold the hands of the troubled, embracing them with sincere concern; a time of intimacy, in which we show that we care for one another; a time for sharing the joy of walking with our God." As the graphic at the very top of this Reflections shows, we're "doing life together," so let's encourage one another in that journey. Yes, you may indeed be able to "worship alone" on a mountain top (the excuse some give for abandoning the assemblies); you may indeed be able to keep the greatest commandment ("Love God"). But, you can't keep the second one, which is like unto it ("Love One Another"), alone on a mountain top. You must come together with your spiritual Family to accomplish that; you must not forsake these times of assembly, for they are times of encouragement and edification. You need that from us, and we need it from you!! It is together that we gain strength and courage for our spiritual warfare! As Solomon points out -- "A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (Eccl. 4:12). Or, as Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) observed, "Above all we need the reassuring presence of a visible community, an intimate group that enfolds us with understanding and love, and that becomes an object of our spontaneous loyalty." Amen!! May God help us all to rethink and, if need be, to restructure our times of assembly so that they might be more in accord with our Father's divine design. We will all be the better for it.


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