As many begin returning to church in-person or at least want to do so, I wonder what motivates us to do so. We rightly desire to see friends and family again. We rightly desire to be together in one place. These are good and wholesome desires, but I think they mask some of the more important reasons for why we should gather.
Recently, I spoke with a friend who asked me about regathering. He lives in a communal housing arrangement in which his household practices community and the Lord’s Supper together. Well, why should he return to church? He has a community. He has an ordinance to celebrate. His family and the others living with them can sing and read the word together. What is missing?
I want to suggest that the answer is primarily theological: God ordains certain ordinary means of grace in order to fulfill our joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Apart from these means, we would normally not grow and enjoy Christ with the same capacity that we would if we partook of God’s good, gifts of grace.
So let me provide three theological reasons then for why I want to return to church.
First, God grows us as we hear from him when his Word is read and preached because that is how God talks to us.
When we gather together, we come to hear from God. The public reading of Scripture as well its exposition forms a key moment in which God’s Spirit works through a speaker to communicate God’s truth to us. And when we hear the Word, we let it dwell richly in our hearts.
This hearing of God’s Word is not only an opportunity to grow in our understanding who God is, but it is also a duty that God lays upon the church:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Tim 4:1–2)
Here Paul charges Timothy to preach the Word. Yet that church flows out of a grace-filled purpose. Preaching the Word aims to complete or perfect our faith:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16–17)
The reason why Paul charges Timothy to preach is because of the nature of Scripture—it is inspired and brings about the completion of our faith.
Where this sort of preaching happens is in the church. Hence, Paul spends much time articulating the qualifications for the church’s officers (e.g. 1 Tim 3). It ordinarily is in the corporate setting of the church that such preaching occurs. So through such ordinary means, we can hear the Word of God as it implants itself into our hearts.
And it bears reminding that the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Gal 5:22). So let’s press into God’s wonderful means of grace, which include the preaching of the Word. That is one reason we should want to return to church.
Second, God grows us as we pray together through word and song since that is how we talk to God.
Worship in song is nothing other than corporate prayer to God. We talk to him when we sing. He talks to us when someone reads Scripture or preaches the Word. As John Piper has described it, scriptural reading and prayer represent a two-way conversation between us and God.
We know intuitively that when we pray, we grow closer to God. Even if we do not know what to say, the Holy Spirit groans within us as we pray (Rom 8:26). The indwelling Spirit then works in us to bring what we truly need to God’s throne of grace, even when we do not know what to ask.
Yet we should also intuitively know that if our mind understands what we pray, then we have a certain harmony of prayer to God. And that is much better. So Paul can say, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor 14:15).
And whatever happens in the church whether prayer or song, Paul reminds us, “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:26). That reminder is important because prayer and song do in fact build us up. As Paul reminds us elsewhere, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22). Here, it is important to affirm that Paul specifically and contextually talks about the church body—even the “you” in Greek is in the plural in Ephesians 2:22.
So when we gather to pray and sing together, the Spirit works within us. We sing to be built up. And we do so as the temple of God In which the Holy Spirit dwells.
Three, God grows us through the Lord’s Supper because he expands our love for the Gospel through it and deepens our love for one another as we partake of it.
The Lord’s Supper reminds us of God’s good and redemptive grace as well as deepens our love for one another. Paul recounts the Lord’s Supper in this way:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:23–26).
We might say a number of things about this passage, but perhaps it is best to focus on one thing. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the Gospel in a unique way. God uses this unique yet ordinary means of grace to deepen our experience of the Gospel through the tangible event of the Lord’s Supper.
We are flesh and bones, not just souls. So the physical taking of the Supper indeed provides a sort of deep memory aid that should become a habit of life. Make no mistake, the Spirit works through this since to take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner brings judgment (1 Cor 11:17–30). It is more than just a memory—it has a spiritual effect, bringing us either to a deeper relationship with God or the opposite.
It also deepens our relationship with each other. Paul writes:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16–17)
It is important to know here that Paul sees the one bread that we partake as a symbol and reminder of our unity as “one body” because “we all partake of the one bread.” One can probably say here that this unity through the Lord’s Supper has a spiritual dimension because of 1 Corinthians 10:16 and the context surrounding these verses (e.g., that eating sacrificial meat means participating with demons).
But suffice it to say, whatever one’s view is, the Lord’s supper both serves to remind us of the Gospel and to show us how the same Gospel unites us together. The Spirit works in and through the Lord’s Supper to grow us. And this ordinarily happens in the corporate gathering of the church.
I could say more. I have not even mentioned baptism. I have not spoken about families and regular devotional life outside of corporate worship. I could have! But I hope, as was my goal, that I have provided some food for thought on why we should desire to regather.
I grant that God can use extraordinary means to grow someone as in missionary situations or in pandemics! But we should not neglect the ordinary means that God uses to grow us into the Gospel of Jesus Christ to complete our joy.
Paul can write, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:25). And one reason why our faith is truly joyous is that we grow into Christ whom God made for us to find our satisfaction in. And that growth by the Spirit ordinarily happens through hearing the Word, prayer in song, and the ordinances.
So please do look forward to seeing each other in person! But remember that this seeing has a spiritual and theological dynamic that serves underpin why we meet as the body together. Corporately, we all grow into a complete structure—the temple of God where the Holy Spirit dwells (Eph 2:22).