“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25; TNIV)
In our consumer culture, I shouldn’t be surprised that people treat church like a product. But I confess I continue to be surprised how long time, faithful churchgoers can suddenly “kick the habit” with seemingly little regret! Whether it’s a recent, young Denver Seminary graduate who was training to be a church leader or a middle-aged individual who just got tired of putting up with someone or something undesirable in their local congregation, people are abandoning regular church attendance in record numbers.
Hebrews 10, however, takes such a departure very seriously indeed. In the context of growing persecution of Christians in Rome in the early-to-mid-60s, one could almost understand why Jewish believers might want to play down their distinctives as followers of Yeshua and retreat to a form of worship indistinguishable from orthodox Judaism. They would thus retain their unique privilege as a religio licita, and not be forced to offer a pinch of incense in honor of Caesar as “Lord and God” as everyone else had to do. Once Nero unleashed his official, state-sponsored persecution against Christians in 64, they would be immune from imprisonment and martyrdom. Today, one can empathize with believers from North Korea and China to Iran and Afghanistan to Morocco and the Maldives, who might similarly hide their Christian identities and not gather regularly for worship and instruction with other believers, lest they be arrested and/or killed.
Ironically, it is precisely in such contexts where we also hear stories of great faith, great perseverance, and great sacrifice for the sake of Christ and fellow Christians, including for gathering together with them. It’s here in the U.S., in the Western world more generally, where so much less is at stake that we offer up such pathetic reasons (at least I suspect God considers them pathetic) for not joining together with fellow believers on a regular, weekly basis. And almost all of the excuses are anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. That’s a fancy way of saying we’ve in essence reworded the well-known praise song to make it say, “It’s all about me, Lord,” rather than “It’s all about you, Jesus!”
We all know the excuses. We don’t like the style of worship or music. We don’t like the preaching. We don’t like the new time for Sunday School. We don’t like the way the church spends our money. More seriously, we don’t like certain people we have to see when we go. The list seems almost endless. Yet the other irony is that we in the West, especially in the United States, have far more choices of churches than anybody has ever had anywhere else in the history of the world! Before the advent of modern transportation, the two major criteria for why a given person belonged to church x (rather than church y) was because it was (a) the closest church to where they lived (b) in their denomination. Before the Protestant Reformation, only (a) applied, except in those comparatively few places where both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy existed side-by-side. One generally learned to work things out with the same group of people over a long period of time.
Today we are victims of our plethora of choices. Now hear me well. I’m grateful for those choices. There do come times when churches have substantially changed their beliefs or practices that for a person to be faithful to their own basic convictions they must move to a different congregation. If that happens, then move! But don’t just stop going anywhere.
Hear me, too, please, when I say that “church” as the New Testament defines it can be a house-church, it can be independent of all denominational affiliation, and it can take many creative forms and gather at many different times. I’m not saying all believers have to gather on Sunday morning, in a distinctive church building, with one prescribed liturgy or order of service. Not by a long shot. But consider the implied hubris (a fancy Greek word for “arrogance”) implied by the person who claims to be a Christian, claims to be in submission in Scripture, and yet also claims that no existing expressions of Christianity anywhere close to them are sufficiently God-pleasing for them to favor those gatherings with their presence!
Hebrews supplies the key to how to change one’s attitude in such situations. One goes to church not for what one can get but what one can give. Spur one another on toward love and good works and encourage one another. One of the occupational hazards of having studied the Scriptures to the extent that I have, and having visited as many diverse expressions of God’s family of faith worldwide as I have, is that it’s hard for any given worship service to affect me emotionally at the very core of my being with something that fairly jumps out at me and says, “Yes, that’s exactly how we should be doing things.” I occasionally experience a little something along those lines, but I stress the words “a little.”
But it doesn’t take much at all to get me pumped with the idea of going to see friends and acquaintances, and to meet new people, whom I can encourage and love and teach. If I keep track of how much attention, gratitude and concern I am showed in return, I usually go away depressed (except when I’m a guest speaker somewhere, because at least some people have been trained to do such things). But if I remind myself that I shouldn’t be trying to keep track of such things, then I usually feel fulfilled. But even that is an anthropocentric criterion. I need to keep reminding myself that I go and do what I do simply because that’s what God wants and it’s what he has made me for.
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.