Due to an odd convergence of various events I have just missed five straight weeks at our church (that’s right, over an entire month of Sundays). Aghast some may be—what? the minister’s wife was gone from church! Is that allowed? Is she OK? What poor choices was she making? Can we even ask?
Rest easy, friends; they were legitimate reasons. Some sickness, some visiting other churches, some were unusual commitments for children that made sense to prioritise.
What has my time away shown me?
1. I can be legalistic
No surprises there.
I believe church is important and that we should prioritise going weekly, with almost no exception. But I can also make it an unbreakable rule (the unforgivable sin perhaps?) “Thou shalt attend church every single week”. I felt guilty for not being there.
My husband, who sees the bigger picture, and is much better at extending grace and mercy, reminded me that of course we prioritise meeting with God’s people, but there are times when you cannot. God knows our hearts and our motivations. Our entire lives are to be lived to the glory of God, in faithfulness to him, not only for two hours on a Sunday morning.
Of course we prioritise meeting with God’s people, but there are times when you cannot. God knows our hearts and our motivations
A surprising benefit of this absence was seen in my daughter, who was annoyed at how much church she missed. Her heart was in the right place—she wanted to meet with the people of God—but she understood that, for a brief time, she couldn’t.
2. Not going to church could easily become habitual
- I have more appreciation of how easy it is to let other things creep into Sunday mornings:
- work commitments: “I must get this job done”
- kids’ sport: “Oh, just this season”
- the gym class: “But it’s the best one all week, and I don’t have time elsewhere”
- the fun run: “It’s just one Sunday” (they are all on Sundays)
- that birthday party: “Well, she is her best friend”
- that family lunch: “It is Mother’s Day”
- rest: “I am so tired”
It doesn’t take long and church can easily fall way down the priority list.
3. Christian fellowship is sweet, and a gift from God
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer encourages that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer” and it is purely by grace that we are able to live amongst other Christians.
I first grasped this three years ago when holidaying in Dubai with a friend who was a cross-cultural worker in Central Asia. It was a priority to be there for two weeks of church so she could have as much time with the community of Christ as possible. Observing her joy at worshipping with other believers (having little opportunity in her usual location), gave me fresh eyes to appreciate the fellowship and communal worship that I experience weekly.
Bonhoeffer warns that the gift of fellowship is “easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have it every day”. We know that “familiarity can breed contempt” and while I was by no means contemptuous of our gathering, there were times when I could be a little jaded.
We know that ‘familiarity can breed contempt’ and while I was by no means contemptuous of our gathering, there were times when I could be a little jaded.
My own time away, short as it was, meant that when I returned the singing was more uplifting, the preaching more encouraging, the prayers more Christ-exalting, and the conversation more precious. The things we do each week had become a little more significant. At what other time could I raise my voice loudly in songs of praise with multiple other believers? Why would I stand and declare my faith in the Apostles’ Creed elsewhere? What other time would I hear teaching on a passage that was not my own choosing? How would I know the news of our gathering, from farewells and illnesses, to welcoming new babies? How else would I sit under the biblical, joyful prayers of another believer? The church is where most of these things happen, and it is a marvellous privilege to meet regularly with the people of God.
4. Other churches are not my home
I love visiting other churches and count it a remarkable privilege. I can connect with other believers, and am led to thank God for their growth in faith and love, their perseverance and faith both in trials and in joys (as per 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4). It’s a gift to spend time with the wider body of Christ.
However, I am increasingly convicted that my home church is where I should be regularly. The commitment of God’s people to one place for a long period of time has great benefit as together we encourage, strengthen and grow the body of Christ. Time alongside people means you know each other’s struggles and joys and how you might support or challenge appropriately. Hopefully, you notice when someone is new and when someone is absent, so that people can be genuinely welcomed and followed up.
The commitment of God’s people to one place for a long period of time has great benefit as together we encourage, strengthen and grow the body of Christ
There is a special connection with these brothers and sisters. I share with them, confess to them, pray for them, pray with them, and delight to see them progressing in the faith. I see their giftings and how they use them faithfully. I grieve when they grieve and rejoice when they rejoice. They are my family.
5. I didn’t notice how much I missed my home until I returned
This is where reality hit. I knew I was not at church, I wasn’t seeing people and wasn’t worshipping with the people of God. But I didn’t truly grasp the lack until I returned. Only by again being part of the gathering did I realise what had been missing.
But what if I didn’t have to go back? Wasn’t truly convicted that it was part of my commitment to the body of Christ? (Wasn’t a minister’s wife and had to go?) It could become easier and easier to stay away. I might feel embarrassed it had been so long. I might be frustrated that no one realised I was missing. I might feel chastened if someone contacted me to find out why I had been absent.
And so, dear friends, if you are finding church hard, if you find it easy to stay away, if you think no one notices you are gone, let me encourage you from the words of Hebrews 10:19-25 that:
- We can have confidence to approach God, because Christ has died for us.
- We can draw near to him with a sincere heart and with full assurance of faith.
- We can hold unswervingly to the hope of Christ that we profess, because God who promises is faithful.
- Each one of us is needed to spur on each other to love and good deeds.
So therefore—let us not give up meeting together, but encourage one another all the more (at the very least, by turning up on Sunday), as we see the day of Christ approaching.