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  • Writer's picturemattlillicrap

Gatherings, Witness and Worship

The restrictions hurt, but this morning it was good to gather with a small number of people at church. The last couple of weeks have shown that there are all sorts of very strongly held opinions about whether or not we should be doing that.

Some will be frustrated that we seem to be doing too little by sticking so firmly to guidance. Others will be concerned that we are taking unfounded risks in the midst of what Chris Whitty has after all called “the worst days of the pandemic.”

… and everything in between!

And that’s absolutely fine. I am convinced that on this issue we each need to be free to come to our own conclusions on what we will do and when we do it—both expressing differences church-to-church, and between individual church members.

A number of different things have been written arguing on both sides of the debate. Personally, I appreciatedGarry Williams’ article articulating reasons why churches might go on meeting in person.

In the end, it seems we need to allow one another to make our decisions in good conscience.

But of course, it might not be all that simple! One concern many have voiced is: what about our witness? Given that workplaces, shops, pubs, restaurants, libraries, cinemas, gyms and have all closed their doors, should we really be opening ours? Is it really “good optics” to have a group of people arriving at a church building each Sunday morning?

In the end, that’s one area among many where the actions of one church may affect another. Even within an individual church, my actions as a church member may affect another’s life as a church member.

For example, your church may have decided not to hold in-person gatherings, but another church in town may have decided to do so. So even if you are not attending, you could still have that moment when a friend sends you a message:

“I can’t go to my gym or the pub, or the library, so how come the church is open?”

It might feel like the nightmare question you’re hoping doesn’t get asked, but I don’t think it needs to feel that way.

In fact, I want to suggest that the concern about witness risks looking at the question the wrong way around. In fact, I’d suggest that if we get asked that question, we have a great opportunity to witness to the good news of Christ. How? Because:

We don’t gather to witness: We witness because we gather

The New Testament gives lots of purposes for the church’s gatherings, and the vast majority seem to be focussed on our relationships with one another.

For example, there are the 59 (or so) ‘one another’ commands in the New Testament, encouraging when we gather to love one another, teach one another, speak God’s Word to one another, forgive one another, spur one another on to love and good deeds, etc etc.

So, it would seem that the horizontal weight of our gatherings at church is laid firmly in the direction of relationships within the church. But of course, there’s another dimension too. Church is not merely horizontal is it?!

When we gather, we give expression to something even more significant than our relationships with one another. What is the source and root of our relationships with one another? It is Christ! We are united together in him because he is the focus and goal of our lives. As the church gathers, we express that corporately.

Which makes sense when you think about it. The church is the gathering of people redeemed by the death of Christ, being conformed together into his image. That’s a familiar idea right from the first page of the Bible where the purpose of humanity in God’s image—individual and corporate—is to reflect and represent him in creation, giving him worship and glory.

In other words, the church is humanity being restored to our intended function: glorifying God and enjoying him forever. The wonderful implication of God’s grace powerfully at work in us is that all those one another commands are features of that overarching aim. What does restored humanity look like? How does restored humanity reflect God? By being conformed to the image of Christ, who never failed to act in ‘one another’ ways.

Meanwhile, the concern that gathering in-person could be detrimental to our witness gives away a potential assumption that witness is the reason we gather.

It’s easy to see why we might think that. After all, Paul’s message in Ephesians is very clear: when we get on with those one another commands together, and as we come together as people in Christ, we put God on display. And it’s not just the world who watch: “[God’s intent] is that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…” (Ephesians 3:10).

In other words, the church is the display case for trophies of God’s grace.

But does that mean that witness itself is the purpose of our gatherings? Actually no. There’s a different word which describes the purpose of gathering as church: Worship.

What happens when God’s people worship? They are built up together as he is given glory. Not that he lacks glory in some way and needs to be “filled up” but rather the glory which he has is highlighted and displayed to a watching universe.

That means that when we gather as a church, our primary focus is not on those who are not with us, or who are not yet Christians themselves. Rather, our primary focus is on Christ and even on meeting with him. Then, as he calls us together into relationship with himself, he becomes the lens through which we focus on one another.

If we are trophies of God’s grace, it’s as though we’re polishing one another up, to display that grace all the more brightly.

So, witness isn’t the reason we worship. Rather, it happens when we worship, and even more crucially, it’s one of the many things fuelled by our worship. If I am to go on sharing Christ with my neighbours and friends effectively, I need you to keep “spurring me on to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24).

So, how might you answer that friend’s message? “I can’t go to my gym or the pub, or the library, so how come the church is open?”

Perhaps you could answer by showing that one of those things isn’t like the others. Even if you have taken the decision not to attend, you could point to God’s grace to us in calling us to faith in Christ, and to this amazing community of faith of which we get to be part by grace. And then, perhaps, you could invite your friend in!

Onwards, to glory!

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