There’s a story about a man who loved the children in his neighborhood. When they called to him he waved. When he gardened, they gathered around him and chattered enthusiastically. The relationship seemed mutually nourishing.
On one occasion the man decided to have the gravel in his driveway replaced with concrete. The workers came, completed the job, and left.
The neighborhood children could not resist the wet concrete and enthusiastically carved their initials into it.
When the owner came home and found the driveway decorated with initials, his affection for children seemed to cool. He scolded them, sending them home crying.
One annoyed parent accosted him. “It appears you don’t like children after all,” she chided. The man replied, “I like children in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”
A surprising number of self-professed Christians appear to feel somewhat like that about the church. In an abstract way, church is a good idea — a place for children to learn the Ten Commandments; a good site for the occasional wedding; a setting for pleasant carols and Christmas skits. It’s even okay as a place for worship, but not necessarily weekly worship which would call for sustained, practical, and responsible involvement.
The Scriptures do not support such a vague, detached view. Instead, they tell us that for true believers, belonging to the body of Christ in substantial ways is serious business.
For example, the main word for “church” in both Testaments means an assembly. More than that, it can mean an assembly meeting at the call of a herald. When Christians gather in one place to worship the Living God they do so in answer to God’s summons: “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalm 95:6).
My wife and I usually arrive for Sunday morning worship 15 minutes before the service begins. We sit quietly for personal reflection.
I love it Sunday after Sunday when the prelude ends and the pastor steps to the pulpit to say, “Let us stand for the call to worship.” That invitation quickens the spirit and sets the stage for what’s to follow.
The call to worship! For me this is a moment for believers to recognize again that we have been summoned by God to come together for a high hour of worship. It is he who calls us and him whom we worship.
Moreover, the major biblical word for church meaning “an assembly” can also mean, “called out” — that is called out from our various locations to assemble for worship. In the New Testament the word is translated “church” for 112 of its 115 appearances.
The call to worship is God’s call to those who are his redeemed. Someone writes, “Wherever the Holy Spirit unites worshiping souls to Christ you have the mystery of the church.” And this is a visible, audible, active gathering.
At a youth gathering I fell into conversation with the man who had been hired to manage the public address system. While setting things up in the retreat center he said to me, “I’m a born again Christian but I haven’t been inside a church building in many years.” He then added, “And there are tens of thousands of people out there who are just like me.” He seemed to be bragging that Christians can be loners.
One could wonder how he would respond to the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (in the offering of his own body) (Ephesians 5:25). Multitudes answer God’s call to gather regularly to celebrate that completed sacrifice and worship God in Christ.
Christ’s sacrificial love was obviously not to make believers loners, nor to prompt them to think loosely of some mere abstraction. It was to demonstrate love concretely manifested at Calvary and to recall that love wherever a body of believers is called by the Father to gather.
Think of the reality of it. When we gather in a physical setting, however lofty or lowly, we can claim afresh Christ’s promise, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Photo credit: J Merz (via flickr.com)