Assembly Required

It is a strange ritual. A group of men and women agree to meet together once a week. One of the key things they do is listen while one man preaches. Why do they do it? Why does he, the preacher, do it? And—the big question in our culture—why the need physically to meet in order to hear him preach?

This is the second in a pair of articles. I take as my text for both articles these words, spoken by God to Moses at Sinai: ”Assemble the people before me to hear my words” (Deut 4:10).

Here we have an assembly (“Assemble the people”) and a purpose (“to hear my words”). In a previous article, we focused on hearing the word. I touched on the awesome fact that a man may be so humbled, gripped, and transformed by the word of God that when he preaches and expounds Scripture, he speaks the very words of God. This alone is sufficient reason to labor at preaching. But I want now to focus on the rationale for the physical assembly, the meeting of the church for preaching.

Technological Advance

So here’s the question: was the assembly necessary purely for a functional reason, because without meeting they could not physically hear God’s words? They had no books to read God’s words; they had no iPods to hear a recording of Moses speaking God’s words; so they must necessarily gather to hear. We, by contrast, have books, texts available online, MP3 and MP4 recordings. We are well able to hear the preaching of God’s words with no need physically to gather. So may we not be allowed translate this text, with dynamic equivalence, “Make sure the people attend to my words using whatever technology will make this possible”?

No! No! No! The assembly is not merely functional; the assembly was and is necessary, because assembly is what God is doing in remaking a broken world. The assembly of “all Israel” at Sinai became the paradigm for the gatherings of all God’s people throughout the Old Testament; it is remembered as “the day of the assembly” (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). This assembly “moved” (spiritually) from Sinai to Zion with the death of Jesus, so we now assemble not at the place of grace foreshadowed, but “at” Jesus, the place of grace accomplished (Heb 12:18-29).

The local church really and concretely represents the regathering that God is doing in a broken world. The whole story of salvation may be told around this theme of scattering as the judgment of God and gathering as the rescue of God. (I have expanded on this in Remaking a Broken World, Authentic Media, 2010, and in chapter 5 of The Priority of Preaching, Christian Focus, 2009.)

Present Matters

To put it bluntly, it matters to go to church, and it matters for the preacher to be physically present to preach in the assembly of the church. The assembly is not just to hear the word; indeed, it is the word of the gospel that gathers unlikely men and women under grace. Preaching gathers the church, preaching shapes the church as a community of grace, and preaching sustains the church as the grace of Jesus is proclaimed and pressed home to hearts, consciences, and lives. To hear a recording of the word in a bubble of comfortable isolation is no substitute for gathering with God’s people. Technological wizardry is no substitute for bodily assembly.

And we assemble with “all Israel,” that is, with all of a multicultural church fellowship, unlikely men and women gathered by grace. We do not just assemble with “people like us.” When we hear preaching together, we are accountable to one another. I am less likely to zone out or switch off, because I know you may speak to me afterward about the Scripture that was preached. You know the word I have heard, and I know that you know the word I have heard; so I listen the more carefully, and together we are more likely to respond with repentance and faith.

The purpose of preaching is not to do good preaching; the purpose of preaching is to shape the assembly of God’s people to become like Christ in heart and in character, and to be Christlike witnesses in a needy world. For through the godliness of the local church the world will be reached for Christ.

Feeling Low

When the preacher looks back on Sunday, he typically feels low because (a) a number of people were not there who should have been there, (b) there was pretty obvious evidence of sin in those who were there, including himself, (c) the singing wasn’t great (or perhaps it was great, but he knows it was superficial), (d) he didn’t preach very well, and (e) the whole thing felt humdrum, ordinary, and insignificant. Indeed, he would agree with his kind but skeptical neighbor who wonders why he wastes his energies in preaching and being a pastor.

But—and this is huge—if the pastor is preaching faithfully, and the Spirit of God is doing a long-term persevering work of sanctification by bringing the word home with full conviction, then in that oh-so-imperfect gathering we find the seeds of the new creation. The seeds are planted by the gospel of grace he has preached. One day the little forgivenesses, the unseen forbearance, the unimpressive kindnesses, the growing love of very different people, in that little local church, will metamorphose into being a part of a remade creation. And his woefully weak and pathetic preaching will then be seen to have been a significant part of the agency God has used, along with his people’s prayers, to effect this miraculous change.

