Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) -  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  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.
In a passage aimed at encouraging Christians to persevere in the faith by holding on to and living in light of God’s promises, the author of Hebrews makes a point to command us to be faithful in meeting together with our fellow Christians. The phrase “meet together” could also be translated “the assembly.” It’s basically the same word for synagogue, and so commentators agree the author is referring to the regular meeting or assembly of Christians for fellowship and public worship around God’s word. Along with the fourth commandment, this passage is one of the go to texts to support the traditional teaching of the church that Christians should regularly and faithfully participate in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.
In a mobile and consumerist culture such as ours, this clear teaching is often neglected. But apparently it was the “habit of some” even in the early church to neglect this duty. Cultural forces aside, it appears that in every generation, our idolatry will always lead us into rhythms of work and rest/worship that run against the good pattern God has commanded.
In this age, we tend to think that our absence on Sunday from public worship harms no one. “It’s harmless,” we think to ourselves, and we offer a thousand excuses ranging from the busyness of our week to a rare opportunity. I find that, by itself, it’s almost always the case that the excuse really does make sense. What’s problematic is the regularity of excuses and the habit of neglect rather than meeting.
But the real point that we often miss is staring us in the face in these few verses. Rather than being harmless, absence from public worship is a failure to lovingly encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ.[i] The author of Hebrews appeals to us to “consider how to stir one another up to love and good works.” We have a responsibility to our fellow church members to encourage each other to live godly, loving lives. There are many ways we must do that, but one of them, the one mentioned here, is to be habitually present and engaged in public worship. So it isn’t harmless to neglect church on Sundays since this is one of the ways we are called to encourage each other.
Two implications of this principle stand out to me, one for pastors and one for church members.
First, perhaps one reason why many Christians don’t see any harm in their regular absence from public worship is that we pastors have created church services where the vast majority of those present do not participate in any significant way. What difference does it make if I am present or not when I am an anonymous face in the crowd? That’s a tough question to answer. While I know that we teach and admonish one another as we sing together corporately (Col. 3:16), that doesn’t exactly help any one person understand how their individual participation makes much of a difference. So I think pastors have to take responsibility for the fact that we have played our own part in fostering the idea that absence from public worship is harmless. And to own that responsibility, we must make sure that our church services are ordered liturgically in such a way that there is a meaningful way for congregants to minister to one another using their spiritual gifts. One way we do that at Trinity is by having an unstructured time in the middle of our services while we celebrate the Lord’s Table where everyone is encouraged to greet one another and minister to one another using their spiritual gifts.
Second, regardless of how pastors lead public worship, church members need to understand that public worship is not something we merely attend. Faithful presence in corporate worship involves worshipping God and encouraging others. It’s not merely the job of pastors and musicians to edify and encourage. When you go to church, understand that you are called to stir others up to love and good works, to pray for and with them, to offer counsel, to teach, and to care for others. You can be in the habit of attending public worship and still miss a large part of why you are supposed to be there. Public worship isn’t only about you and what you get out of it.
We read in Luke 4:16, “And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day…” If Jesus made it his custom or habit to gather, perhaps we ought to consider our habit regarding public worship. Everyone will miss a Sunday here or there. Some have jobs that make regular participation almost impossible (which raises a question to be explored another time). Everyone gets sick or visits family during the holidays. But the author of Hebrews instructs us to make it our habit to gather with God’s people on the Lord’s Day. Habits are things that we build our lives around. So as the day of Christ draws near, let’s form the loving habit of meeting on the Lord’s Day with our church and encouraging others while we are there. Not only will we find the grace of the gospel there, we will also experience the joy of deepening our fellowship with one another.
[i] In another post or two, we could discuss how habitual absence from public worship harms us and neglects to honor God.