Why Do We Assemble?

Over the last year, a lot of our basic assumptions about "the way things are" have been challenged as we've worked through the limitations and difficulties created by this pandemic. We've seen this most in how we assemble as a church. Now, as we move to the "next stage" of gathering in the building, maybe it's worth reminding ourselves of the fundamentals surrounding this collective activity.

The formal coming together "as a church" is only really dealt with in a few places in the New Testament. We see some general practices throughout the book of Acts, but as far as direct instruction, almost everything we know about assembling is found in 1 Corinthians 11.17–34, 1 Corinthians 14, and Hebrews 10.24–25. One of the things we learn in these three passages is why we assemble. Why do we even bother to "come together"?

The point is more subtle in 1 Corinthians 11, but in all three key passages, there is a strong emphasis on edification and building up. Let's start with the classic "you have to come to church" passage, Hebrews 10.24–25:

And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

We often focus on the "not neglecting to gather together" or "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" part and make that the direct command (i.e., "don't forsake the assembly"), but that's not the actual command in this passage. The primary command is in verse 24: to consider one another with a view toward provoking love and good works. Verse 25 says how we consider one another. When we willfully make a practice of not gathering with God's people (or when we allow that to fall by the wayside through neglect), we ultimately make a choice not to build up God's people.

1 Corinthians 14 says more and talks more directly about what happens when we assemble than any other passage in the New Testament. While it is wrapped in a context of spiritual gifts in the assembly, a lot of the principles apply even outside of that specific issue. Note the end of verse 26: "Everything is to be done for building up." This is a repeated theme throughout the chapter. Paul wrote earlier in 14.12 that they (and we) ought to "seek to excel in building up the church."

This principle has two key applications:

  1. A driving concern of what we do in the assembly is whether it builds other people up. There are a lot of superficially impressive things we can do (visual effects, amazing-sounding singing, even super in-depth preaching) that potentially do nothing toward actual edification and drawing people to a closer relationship with God. In the first century, tongue-speaking was an impressive gift, but it was only useful in the assembly if someone could interpret what was said.
  2. It sets the assembly apart from other opportunities to worship God. We often focus on the vertical dimension of our assembling, but that vertical dimension happens as much through our efforts to build up one another as it does through direct praise offered to God. We can worship God alone and by ourselves. But we can't build up the community of believers apart from the community of believers.

Over the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic and the guidance and regulations resulting from it introduced challenges to the accustomed practice of gathering in the building, we've wrestled with what the assembly is, or what it takes to be "in the assembly." There's a lot more to unpack that can be said effectively in one article, but at its core, assembling is God's people gathering together to whatever extent possible. If we're snowed in and the only person I can assemble with is Amber, that's who I assemble with. If the only way for me to gather "with" God's people is by looking at them through a computer screen, that's how I gather with them.

I know that there's a lot still going on with this pandemic. But as we make progress toward returning our in-person gatherings to what they were a year ago, I encourage everyone to evaluate how they can most effectively gather to provoke one another to love and good works. To use 1 Corinthians 11, how can we most effectively proclaim Christ's death to one another?

Some may still need to assemble through Zoom because of various risk factors or circumstances that prevent in-person assembling. My purpose in writing this isn't to "guilt" anyone into assembling at the building. I do think, though, that this is a good opportunity for all of us to evaluate whether we are doing all that we can to encourage one another, or if we have settled into new patterns out of convenience or settling for "the way things are." A strong community of believers was critical to the growth of the early church and the perseverance of Christians through times of struggle. A strong community of believers is critical to the growth of the church today and our perseverance through the times of struggle we face. Let us do everything we can to strengthen that community and thereby glorify God.