Discouraged preacher, do not give up! What you are doing this Sunday is of deeper and greater significance than perhaps everything that has hit the news this week.

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  • Rick Owen

    I love and have often benefitted from good preaching and teaching. But the Old Covenant paradigm used here misses the New Covenant reality Jesus procured and instituted by His blood.

    The New Testament does not teach nor give us one example of a church gathering with preaching as the purpose, focus or center of the gathering. The only two Greek ‘purpose clauses’ found in the New Testament, which underscore the reason the church assembled, indicate that it was to ‘break bread’ (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33). This was according to Jesus’ command, “Do this unto My remembrance.”

    This occasion of Christ-centered table fellowship (a.k.a. “the Lord’s table,” “the Lord’s supper” and the “agape feast”) provided a down-to-earth, non-liturgical setting for mutual edification — that is, for stirring up one another to love and good deeds and encouraging one another (Heb. 10:24-25) — “according to the proper working of each individual part” of Christ’s spiritual body (Eph. 4:16). Teaching and preaching was part of this, as those with the gift of teaching exercised their gifts too (Rom. 12:7), not in place of it.

    We need to look to Christ, not Moses or other preparatory-yet-obsolete Old Covenant figures, for our New Covenant example and methodology.

  • Rick Owen

    More thoughts here related to my comments above:

  • Rick Owen

    See page 75 of the following PDF book, “The Table of the Lord,” relative to the two purpose clauses (I mentioned in my first post above) which explain why the early church assembled.

    • Rick Owen

      The actual page number of the photocopied text appears as 67, although if you search and skip, the PDF page number is 75.

  • Ethan Larson

    Thanks for your article on preaching and this much needed article on the theology of assembly. I have been wrestling to articulate my convictions on this and you helped me. Thank you.

    Might I be so bold as to request a third installment on why the preacher might be required to assemble as well? You make a passing comment that, “…it matters for the preacher to be physically present to preach in the assembly of the church.” but this essential point is not developed. There are many who would agree with your well supported arguments for preaching and for the physically assembled congregation, but would think nothing of a physically absent preacher. In my view, this is a non-sequitur that needs to be discussed.

    Technological pragmatism may have created new entropies and excuses, but arguments for why individual Christians should physically assemble in one place at one time to worship and hear preaching are as old as the Church itself. Modern technological pragmatism however has raised the unprecedented question of whether the preacher himself has to physically join that assembly at one place and one time. Does the preacher need to be present at church for the same reasons as everyone else?

    If we say to the individual Christian that an “MP3 of Moses” is no substitute for the assembly, the spiritual substance and nature of which cannot be technically replicated or mediated, it seems to me the same applies to the preacher.

    The need to articulate the theology of assembly for the congregation is equally and perhaps more needed for the preacher in our day.

    Perhaps you would consider a third article to develop your important comment further and perhaps tie the two together.

    • dwk

      I’d echo this request. There are a growing number of churches with multiple campuses (including some TGC member churches) that record or stream the sermon. The only time I ever experienced a video sermon, it struck me as odd and not something I’d personally prefer, but not necessarily wrong. I’d love to see this explored further.
      Thanks for these articles. Both were helpful.

  • Jin

    I think it is a mistake to think that Jesus’ death simply changed everything. Remember, Jesus’ death fulfilled ONLY those things concerning Himself, NOT just everything from the OT. 27And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Luke 24.

    Jesus, Himself, went to the synagogue every Sabbath to teach and in no doubt, to worship (Luke 4:16). All the apostles also continued to gather on the Sabbath to teach and to worship (Acts 13:42-44). God commanded the Israelites to have a “holy convocation” on certain holy days and instructed them to “not work” on the Sabbath to remind them of to whom they were serving.

