Why We Gather
During a recent visit to the barber, I asked the young lady who was cutting my hair if she went to church. Her response was, “Church is in here” as she pointed to her heart. She explained that she was a Christian and loved God, but she didn’t need the local church in order to worship. Surprisingly, this is not the first time I have heard that response. Many people claim to be Christians, but they struggle with local churches, and conclude that it is best to live the Christian life as an individual apart from the physical assembly of believers. In 2020, this became a reality for thousands of churches worldwide. We began “tuning in” to church each Sunday from the comfort of our homes.
As a result, the necessity of the local church has been questioned. If I can join the live stream from home and worship that way, why do I need to go to church? Aren’t I accomplishing the same thing, just through a different medium? I am still a part of the local church, right? These are important questions to consider.
Occasionally, I will have the chance to watch the live stream service of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles via social media. Due to the size and global reach of Grace Church, many from around the world watch their live stream and typically comment on the video to say where they are watching from. A few individuals have lauded Grace Church as their own church, yet these people live on the opposite side of the country. They may express, “I am so blessed to be a part of this church all the way in South Carolina!” My geography may not be the best, but I know that commute must be pretty long each week.
So is it possible to be a part of the local church through a virtual context? Is it necessary to be physically present in a local church when they gather together for worship? Let’s see what Scripture says, particularly in 1 Corinthians.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a letter all about correction. Paul has heard that the church has deviated from foundational truths, so he seeks to correct poor theology and poor ecclesiology. In chapters 8 and 9, Paul is speaking of Christian liberties, and how we are free in Christ to partake of food sacrificed to idols. At the same time, however, Paul says that if eating food sacrificed to idols causes our brother in Christ to stumble, then we should refrain from eating that food so as to defer to the weaker brother. Moral of the story: we have freedoms and liberty, but we should be careful how we exercise that liberty.
In chapter 11 (specifically in verses 17 through 34), Paul is addressing the manner in which the Corinthians are partaking communion. To connect it to chapters 8 and 9, Paul’s underlying theme is that while we have freedom and liberty in some things, there are things that we do not have freedom and liberty on, and one of those things is the way we approach the Lord’s table. The church at Corinth was treating communion as a meal (11:17, 21-22), and Paul tells them that this is wrong. They may have freedom in some things, but not this. The Lord’s table must be approached carefully and rightly. Hence, Paul tells them that the way they approach Communion is taught by Christ, and Paul is simply a messenger of that teaching (11:23).
But in the midst of this, Paul makes a very profound statement: “Therefore when you meet together in the same place…” (11:20a). While your version of Scripture may not have that exact wording, the understanding of the same place is very explicit in the original text. The people were instructed to gather together in the same place. In other words, they were to be physically present in a local body of believers.
The ordinance of communion which the church partakes of together is not one that can be done on an individual basis. It is to be done corporately in a local church. With the larger context in mind concerning freedoms and liberties as Christians, Paul points out that this is not something we are free to practice in whatever way we want. This is to be done in a specific way, and it must be done together as a local church. This is not something that can be done on our couches at home eating Ritz crackers and grape juice. It is for the local assembly of believers, and it is important that we are gathered together as Christians, not scattered throughout the world in our homes.
When Christians gather together, it is a profound declaration of the gospel to the world. It shows that the gospel is powerful to transform any life, and to bring together those who are vastly different in personality, looks, hobbies, and lifestyles. Think about this: on a Sunday morning when we gather for worship, we have people from all walks of life; from the youngest to the oldest; from all types of backgrounds; from all sorts of ethnicities. The gospel is not just for one specific type of people. It is for all people, and it is powerful to impact and transform all types of people. You do not need to have a minimum balance in your bank account. You do not need blue eyes and blonde hair. The gospel is for everyone.
In the world, it is nearly impossible to get a variety of people to be of the same mind. Our representatives in Washington have all types of backgrounds, which only seem to cause division. The church, however, gathers together in one mind for one purpose, and that is to glorify God (Philippians 1:27; 2:2). It is unlike anything else in this world. And it works. When we gather together, we are proclaiming corporately that the gospel is absolutely true, and that it transforms lives.
Think about the last time you purchased something on Amazon. Did you check the reviews? When we buy something online, we want to make sure that what we are getting actually functions the way it should. When you see that it has 5 stars, you get excited! But then you see it only has 1 review. Not too promising. But when you see a product that has a 5-star rating, and has been reviewed by thousands of people, you can be sure that the product is a good one! The church is the same way. The church as a whole has thousands of 5-star reviews. “I have been saved by the gospel, and I love the church!” or “I was so blessed by the church this morning. We sang about the grace of God together, and it greatly encouraged me that God is gracious to me in my struggles.” And there are thousands more reviews like this. 5 stars. The message of the church corporately is far more powerful than the message of an individual watching church remotely. It declares that the gospel can transform any life into a life that proclaims the glory of God. The gospel works, and these 5-star reviews are the proof.
The local church cannot function if we are not physically there. It is not God’s design to be individuals, but rather to be a body. From the beginning of the church in Acts, God has always intended His people to physically gather together. Just peruse Acts 1-4 (italics and underlines added):
“These all with one accord were continually devoting themselves to prayer….and in those days, Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers (a crowd of about 120 persons was there together)…” (Acts 1:14, 15-16a)
“When the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1)
“When this sound occurred, the multitude came together…” (Acts 2:6)
“And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44)
“And when they had prayed earnestly, the place where they had gathered together was shaken…” (Acts 4:31)
The church has always gathered together. In so doing, she proclaims the gospel to the world by declaring that Jesus died to save sinners no matter their background, their ethnicity, their financial status, or by any other measure. Together, the church demonstrates how God transforms lives, and that there is hope in the midst of fighting and disagreements. The truth of the gospel transcends all differences. When the church is physically gathered together, it is a (very) small piece of heaven, where sinners saved by grace proclaim the glory of God corporately. This is why we gather.