Over the past 10 years I have watched a number of leaders suspend corporate worship on the Lord’s Day in order to do something “missional.” They have said things like, “This Sunday don’t go to church, be the church!” This not only creates a false dichotomy between what God calls us to be and do, but also misunderstands the priority and value of the church gathering for corporate worship on the Lord’s day.
I believe that the Lord’s Day is the most important day of the week, the most critical gathering of the church, and therefore essential for the spiritual health of the people of God. The Lord’s Day is for the church, as set apart by Jesus, and through our gathering in the local church for word and sacrament we find grace. In his exposition of the Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson explained:
Christ wrought most of his miracles upon the Sabbath; so he does still: dead souls are raised and hearts of stone are made flesh. How highly should we esteem and reverence this day! It is more precious than rubies. God has anointed it with the oil of gladness above its fellows. On the Sabbath we are doing angels' work, our tongues are tuned to God's praises. The Sabbath on earth is a shadow and type of the glorious rest and eternal Sabbath we hope for in heaven, when God shall be the temple, and the Lamb shall be the light of it.
Corporate worship is what fuels mission and sends us out to do what God has called us to. I recently wrote on the subject of "Making the Most of Sunday," so see that post for more reflection in that direction.
Having said all of that, as important as this sacred gathering is to the health of the local church, it alone is not enough. Other gatherings are necessary. The people of God must meet together in smaller numbers to carry out the will of God in each others’ lives. Of course this can be done in part through informal meetings and natural, Christian friendships. This too must be a part of our lives. But in a more formal sense I believe it is imperative for the church to meet together in small groups around thew word of God in order to serve one another with the truth of the gospel. For if we are only gathering together on the Lord’s day for corporate worship how can we then fully “instruct one another” (Romans 15:14), “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24), “encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25), “confess [our] sins to each other” (James 5:16), and “pray for each other” (James 5:16)? For all of this to be a part of the life of faith we need to be personally invested in each others lives through the ministry of the word.
Many churches today have small groups. Some call them community groups, or missional communities, or incarnational missional outposts of gospel centrality—or whatever sounds cool. Gathering in small groups is good, but what is needed in these small groups is the ministry of the word pressed deeply into our hearts.
Words of Grace
When we started Redeemer Fellowship eight years ago, we put the priority on the Lord’s Day gathering, but also emphasized the need for these smaller gatherings. This would be where gospel formed community is experienced on an intimate level through the ministry of the word. It wouldn’t be a simple Bible study, but a binding of ourselves to one another and the Lord in Christian fellowship.
You may not know it, but this model of small groups isn’t new at all. Of course we see it encourage implicitly throughout Scripture, and explicitly in the book of Acts. But you might be surprised to hear the puritans had a well developed understanding of these kind of gatherings. These small gatherings were called “holy conference.”
In her book, Godly Conversation: Rediscovering the Puritan Practice of Conference, Dr. Joanne Jung unpacks the puritan practice of conference, providing us with a biblical picture of a kind of fellowship sure to bear fruit in the lives of all who practice it. Dr. Jung explains that conference wasn’t just Christians hanging out, or even studying the Bible together. It was deeper than that and emphasized the application of Scripture to each individual’s life.
In conference, participants regularly engaged with one another in discussions on biblical texts in conjunction with more intimate conversations over the spiritual state of their souls. The use of Scripture, obtained by way of the minister, his sermons, the auditor’s sermon notes, or private Bible reading, played an essential role in conference.
These smaller gatherings were often the context in which exhortation and encouragement happened naturally. Yes, these gatherings were more “inward” than “outward” in that they focused on those gathered and their relationship with God, but this is something God calls us to. And this is what readies us for better service to one another and those outside of the church. Jung summarizes the benefits of conference when she writes:
The profitability of conference was clear: enhanced biblical understanding, the warming of the soul, and even a greater desire for the Word.
A small group of believers who are experiencing the power of the word of God in their lives together are sure to be missional. But one gives birth to the other. And like the Sunday gatherings, these were groups of mixed company, not divided by age or sex.
Evidence shows that the advantages of gathering in small groups to discuss biblical passages as they relate to life experiences were extensive and were not limited to any one particular group of people. There was no gender, literacy, or class distinction. In conference there would be no discrimination.
Works of Grace
Our small gatherings are not only the context in which we fan the flames of faith, but also where we serve one another in whatever ways are necessary. It is when we are regularly together in small groups that we can be practice the commands to “be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50), “be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10), “honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10), “live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16), “accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7), “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), “be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2), and all the other “one another” passages God has given us in his word. Sunday services alone do not provide us with the opportunity to hear our brothers fears, feel our sisters pains, to strengthen, correct, comfort, and specifically direct one another.
Sunday is a glorious day. We call it “The Lord’s Day!” It marks not only our calendars but also our lives. Yet, Sunday is not enough. God calls us to be together not for mere education, but for edification; not just fraternity, but fellowship. We must make the most of corporate worship, but we must also make the most of the ministry of the word in our hearts and the hearts of our brothers and sisters through holy conference.
This post originally appeared at JoeThorn.net and the Christward Collective.