    Our weekly gathering now and the OT people gatherings was also for the purpose of worship. We must never forget that there is a God we need to worship and praise as well. The holy convocations serve many purposes for us as a church and as individuals. It is a mistake to think that Jesus’ death “did away” with all OT forms and structures.

    • Rick Owen

      Jesus’ synagogue attendance took place within the still-extant Old Covenant era — during His earthly ministry — prior to the New Covenant and its new reality based in “spirit and truth,” versus specific days or locales (John 4:21-23) and Old Covenant, Law-based rituals (Heb. 8:6-13).

      Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, during the New Testament era, a transition was taking place. The Old Covenant, according to the author of Hebrews, was “becoming obsolete and growing old . . . ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13 ESV). This did not happen overnight.

      During this period of transition, it made sense for the apostles to go where their fellow Jews still assembled. Since they were still following Old Covenant practices, they attended synagogue on the Sabbath (Saturday). The apostles had a standing audience to whom they could readily preach the gospel.

      This activity was part of the apostles’ work of evangelization as missionaries — the first step in making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). This was not the ‘church schedule’ for Christian gatherings which usually took place after work on the first day of the week, Sunday (e.g., Acts 20:7).

      There were some similarities between synagogue meetings and the gatherings of the Christians, but there were differences too — BIG differences. Everything was Christ-centered and the Spirit of Christ was present in a new way following Pentecost. Acts 2:42-47 describes a new life of generous hospitality which characterized God’s people as a born again community of true believers in Jesus Christ.

      The Ekklesia (“called-out assembly”) which Jesus said He would build (future tense, Matt. 16:18) was a spiritual body — the body of Christ — where Christ was present and met the needs of His people by His Spirit, as the Head of His body. Each member of the body possessed spiritual gifts which they were to use in edifying ways. God’s people were to worship at all times as a way of life (Rom. 12:1-2), but they were to meet primarily to edify one another — not to conduct an Old Testament-style ‘worship service’ conducted by a priestly mediator.

      More thoughts here:

  • Joshua Barnett

    Good article and great discussion! Glad I popped over to read it. Blessings!

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  • Mary Moser

    I loved the article! When I was looking around for a church, I listened to, and benefitted by, many audio sermons before I chose my preacher, Mike Sharrett, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in Lynchburg, VA. I lived an hour away from the church and since I had to give up driving because of failing vision I had to hire somebody to get me to and from the church. It cost me about $500. per month, and it was worth it. I finally moved to Lynchburg because I wanted to be present at my pastor’s sermons. And yes, indeed, the sermons were better than the audios because of his presence.

    • Rick Owen

      Generally speaking, the ministry of the word should include the body of Christ as participants in dialogue and discussion, not only as spectators of one person presenting a monologue.

      More thoughts here:

      • Mary Moser

        Rick, I really don’t want my pastor’s sermon interrupted with dialogue. I do want discussion by the body though. I have long wished we might do as Zinzendorf’s Moravian church. They hung around after the sermon for the very purpose of discussing it. I requested that his be done in one church where I was a member many years ago and we did it. It was great

        I don’t want my pastor’s excellent preaching interrupted by members of the body. I do want discussion such as was done by Zinzendorf’s church, which met with the preacher after the service for discussion of the sermon. In a church I attended many years ago I suggested that we have such a discussion. The pastor was thrilled with the idea and both he and the body loved the discussions.

        • Rick Owen

          I agree, Mary, about not interrupting the sermon (or any other presentation, for that matter). In fact, the instructions the apostle Paul gave to the church at Corinth were to listen first, then examine the presentation or teaching (i.e., follow up with questions, comments, discussion, etc.). However, he also had in mind, at least in instances where there were enough qualified teachers (or prophets), to let more than one person speak — but to do it in an orderly and edifying way, one at a time; yet also with some flexibility, allowing at times for extemporaneous interjections to be made as people were compelled to share something especially pertinent.

          “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Cor. 14:29-32).

          The tradition most widely followed today (of focusing on one man and his sermon) is not one we should be afraid to broaden or enrich with greater diversity. The norm should be for the body of Christ to function as a multi-gifted body, not as a permanently-idle audience for one man’s sermon week after week.

