White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Preparing To Be Together: Why It Matters For The Church

Published Thursday, May 28, 2020 By Jonathan Landry Cruse

The various stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates put in place around the world are highlighting a deep need within humanity: the need for community. This is, of course, because God made us to be together (Gen. 2:18). We want to see friendly faces across the dining room table and not just across the street. This desire to reconnect with others is fueling many Christians’ yearning to get back to church, and that’s perfectly natural.

But here’s the thing: Christians are made for community in a way that the rest of humanity isn’t. What we get through interaction with fellow believers is more than companionship—the communion of the saints is the life of the saints. The nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, James Bannerman, once said that “according to the arrangement of God, the Christian is more of a Christian in society than alone, and more in the enjoyment of privileges of a spiritual kind when he shares them with others, than when he possesses them apart.”[1]

As many churches are finally preparing to open up their sanctuaries, we should likewise prepare to meet with the saints, reflecting on what it means to have more enjoyment of spiritual privileges when they are shared. We should cultivate within our hearts an eagerness to be with other believers on Sunday, not simply so we can catch up with old friends, but more importantly so that the church can do what she is meant to do. Consider with me how these crucial elements of the church’s worship are made for the company of Christians, and let it deepen a love for your fellow believers and a longing to be back with them.

The Sermon

First, there is the sermon. The reason God’s Word goes forth is to form a people for Himself. “Preaching creates the community,” Michael Horton writes in his The Christian Faith, building off of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who explained that “the word is social in character, not only in its origin but also in its aim.”(756-57). On Sundays, the saints in the pews are a visible reality of the outworking of pulpit ministry. God speaks to me directly in the sermon, undoubtedly, but He is never speaking just to me. Redemption is not just about me—that would tragically limit God’s purposes. Being with the gathered saints and hearing His Word preached to all of us guards me from that notion.

Similarly, public preaching tells me that I haven’t got this whole thing wrong: God’s grand promises are real, and true, and coming to fruition before my very own eyes. His promise to save an innumerable multitude (Rev. 7:9) is being fulfilled in my own congregation. Again, Bonhoeffer is helpful when he explains that the church community “rules out any danger … that I might have fallen prey to an illusion. The confidence of faith arises … out of the assembly.”[2]

The Song 

While it is good and right to sing praise to the Lord at all times, Psalm 149 reminds us that the main venue for Godly praise is in the church: “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly” (v. 1). In the New Testament, Paul explains that singing is part of how we fulfill our ministry as the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16). Notice how he parallels “teaching and admonishing” with “singing.” Congregational singing acts as a sort of communal preaching. Singing is part of corporate worship because it shares in that crucial work of the ministry of the Word: teaching God’s soul-saving truth to God’s people.

When we sing God is using that moment to manifest His glory and splendor, and indeed His gospel, to all who are present. Puritan Thomas Adams said that in praise we cannot add to God’s glory nor detract from it; God is all-glorious by His nature. But “we that cannot make his name greater can make it seem greater; and though we cannot enlarge his glory, we can enlarge the manifestation of his glory.”[3] So let your personal experience of God’s grace and salvation tune your public praise. Testify as you sing (see Psalms 22:22, 35:18, 40:9-10, 111:1). Singing is a duty of the church—we should long to be back together so we can fulfill that responsibility.

The Supper

 Finally, the Lord’s Supper requires the assembling of the saints in public worship. It is in the name after all: communion. While in one sense we are communing with Christ, we are also communing with His Body, the church. The meal is a symbol of our unity. Thus, in First Corinthians Paul grieves at the news that something that is supposed to draw the church together has actually been marked by division. In fact, he goes so far as to say that when divisions and factions are present, “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (1 Cor. 11:20).

A tragedy of this pandemic would be if our varied perspectives and responses to it sowed the seed of division in the church. The reality of the Supper should remind us to treat our brothers and sisters with grace and charity. A proper observance of the Lord’s Supper is an emphasis on togetherness—worked out in love, patience, and sharing: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (v. 33). We come to the table with a desire for the healing and support of the whole body. “Accordingly,” says Calvin, “Augustine with good reason frequently calls this Sacrament ‘the bond of love’” (4.17.38). Similarly, Wilhelmus a Brakel instructs us that in order to prepare to partake of the meal “one must first of all endeavor to stir up a strong desire to be among God’s people” (2:572).

Conclusion

As we consider returning to church in the days ahead, that’s exactly the kind of desire I think we need to be after: a desire to be with the people of God so that we may properly partake of the elements of worship. By God’s design we can’t do it alone, and that is a glorious thing. Let’s not do a disservice to the blessing of being together by merely looking forward to “catching up.” Do that, of course. Paul says on four occasions to “greet one another with a holy kiss”—we are to have affection and be affectionate towards one another. But let that affection for your fellow believer grow out of this understanding: you can’t live your spiritual life without them.

 

 

Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christian’s True Identity and What Happens When We Worship (RHB, forthcoming). He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.

 

[1] Cited in Philip Ryken, ed. The Communion of Saints: Living in Fellowship with the People of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 5.

[2] Quoted in Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011),757.

[3] Quoted in Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio, Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 124. Emphasis mine.

  • Jonathan Landry Cruse