“Services cancelled until further notice.” It is astonishing to see these words on church signs and websites. How could so many congregations stop assembling to worship God? Why did this happen almost overnight?
It didn’t. Patterns in practice and doctrine that weakened conviction about worship assemblies had been in place for years. Fear of a new disease was just the final weight that tipped the scales
Distrust in “organized religion” has been a contributing factor. Like many in Europe hundreds of years ago, people today are tired of church politics and endless doctrinal divisions. They are sick of hypocrites and church splits. A preacher who has had an affair, an elder who has embezzled money, or a Bible class teacher who has sexually abused children leads them to say, “I’ll never be back.” These people feel a strong resentment toward the very mention of the word church. Some become atheists or agnostics, but others believe in God and worship Him their way. They think church membership is useless. Instead of attending worship assemblies they have private devotions. Their thinking is summarized in the words of Thomas Paine who wrote in The Age of Reason, “My own mind is my church.”
The 1980s brought a change to congregational assemblies of worship when the Boston Church of Christ experimented with a new model for holding services. They assembled for worship at the Boston Garden one Sunday a month as an entire congregation. On the other Sundays they met in houses. The Boston church of Christ leadership governed these groups but they only assembled as a whole once a month. The Boston/Crossroads movement had many other problems, but this one is an earlier example of trying to improvise on God’s plan for worship instead of following it. It is true that this movement lost momentum and has all but died. But a precedent was set and others outside this group eventually adopted this approach to worship in varying degrees. Of course, a house church is scriptural as a congregation. Paul spoke of the “church” (congregation) in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor. 16:19). But the house churches of the Boston church were not independent, autonomous congregations; they were all members of one congregation that was not assembling “in one place” each Lord’s day (I Cor. 11:20; 14:23). Tragically, some Christians looked at the remarkable growth of the Boston church in that decade and decided that numbers were more important than adherence to the Scriptures.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s an old view resurfaced and gained acceptance. It was the idea that the Bible does not even talk about a worship assembly. An article in One Body (Fall-Winter, 1988) entitled “What is Worship?” argued that “the term ‘worship service’ is not a Scriptural one! This should have importance to those whose desire is to be ‘people of the Book.’ There is in New Testament Scripture no occasion where the gathered Saints are described as conducting a ‘worship service.’” An editorial in The Examiner (May, 1991) asked, “Where do you read in Scripture of saints ever attending ‘worship’ or even a ‘service’?” The writer continued, “I have no God-given duty or obligation to ‘attend’ what the religious world today, on its own authority, schedules and calls a ‘worship service’ or even ‘worship’! Neither do you. This is a law of men; a law of the institutional church.” The book Pagan Christianity by George Barna and Frank Viola published in 2002 echoed the same sentiments and influenced young Christians who had never been grounded in the fundamentals of worship. When warnings about a new virus were sounded in 2020, it was easy for those who accepted the view of these writers to give up the worship assembly. They never believed it was biblical anyway.
It is incredible that anyone could seriously maintain that the New Testament does not even mention an assembly for worship. It is clearly indicated at least ten times (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23,26; James 2:2; Heb. 10:25). The Bible does not have to use the specific words “worship service.” We don’t read the expressions “plan of salvation” or “qualifications of elders,” but the concepts are there!
Another view that gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s was the idea that everything a Christian does is worship. The question centered on the meaning of the English translation “worship” and had been discussed by brethren years before. Those earlier preachers had disagreements on the definition of the word but maintained a deep respect for the worship assembly and what is done in it. But a younger generation of Christians took the controversy in a new direction. I remember talking with a student in a Christian college in 1990. He was advocating changes in congregational worship that were unscriptural. When I pressed him with Bible verses, he said, “Well, everything a Christian does is worship.” Thousands of young Christians heard this slogan at youth rallies in those days. Some of them are now preachers, elders, and Bible class teachers.
The implication of this thinking is that we can do anything in congregational worship that we can do in our everyday Christian life. More to the point, it means that assembling for worship on Sunday is as optional as praying on Monday afternoon or studying the Bible on Thursday morning.
