(This is a re-post from November 2012.)
In 1781 John Newton wrote a letter to the members of his church in London. One of the main reasons he wrote this letter was to address a burden he was facing as a pastor: his parishioners were not coming to worship services. This is something that pastors still face today. Some Christians miss worship services for valid reasons (illness, emergencies, etc.). But many Christians simply neglect worship services. In other words, they don’t really have a good, biblical reason for not assembling with the saints. In the following paragraphs, I’ve summarized and edited Newton’s letter in which he pastorally addresses this problem. (Note the lines on entertainment.)
“The only cause of grief that you have given me is that so many of those to whom I earnestly desire to be useful refuse me the pleasure of seeing them at church every Sunday. I’m not troubled because the pews are empty. If a large congregation could satisfy me, then I would already be satisfied (the pews are full). But I must grieve because I see so few of my own parishioners in the full pews. God has not been pleased to place me elsewhere, he saw fit to fix me among you. This appointment gives you a preference in my regard and it makes me studiously attentive to promote your best welfare.”
“If I am a servant of God, a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, if I speak the truth in love – how can I not be pained at the thought that many to whom the word of salvation is sent refuse to hear it and reject the counsel of God against themselves (Acts 13:26, Luke 7:30)! Most of you agree with me that Scripture is God’s revelation. But do not some of you act inconsistently with your acknowledged principles? Your business and entertainment indispose you for due observation of our church services. You have other things to do, so you miss many sermons.”
“I have done my best to avoid whatever might give you needless offense. I knew that if I would be faithful to Scripture and my conscience, that some of my hearers would be displeased. But, though I was constrained to risk your displeasure, I have been careful not to needlessly provoke you, or to lay any unnecessary difficulties in your way.”
So that I may not weary my hearers by the length of my sermons, I carefully endeavor not to exceed forty-five minutes. Many people can give their attention to trivial entertainment for several hours without weariness, but their patience is quickly exhausted under a sermon where the principles of Scripture are applied to the conscience.”
“I am not a polished orator nor do I wish to capture your attention by the elegance of my words. If I had the ability to use elegant words and capture your attention with them, I would not do it. I speak to the unlearned and the wise, so my principal aim is to be understood. Yet I hope that I am not wrongly charged with speaking nonsense, with flippancy, carelessness, or disrespect. But alas! There are too many hearers who seem more desirous of entertainment than of real benefit from a Christian sermon!”
“My heart longs for your salvation; but whether you will hear or whether you will not, I must take your consciences to witness that I have been faithful to you. If after this warning any of you should finally perish, I am innocent of your blood (Acts 20:26).”
“You know the difficulty of my situation and will assist me with your prayers. I trust likewise you will assist me with your conduct, and that your lives and godly speech will constrain the ungodly to acknowledge that the doctrines of grace which I preach – when rightly understood and embraced – make a person peaceful, content, loving, and full of humility.”
This is obviously the summary of a longer letter. Here’s who needs to read this letter today: 1) those of you who neglect regularly assembling with the saints and 2) those of you – pastors and elders perhaps – who wish to lovingly admonish Christians who neglect the assembly.
Newton’s pastoral heart comes out in this letter. He is straightforward, blunt, and biblical. At the same time, it is very evident that he simply wants his parishioners to hear the sermons for their own Christian good and growth in godliness. Newton certainly wasn’t a legalist looking to make people proud of their church attendance. He was writing in the spirit of 1 Peter 5:1-4 – as an undershepherd who loved Christ’s sheep. Or, in other words, this letter is a pastoral commentary on Hebrews 10:24-25.