“Is it important to attend in-person church services regularly?” It’s a question I wrestled with long before a pandemic launched online services into normalcy. If we’re being honest, ten years ago no one would have asked me to write about this. I was a Bible College student, which meant that I was going to chapel, studying Scripture, and spending a lot of time with other Christians. But I wasn’t regularly going to church and wasn’t convinced that I needed to. In fact, I vividly remember asking, “With the exception of a couple hours on Sunday, what difference does it make?”
A decade later, with profound gratitude (and a side of humble pie), I can say that regular involvement in the local church has made all the difference. Maybe the impact from week to week is barely noticeable, but over the course of many years, it has been stunning.
What’s the purpose of church?
In order to think about whether or not in-person attendance is important, it’s helpful to think about the purpose of church. If it were just an exchange of theological information, this could be accomplished with livestreams, books, and podcasts instead. If primarily a social gathering, you could simply join a book clubs, hang out in coffee shops, or host dinner parties. However, looking at Acts 2, we find that from its beginning the purpose of church has never been a mere exchange of information or place for socialization.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47, ESV).
While their context was quite different, our local church experience ought to include many of the same elements as those in Acts—sound teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, caring for one another, corporate worship, communal meals, and evangelism. It’s within our in-person gatherings that we observe the sacraments of baptism and communion, sit under the preaching of God’s word, confess our sins, and worship together as the family of God. It’s through these practices and through our life together as believers that God is conforming us into the image of Jesus.
What about when church is hard?
I’ll be the first to admit that too often, it’s easier to stay home than it is to go to church. Maybe you’re single and it seems too hard to sit alone among what feels like a sea of families. Maybe the thought of wrangling small children into nice clothes and quiet sanctuaries feels like more effort than it’s worth. Maybe you’ve been deeply hurt by the actions of leaders or other members. Whether because of schedules, circumstances or relational struggle, sometimes the work of belonging to a church will feel much harder than that of staying home.
But, when God brings us to repentance, this Spirit that was given to the early church is given to us, uniting us both to Christ and to one another. This promised Helper, whose power caused awe to come upon every soul in Acts 2, equips us for the work of sacrificing for the needs of others, sharing our hearts, struggles, and kitchen tables, and gathering joyfully for prayer, worship, and discipleship. We, a people still prone to sin and struggle, are empowered to live in the kind of unity that declares the glory of God and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection through the ongoing work of the Spirit as we gather together in worship.
What about when you truly can’t attend in person?
Of course, there may be circumstances that keep someone from attending in-person services. The young mom whose cancer treatments have made her immune system too weak for crowds, the soldier deployed, or the older saint whose mobility challenges have progressed to a point where going out is no longer feasible. To the one who is prevented from gathering in person, streamed services can be a mercy– a connection to the Word preached and to the community of believers, united in Christ even when not gathered together. These tools, in their proper place, remind us of our connection to the body of Christ and help us to look ahead with joy toward the unending gathering of all believers that is to come.
And yet, streaming can never take the place of real fellowship and it’s here that the church has a responsibility to envelop those who can’t gather on Sunday mornings. Throughout Scripture, we see over and over again God’s care for the sick, suffering, and isolated. Church leaders and members alike are called to care for these members of the body when circumstances prevent them from joining in-person worship services as we seek to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of God” (Gal. 6:2, ESV). We who are able to join in corporate worship are strengthened that we might bring fellowship, prayer, encouragement, and exhortation from Scripture to those who are not, whether through visits, phone calls, letters, or other means.
What difference does it make?
The more we understand it’s function and experience the joy of life in the local church, the more we’ll find that regular, in-person worship isn’t as a burden, but a gift, given for both our good and God’s glory.
This year alone, I’ve borne witness to the work of the local church in the face of sickness and sadness, in confessing sin, repairing broken relationships, and even unto death. This community of faith, this life together—they aren’t built overnight or in the midst of hardship, but over weeks and years and lifetimes of largely mundane gatherings. As we show up to sing, study, break bread, and watch kids run wild through the lobby, there’s a sweetness that we miss when we stay home. In the years since I wondered what difference it would make, the local church has strengthened me in ways that I couldn’t have expected –a reminder that the Church is God’s good design for our encouragement, for our sanctification, and for the making of disciples of all nations (Heb. 10:24-25, Eph. 4:11-13, Mt. 28:19).
And so, as we look toward a day when all of God’s Church will be gathered in perfect communion, I echo the encouragement of the author of Hebrews—
“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” (Hebrews 10:23-25, ESV).