I missed an evening service this week due to being ill. Since I was 14 I have missed a total of less than a dozen worship services. I don’t say this to boast, rather to show how very precious worship of the Triune God is to me. It seems so wrong to be out of the local congregation and precense of the Lord. It caused me to ponder what’s wrong with doing private church? Why do I have to attend a local assembly? Here are some thoughts.
One of the most influential preachers of the western world in the modern era, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones was recorded preaching thousands of times. The website containing a good number of these boasts 1600 sermons (http://www.mljtrust.org/). Interestingly though, Lloyd-Jones was in principle against the recording of his sermons for fear of giving the false impression to the listeners that attendance to the local church was unimportant. He feared people would listen to sermons at home, and find that to satisfy the Bible’s requirements for members of the Kingdom of God.
I am glad he did have his sermons recorded, because I developed as a preacher largely through listening to his expository method. In terms of technique he taught nearly as much as my mentors. In terms of theology of preaching and ministry, there is none who parallel the effect Lloyd-Jones has had on me and thousands of other preachers. He is really important for the western world of preachers. Nevertheless, his concern seems justified today, as the media has shaped the message, and the message has been shaped by the media used to convey it. Sound bites and clichés abound. But worse than anything else is many doubt their need to attend the local congregation of Christians for solemn and Spiritual worship because church media abounds. Many would say they worship on their own without the local church by spending “time with God in the wilderness with an Mp3” of their favorite preacher. Others stay home and watch TV-church, online-church or radio-church (for those of you live in a bunker, or don’t trust Google analytics).
Many find this acceptable as a way of “worship.” I would consider those academic, but not worship. The reason being is that the Bible teaches that God is worshiped in the assembly of the Saints, both in the OT and the NT. That is where the Holy Spirit dwells and works, and where the Lord Jesus works in the Ministry of the Word. What are those who attend private churches missing? Thunder and lightning!
George Whitefield was one of the great preachers of the American Great Awakening of the 18th Century. He preached in the UK and the Colonies. He ran an orphanage, and would travel and preach to raise funds for the orphanage. The result was that many came to faith through his preaching. After some time and as his popularity grew, a man who worked for a book publisher came to Whitefield and asked if he would be allowed to write down and publish Whitefield’s sermons so as to somehow capture for the world the man’s ministry. Whitefield said in famous fashion, “Yes. But, only if you can also capture the thunder and the lightning.” If you take the thunder and the lightning to mean the powerful effect of the sermon not recorded on the written page, then He is talking about the same thing as me here. How can you record the presence and power of the Spirit on an MP3? TV?
Here are several Biblical truths that have caused me to never doubt my need for visible corporate worship. These all fall under the general topic of the recovery of a doctrine of the church. The main and primary truth about which is that the church is the place of worship because the Holy Spirit dwells in a local assembly/temple in both the Old and NT scriptures. In the OT the temple was the place of God’s glory cloud’s (the Holy Spirit’s) presence. The fire cloud was not a mere symbol, but was the presence of God with His people. The Gospel meaning is clear. God is Holy, we are sinners, and he brings us near his blazing holiness and the fire cloud by the sacrifices of blood. Reconciliation by sacrifice is the Gospel of the NT as well- only now is in the resurrected and ascended Jesus. Today, the Lord Jesus is the literal temple and sacrifice once for all. The church, though, is also the temple, in a sense. The local assembly at the Jerusalem Temple transformed into the international local church of the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s Temple is the church as a collective, and temples are the churches local. Look for example at 1 Corinthians 14:25 which spoke about the unbeliever coming into worship and being convicted that God is truly among the church. 1Corinthians 3:14-16 developed the concept that the church should not be rent apart by schism because it is the temple of the living God, that is the place where he is worshipped. He then protects and avenges justice upon those who would destroy the place where he receives worship. Paul called the schismatics in Corinth to not tear the church apart because the church is the temple of God’s presence. In light of this, it is nearly impossible to think that one could worship somewhere God has not called the temple of the living God. Some may try to say that the individual Christian is the temple, but they’d be wrong, as the verbs and pronouns refer to the corporate church in the second person plural, not singular. Truth: The Holy Spirit indwells the visible corporately gathered church.
Another supporting reason to go to the local assembly, and why private worship is not the same, is this. The Ministry of the Word mimics and stands as a symbol of Christ who is really working in the church when assembled. Two parts. First, Jesus is really present. The minister speaks the word of Jesus, but it is Jesus’ Word, and Jesus’ Spirit, and Jesus’ worship and sacraments. He is the one really doing the work. Ministers are not masters but servants. When Jesus cleansed the temple He was physically present, and now when he cleanses his temple of the churches every Sunday with the word he sends a minister in th flesh to do it.
Second, ministry is symbolic mimicry. One example for this is the raising of the hands. Ministers are to raise the hands in the contexts of blessing, prayer, and even word ministry. The raising of the hands comes from the OT practice of the wave offering. That was where a priests would receive an offering and raise the hands to bless it and the people who made the offering. The blessing with the raised hands then conveys (ministerially) the benefits of Christ in the words spoken. It is an action shows that God is the one who is really acting, and the man who acts it out in the ministry is a mere mimicker of the Lord Jesus, and is doing pantomime of the actions of the Only Mediator between God and man, our Lord Jesus. Another example of this mimicry is the Lord’s Supper. The reason a minister breaks the bread and hands out the wine is because that is what Jesus did. This same thing is true of the preaching of the word. The minister is not Christ, not does he have any power of his own without Christ, but he embodies the message, which is Christ’s message, and as a dramatization is like Jesus coming to His temple to cleanse it. That is why ministers says, “In the Name of the Lord.” When we speak it is in the full authority of God. It is not because we are God, or have power, but are mouthpieces, and bodypieces, acting out and calling people to salvation.
The Gospel goes forth from Zion, especially the Temple (cf Isaiah 2, which in the NT is the corporate church, see above) which means evangelism is done through the local church’s services. Yes! Evangelism is also an individual work, and a duty of all asked for a reason for the hope within. But the most Spiritually effective, and most normal way of doing evangelism in the Bible is in the local assembly. Why do you think on all their travels Paul and Barnabas went to the synagogue on the Sabbath to preach the Gospel? Day one they found the churches of the old covenant, preached there, and worshipped until they were kicked out. The reason is that God works in the local assembly (which is what synagogue means, assembly).
The Spirit dwells in the local church and works there. True ministry of the word is the visible present word and work of Jesus Christ who comes to His temple to cleanse it. The Gospel goes forth from the temple. These are both NT and OT themes, and they never ceased to be true for the church.
Those who do not attend to the local assembly must do one of three things with these. 1. They can ignore them. Ignore that Jesus set up a ministry, the Spirit works in the church, and that Jesus weekly comes to his temple to cleanse it with the word ministry. 2. They can disbelieve it. I don’t mean not believe it is biblical, but not really believe that Jesus actually works in his church. 3. They can accept it and amend their ways. My point is simply this: attend services, focus evangelism on the services, come to be fed at the services. Hear the thunder. See the lightning.