Nearness to God and Public Worship (Nye)

There are times in the Christian life when it seems like God is far away, when it doesn’t feel like the Lord is near. We know Jesus promised to be with us always, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem that way. To be sure, God’s people throughout history have experienced this. More than a few Psalms contain prayers of anguish like those in Psalm 13:1, “How long, LORD, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (NIV).

Sometimes we don’t know why the Lord seems far away. Sometimes the Lord seems far away because we’ve wandered from him or sinned against him. Whatever the case, when God seems distant we certainly need to pray to him, read his Word, and keep doing our Christian best to trust and obey him through it. When God seems distant, we must also continue to regularly join the other people of God in public worship. We cannot expect to experience the presence and nearness of God if we forsake the assembly where he speaks to his people! Skipping out on worship during those times in life when God feels far away will only make things worse. Here’s how Chris Nye explained this:

“If we desire to live close to God, we cannot ignore His family…. ‘Going to church’ is not the best description of what we’re actually doing. We are joining with brothers and sisters from all walks of life to hear God’s word, worship His great name, and practice humility together. We may fancy ourselves a better person than the pastor, but hopefully in attending church regularly the Spirit would work that pride out. We may not love the music, but in time He will teach us what the American church must learn: worship, by its very nature, is not about us at all.”

“Church attendance grows us, humbles us, and shapes us because we hear God’s word, worship, and partake in His supper…. Missing church isn’t just missing a sermon, it is missing an opportunity to rehear the gospel in a variety of formats, whether it be through music, prayer, preaching, communion, or a neighbor.”

Chris Nye, Distant God, p 131-132.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54105

When to Hear a Sermon (Or: When Not to Hear a Sermon)

Christopher Ash’s Listen Up: A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons is a helpful pamphlet aimed at giving Christians some lessons in listening.   This book is only thirty pages long and written at a popular level, so any Christian could benefit from it.  In it, Ash gives seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening and he even talks about listening to poor sermons.  I won’t list every point out here, but I do want to mention #4 and give some edited excerpts from it.

Hear the sermon in church.  The normal place for preaching is the gathering of the local church.  We are to hear sermons as a people gathered together; they are not preached so that we can listen to them solo later.  There is nothing such as ‘virtual church.’  [The people of God] are gathered by the word of God (God takes the initiative to summon…us) and gathered to sit together under the word of God (‘to hear my words’ [Deut. 4:10]), to be shaped together by his word.

“When we listen to an MP3 recording of a sermon, we are not listening to preaching, but to an echo of preaching that happened in the past.  Listening on my own to a recording can never be more than a poor second-best to actually being there with the people of God in a local church.  It is better to listen to the pastor you know, and who knows you, than to hear a recording of the well-known preaching you don’t know, and who doesn’t know you.”

“When we listen to a sermon together, we are accountable to one another for our response. …You know what message I’ve heard, and I know what message you’ve heard.  I’ve heard it.  You know I’ve heard it.  I know that you know I’ve heard it!  And you expect me to respond to the message, just as I hope you will.  And so we encourage one another and stir up one another to do what the Bible says.”

This is a great point.  Hearing God’s word together as an assembled people is profoundly biblical and covenantal; it is one of the primary ways God builds his people up, as is evident in Acts.  It is a good thing to be able to listen to recorded sermons in the car or on a jog, but if this practice lowers a person’s view of hearing the word preached “live” and corporately, it should be done infrequently.  Furthermore, sometimes Christians listen to famous popular preachers so much it makes them discontent with their own preacher and church, which opens the door for many spiritual illnesses.

Ironically, some people who listen to tons of sermons online are in fact guilty of disobeying the call in Scripture to regularly attend the Christian assembly (Heb. 10:25).  I suppose this comes back to the discussion of using technology in a biblically wise way.  Just because technology makes something easier and more convenient doesn’t mean it is right, proper, and good.  At the risk of being called “unspiritual,” I’d say that some Christians need to stop listening to recorded sermons during the week and stick to hearing them in a solid local church on Sunday.  Finally, as food for thought, does this topic relate to another topic we’ve blogged on here, namely rampant American individualism?  If so, how?