The lingering doctrine of grace only views worship services as spiritual nonessentials. It is no surprise then that churches who teach it stopped assembling without any deliberation when news of a pandemic struck. Perhaps having these meetings labeled as nonessential services by numerous local governments will cause them to reconsider the meaning of “essential.” But traditionally churches who believe in the idea of once saved, always saved look at public worship as an option, not a necessity. Similarly, though churches of Christ in general do not teach the grace only view, many have been influenced by it. They shun the idea that we ought to assemble for worship, calling it “legalistic” and “works oriented.” They bristle when a preacher says it is a sin to forsake the assembly according to Hebrews 10:25. To them the issue of churches meeting or not meeting is pointless and beneath their understanding of God’s grace. What do they do with all the passages which talk about the worship assembly? They relegate them to the realm of negotiable items. This attitude has weakened respect for corporate worship.
A more underlying cause of churches canceling worship services is a general lack of understanding and conviction concerning what the Bible teaches on this subject. Many Christians have simply not been taught about it. They are quick to say the church is not a building but they are slow to understand that the word “church” often refers to a congregation when it assembles for worship (I Cor. 11:18; 14:4, 5, 12, 19, 23). They know about the Lord’s Supper, but they fail to see that the congregational gathering on Sunday is for the purpose of eating it (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 11:20, 33-34). Overall many are not aware of the numerous times the Bible speaks of this subject.
How can Christians who have never been grounded in the teaching of the Bible about the nature of the worship assembly be expected to hold on to it in a time of crisis?
This void of knowledge has been made worse by the demand for more practical preaching. Christians today do not want to hear sermons about the assembly. They want lessons on marriage and raising children. They need help with financial and work problems. Preaching on I Corinthians 11 and 14 is too doctrinal and warnings from Hebrews 10:25 are too negative. After years of no instruction on the worship assembly some Christians are now unaware that these passages exist. Others who vaguely remember them have not heard them for a long time. It is no wonder they caved in to the pressure and surrendered so quickly when they were warned not to meet. They had no foundation on which to stand.
Perhaps the main reason churches quit meeting is the lax attitude of many members about the worship assembly. Christians hunt, fish, shop, and go to ball games instead of assembling for worship on the Lord’s day. They go on camping trips and vacations without making any plans to assemble with a congregation for worship. I remember being at a meeting over thirty years ago where elders and preachers expressed frustration over members who skipped church services and went to a nearby lake where they took the Lord’s Supper. They were appalled. We have a history of members almost turning the Lord’s Supper into a sacrament. Sadly some elders and preachers now have joined with them in this practice. Frankly, I have never been able to understand why Christians look at vacations the way they do. Making sure there is a congregation to attend in the area should be the first priority in choosing a vacation destination. With many Christians it is not even a concern. They ask, “What else can Christians do if they find themselves in a vacation spot where there is no congregation?” We don’t just “find ourselves” in this predicament. We choose where we will be on Sunday. Even worse is the fact that church leaders plan separate youth worship events on Sunday that circumvent the worship assembly of local congregations. These precedents have been in place for years. Many Christians grew up with these examples and never questioned whether they were scriptural. Is it any wonder they see little or no need to assemble in the congregation?
A few years ago a nationwide survey revealed that of all religious groups in America churches of Christ had the highest percentage of members who attended church services regularly. Where is that ranking now? I have asked dozens of elders and preachers in recent years how things are in their congregations. Almost all of them say their attendance fluctuates. We live in an affluent and highly mobile society. Members are not committed to their local congregation like they once were, especially in their attendance which is often unpredictable.
These and other changes in the way Christians perceive worship have chipped away at the biblical structure of assembling for worship until the practice of it collapsed. Now the spirits of many Christians lie disheartened in the ruins of fear and confusion. Let us hope and pray that churches will correct this course and revive their souls by returning to God’s simple plan. Do you remember the illustration of the preacher who went to visit an absentee member? As they talked by the fireplace the preacher removed a coal from the fire and placed it by itself. Soon the fire of the coal died. The wayward member saw the point and said, “I’ll see you in church services Sunday.” In a time of discouragement, maybe we need to reflect on this old story.
-Kerry Duke, VP of Academics and Academic Affairs