          Christ, as the Head of His body, works through every member of the His body — not just one or a few ‘special’ or ‘ordained’ members (1 Cor. 12:14ff). Every believer has been chosen and ‘ordained’ (set apart and commissioned) as a member of God’s royal priesthood, holy nation and people for His own possession . . . “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10).

          As you think back over Jesus’ earthly ministry — not only as a Rabbi, but the Lord of the universe — consider how much give-and-take there was in His teaching. Sometimes He would ask questions of those He was teaching. Other times, people would address Him with comments or questions. Some people would even interrupt Jesus to interject their own remarks.

          Not once, that I can recall, did Jesus ever say, “Hey, who do you think you are? Why are you interrupting Me (of all people)? Who said you could speak?” There was a spontaneous, almost rough-and-tumble at times, type of exchange and dialogue that was commonly accepted and used by Jesus in His ministry. Jesus mixed, mingled and interacted with people very freely and unpretentiously, in a very down-to-earth way.

          The only rebuke Jesus ever delivered to people in His exchanges with them related to their self-righteousness, hidden motives and agendas, and stubborn unbelief. Otherwise, He was very open and conversant in almost every setting in which He spoke or taught.

          This method of bi-directional or multi-directional communication was the practice of the synagogue and culture in which Jesus lived. Any Jewish man, prophet, prophetess, Rabbi, Pharisee or Scribe was allowed to speak when they wanted to during their religious meetings.

          Even in the Greek pagan forums, where sophisticated rhetoric and cleverness were sought out, the apostle Paul and others swapped remarks and reasoned with the people they addressed (as Alan Knox’s article I linked in my first reply to you points out).

          • Mary Moser

            Very interesting comments, Rick Owen. I love your spirit! (Which makes me wonder if you had an ancestor named John Owen.)In my pastor’s study groups, we pewsters do interject questions and comments. Some of what you write about Christ’s and Paul’s ministries reminds me of street ministry, and, with my being inclined to be stubborn as all get out, I’m thinking how street assemblies I saw years ago differ from the assembly of believers as on the Lord’s Day.

            • Rick Owen

              Thanks for the kind exchange, Mary. I’m not aware of any relation to John Owen, but I have benefitted from some of his writings and faithful example. However, I am painfully aware each day of my relation to Adam — which drives me to trust Christ more and more. No other hope or rest to be found, or pedigree worth claiming, but in Him!

              You’re welcome to browse a variety of resources on our fellowship’s website: Our passion is to have more of Christ, and to be more like Him in saving and serving others, even when sharing in His sufferings, both individually and corporately.

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  • bob fyall

    Christopher Ash’s comments get to the very heart of the mystery of preaching. We need to avoid phrases such as ‘explain the passage’ which in effect produce exegetical lectures. Two points :
    1 The Word uniquely becomes flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ, but must also be embodiedin the particularity, even idiosyncrasies of the preacher. This requires a’real presence’ and the experience of fallible human words faithfully expounding the written word to lead us to the Living Word.

    2 Thus the preacher is the ‘visual aid’not in the sense of being there to look at but in being part of a real encounter with the Living Christ.

    Thanks, Christopher

    • Rick Owen

      The New Covenant reality found in the New Testament is that the Head of the Body, Jesus Christ, works by His Spirit, and the gifts given by His Spirit, through every member of His body, not just certain ‘special’ or ‘ordained’ persons (pastors, preachers) or activities (preaching) within it. “For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12:14).

      Not only should any preacher, speaker, teacher within a Christian assembly exemplify Christ when he exercises his gift(s), every saint should do the same as a fellow priest and member of God’s holy nation and chosen people (1 Pet. 2:9). This is how the body of Christ matures — by the body working as a real body . . . with living, moving, functioning parts (Eph. 4:16), not as a passive audience for a preacher from whom we expect too much.

      More thoughts here:

  • Michael Snow

    We would also do well to remember the word of a great preacher who noted the “missing jewel” in our assemblies: “Worship”(Tozer).