Like every pilgrim traveling the narrow road from suffering to glory, you need (we all need) the loving fellowship and accountability of the church. Therefore, may we all joyfully express with the psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”
Is gathered (in-person) worship optional for Christians? The question is a profoundly relevant one, especially in our day of endless online services and superficial views of public worship. The Bible’s answer is unmistakably clear: No, gathered worship is not optional. In fact, it’s a divine requirement for every follower of Christ. Indeed, unless providentially hindered by legitimate impediments such as illness or perilous weather, believers are commanded to assemble for worship in the context of a biblically constituted church (Heb. 10:24–25)—that is, a local body of believers who are under the loving shepherding care and discipline of qualified elders. These elders oversee the souls of Christ’s flock and faithfully execute the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the public prayers (Acts 2:42; 14:23; Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). Gathered worship in a biblical church is, therefore, a nonnegotiable—an essential mark and means of Christian piety, discipleship, and witness. The church is certainly more than the sacred assembling of believers on the Lord’s Day, but it is never less than that.
During the month of December, church attendance generally swells. Advent hymns, festive decorations, nativity sermons, and family traditions add incentive to assemble with the people of God for worship. But what about the rest of the year? What about the other forty-eight Lord’s Days? Why is gathered (in-person) worship so vital for Christian believers?
Reasons for Not Assembling?
Before answering these important questions, perhaps it would be helpful to consider a couple of the typical reasons that many of today’s believers choose not to assemble for worship. We will touch on two of them—individualistic spirituality and negative church experiences.
The first reason that professing believers forsake gathered worship is the growing trend of individualistic spirituality. Rather than identify with Christ through committed church membership and gathered worship on the Lord’s Day, many have untethered themselves from the ministry and mission of the visible church. Instead, they prefer to cobble together a highly personalized spirituality from websites, books, podcasts, and informal fellowship. Many have grown partial to online worship instead of in-person, for reasons of convenience and autonomy. They envision Christianity on their own terms, without accountability, discipline, or shepherding care. The glaring problem with this approach is that nowhere in Scripture do we see this kind of privatized faith. It’s utterly foreign to biblical Christianity. Jesus requires His redeemed children to be active members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–26; Eph. 4:15–16), living in joyful submission to qualified leaders who are charged to “[keep] watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17). A Christian without a church is like a lone sheep in the wilderness, exposed to countless dangers.
A second reason that Christians choose to forsake gathered worship is that they’ve had a negative church experience. More than a few believers have been traumatized by abusive leadership, toxic relationships, and false teaching in the church. For some, the memories are raw. The scars are real. Even so, all churches should not be judged on the basis of negative experiences in some churches. Christ understands the pain caused by bad leaders and unfaithful churches. He also knows best what His blood-bought followers need most—that is, gathered worship, constituted of the means of grace, in the context of a healthy church.