So why do we gather?


Following Gordon’s excellent little post on the place of confession in our gatherings, Michael Johnson asked an equally excellent question in the comments: “I realize it’s not directly related to this post’s topic, but might you briefly elaborate on how you would describe why you gather with God’s people on Sunday mornings (or whatever time you meet)?”

The only thing wrong with this question, Michael, is your opening disclaimer. It’s a very related question, so thanks for asking it!

The best recent statement that I know of concerning the nature and purposes of Christian gatherings is the 2008 report of the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission, called A Theology of Christian Assembly. I don’t know if it would meet Michael’s request for a ‘brief elaboration’ (it’s 8000 words), but it is briskly and clearly written, and deserves to be more widely read than it doubtless will be (given that Synod reports are usually filed away in bottom drawers, never to be seen again).

The report anchors the purposes of Christian assemblies in the eternal purposes of ‘the gathering God’, culminating in the work of Christ who says, “I will build my assembly” (Matt 16:18). After discussing the nature of the assembly that Christ is building (that it draws in people from every nation by his word and Spirit, that it is heavenly, that it is seen now in local Christian assemblies, and so on), the report then highlights three basic purposes of the Christian assembly:

  • As a testimony to Christ: By the very fact of its existence, and by all that it does and says, the Christian assembly bears witness to the crucified and risen Lord Christ, and to his purposes in the world.
  • For fellowship in Christ—not just friendship or human fellowship, but fellowship in Christ. As the report puts it, Christian assemblies “meet to share in the life of God together” (par 33). We meet together because by God’s grace we belong together in the Lord. And thus we will share together in relationship with God in Christ—by hearing his word (in various ways), and responding (in various ways).
  • For building towards maturity in Christ: As we wait for the revealing of the heavenly assembly, all that we do in our earthly assemblies should contribute to ‘building’ Christians individually and in their mutual relationships—in knowledge, in trust and in godly character.

The report then spells out how these three basic purposes should be expressed in what Christians do together when they assemble.

I confess to being a tad biased. (Yes, I am a member of the Doctrine Commission and I helped write the report!) But the report is particularly useful, in my view, because it doesn’t get bogged down in arguing about what ‘worship’ is and isn’t, and whether the term is the best one to describe what we do in church (an argument that seems to descend easily into hairsplitting and speaking at cross-purposes). Instead, it simply asks “What does the Bible say about Christian assemblies?”

This is the vital question to ask, and the answers found in this report provide a strong basis for a thoroughgoing rethink of what we do when gather together in the name of our Lord.

I’d be interested to hear if others agree. Have a read, and post your comments and questions below.

3 thoughts on “So why do we gather?

  1. I certainly agree, Tony.  I think this report is one of the best I have read on the theology of Christian assembly.  Interestingly, it has been criticised for the very reason you (and I with you) would commend it; it does not argue what Christian worship is and isn’t .

    Gordon’s earlier post has begun an important conversation we need to have on what we do as we gather in Christ, when we do it and why we do it. 

    Let’s have more posts that deal with these issues.  Gordon challenged us to think about praying together to confess our sins, but there are many other issues through which we need to think (I know, I’m a pedant for not ending that sentence with a preposition). 

    For example, how do we select songs, when do we sing them, and why?  What is the reason for Bible readings?  Should they always be related to the sermon?  What is the place of confessions of faith?  How can the order in which we do things change the meaning of what we are doing? 
    How do the 3 basic purposes of assembly shape what we do?  What do we make of the argument that atmospherics are all important? 

    These are all issues current practices raise for us right now.  In the past, men like Cranmer wrote formal liturgies to deal with the issues of his day, many of which remain with us.  But our world is not Cranmer’s; we have new challenges and the way we do church is different, often for very good reasons. 

    So then, let’s keep this conversation going!

  2. Thanks, Tony, for directing us to this report. A cursory reading at 1:30 a.m. makes me wonder if I’m a closet Anglican (as a Baptist, this isn’t the first time I’ve asked the question!). I’ll print it up later today and look forward to combing over it with greater detail, hopefully with a subsequent response.

    Also, thank you for stretching me (along with this blog’s fellow readers [since we’re not in the esteemed inner circle of ‘sola panellists’ we really ought to come up with a catchy name of our own!]) in challenging my presuppositions and seriously rethinking (among other things) the role of the assembly as it relates to the church. I thank God for you!

  3. I’m on holidays so not much of a contributor to conversation, but I did want to say that the report Tony refers to is well worth reading and referring to regularly! It’ll be one of my first ports of call for sermon series on ‘church and worship’, although I notice it wisely avoids these potentially distracting terms.

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