Get the book: Listen Up! by Christopher Ash.

shane lems

A Perfect Church Or I Quit

 In the wake of the Reformation, the radical reformers (the Anabaptists) emphasized a pure church – they wanted a church that consisted exclusively of regenerate people who lived holy lives.  Calvin, Luther, Ursinus, and other such reformers quickly distanced themselves from this unbiblical view of the church.  Today too some people withdraw from the church assembly because it is impure, imperfect, or hypocritical (in their eyes).  I love what J.C. Ryle has to say to this:

“…When St. Paul said, ‘Come out and be separate,’ he did not mean that Christians ought to withdraw from every Church in which there are unconverted members, or to refuse to worship in company with any who are not believers, or to keep away from the Lord’s table if any ungodly people go up to it.  This is a very common but a very grievous mistake.  There is not a text in the New Testament to justify it, and it ought to be condemned as a pure invention of man.  Our Lord Jesus Christ himself deliberately allowed Judas Iscariot to be an apostle for three years, and gave him the Lord’s Supper.  He has taught us, in the parable of the wheat and tares, that converted and unconverted will be ‘together till the harvest,’ and cannot be divided (Matt. 13.30).  In his epistles to the seven churches, and in all St. Paul’s epistles, we often see faults and corruptions mentioned and reproved; but we are never told that they justify desertion of the assembly, or neglect of ordinances.”

“In short, we must not look for a perfect church, a perfect congregation, and a perfect company of communicants, until the marriage supper of the Lamb.  If others are unworthy churchmen, or unworthy partakers of the Lord’s Supper, the sin is theirs and not ours: we are not their judges.  But to separate ourselves from church assemblies, and deprive ourselves of Christian ordinances, because others use them unworthily, is to take up a foolish, unreasonable, and unscriptural position.  It is not the mind of Christ, and it certainly is not St. Paul’s idea of separation from the world.”

Exactly – we should not forsake the assembly and become lone ranger, churchless Christians simply because we find some faults in a church.  We might have to move from one church to another one for good doctrinal reasons, but we shouldn’t “quit church” completely just because we cannot find a perfect one.

Ryle’s quote can be found on pp. 293-294 of Practical Religion.

shane lems

Lone Ranger Christians?

 In the early church, one thing Cyprian stressed over and over is the importance of Christians being united with an assembly of other Christians (a.k.a. a/the church).  Some Christians were tempted to leave the assembly because of persecution; others were tempted to leave because some sect was pulling them away.  Today, the reasons for Christians not uniting publicly with other Christians are many.  I’m sure you’ve all heard different excuses why people don’t join a local church.  By the way, my favorite excuse is “the church is full of hypocrites,” which is an hypocritical statement itself.  I like what John Crotts writes on this topic.

“The Lord Jesus intended for every one of his children to be connected to one of these local churches.  There are no examples of free-floating Lone Ranger saints in the New Testament.  …While there is no single verse in the Bible commanding, ‘Thou shalt join a church,’ a clear inside or outside relationship of an individual Christian and a local church is nevertheless apparent.  When Hebrews 13:17 calls upon individual believers to ‘obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls,’ it is assumed that you know who your leaders are, that you are making their lives joyful by following their leadership, and that they know who you are, since they must give an account for your soul.”

“In Matthew 18:15-17, as Jesus spells out the steps of church discipline to restore a sinning brother, the final two steps are 1) to tell it to the church and then, if there is still no repentance, 2) to put the person out of the church, treating him as the Jews treated Gentiles and tax collectors.  Once again, it is assumed that you are inside a local church where you are being held accountable for your words and actions.  Then, if you don’t repent, you are put out of the body you must have previously been in.”

“Whether a church calls this relationship ‘membership’ is not nearly as important as the fact that the body has a clear way of knowing which Christians are inside and which are outside the church.  When Christians wanting to live the Christian life outside the local church claim that their church membership in the universal church is sufficient, they are missing many facets of God’s design for the local church.”

These quotes can be found on page 45 of Crotts’ book, Loving the Church: God’s People Flourishing in God’s Family.

shane lems

Do Not Forsake the Assembly

William Lane wrote several penetrating comments on Hebrews 10.25a.  This goes hand-in-hand with an earlier post of mine on Keller’s exhortation to go to (and stay in!) church.  Of course, this opens the door to the Patristic, Scholastic, and Reformation extra ecclesiam non sit salus (outside the church there is no salvation).  Here’s Lane:

Whatever the motivation, the writer regarded the desertion of the communal meetings as utterly serious.  It threatened the corporate life of the congregation and almost certainly was a prelude to apostasy on the part of those who were separating themselves from the assembly.  The neglect of worship and fellowship was symptomatic of a catastrophic failure to appreciate the significance of Christ’s priestly ministry and the access to God it provided.

The reason the meetings of the assembly are not to be neglected is that they provide a communal setting where mutual encouragement and admonition may occur….  The verb parakalein includes the notions of warning and reproof as well as encouragement, with the implication that reproof should be given in a loving way.  The entire community must assume responsibility to watch that no one grows weary or becomes apostate.  This is possible only when Christians continue to exercise care for one another personally.

William Lane, Hebrews 9-13 (Nashville: Nelson, 1991), 290.

shane lems

sunnyside wa