Some Sundays I feel like I don’t matter.
And I’m the lead pastor at my local church. Yet, some Sundays it seems like my participation in the service has little to no importance, like my preaching has little weight, like nobody would notice if I were absent, and I sometimes fall under the impression that whether or not I sing is inconsequential. And it’s not because I have low self-esteem. It’s because I need to constantly be reminded of the mysterious and glorious purpose that God is accomplishing when his people gather together for worship.
Does anything special happen when God’s people gather together?
The question reminds me of a famous parable, a story about three stone masons building a cathedral in a small town. A visitor, while strolling by the work scene, asks the three stonemasons what they’re doing. The first stone mason responds: I’m doing my job. The second stone mason responds: I’m cutting these stones into exactly the correct size and specifications. And so the visitor asks the third stone mason the very same question. And after pausing to answer the question, the third stone mason response: I’m building a temple for the glory of God!
I hope you will count it polite of me to be very frank and straightforward about my goal in writing this article: my goal is to help you think about your church’s Sunday Gathering like the third stone mason. When you gather together with your local church, you are building a temple for the glory of God.
And I believe that the fight to meaningfully engage in Sunday morning worship is essentially the fight to look past what is seen into what is unseen. Charles Darwin cannot gather together with your local church and explain what is happening with an evolutionary, materialistic explanation. Charles Darwin cannot gather together with your local church and see everything you see, hear everything you hear, and experience everything you experience. So fight to look past the preacher, past the bread and wine, past the musicians, and to see behind it all the very hands of God building a temple for his own glory.
This is how Paul motivates the Gentiles in the book of Ephesians. He says:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Everybody experiences barriers to engaging with their local church on Sunday mornings. But a first century Gentile experienced far more barriers than you or I ever do. You might struggle to engage on Sunday mornings because you wish the seats were more comfortable, or the preacher were more animated, or because you sat alone in the lunchroom growing up and a permanent social anxiety has claimed your communal life. But a Gentile would have struggled gathering together with a first-century local church for different reasons. Because of their complicated history with God’s people, their participation in the church would have been marked by incredible insecurity. No doubt their imaginations were bombarded by questions like: Why should I gather with the church? What could I possibly offer the church? The Jewish people grew up with the Bible, but I have zero Bible knowledge. The Jewish people grew up with prophets and priests, but I’ve never heard a sermon. Where do I fit in?
So Paul smothers them with a couple different visuals of who they were before Christ in verses 11-18. He employs the visual of ethnicity: “you were foreigners” is what he says in the text. They didn’t speak God’s language. And then he employs the visual of geography: “you were far off” is what he says in the text, as if to indicate that they were off God’s map. And then he employs the visual of architecture: there was a “dividing wall of hostility” is what he says in the text, to communicate that they were locked out of God’s presence.
And Paul uses all of these visuals to say one thing: Jesus changed all of that.
What Paul says next must have dropped their jaws. He continues not with a mere invitation for participating in the early church, but by encouraging them that they are essential to the structural integrity of what God is building as the church. Its cornerstone is Christ: everything is built around what Jesus Christ has accomplished for sinners. Its foundation is the apostles and prophets: the church is built on the New Testament and Old Testament scriptures. And when believers, Jewish and Gentile, gather together for worship, Paul says that they are being built together into a dwelling place for God.
On Sunday mornings when the alarm clock rages on your bedside table, and you still manage to round the children together and buckle them in and, after anxiously searching for a parking space within minutes of the call to worship, you usher the family through the front door of the church, what are you doing?
Christian #1 might respond: I’m just trying to get my kids to church. Christian #2 might respond: I’m just doing what good Christians are supposed to do on Sunday mornings. But like the third stone mason, Christian #3 responds this way: I’m building a temple for the glory of God.
Let’s take a moment to be very specific about how to meaningfully engage with your church’s Sunday Gathering. There are more than three, but for starters’ sake, here are three non-optional roles that you play in your local church:
1. You are part of your local church’s preaching ministry: Note that I didn’t write preaching team. 99% of a local church’s congregation will never preach and 99% of a local church’s congregation should never preach, but preaching is not the sole responsibility of the preacher. It’s the responsibility of the church. While he is preaching, participate with the sermon with prayers, amens, loud shouts, and imagination. I can tell you from a few years of weekly preaching that my worst sermons are those when I feel like I am merely preaching for the church. And my best sermons are those when I sense that I am preaching for the church with the church, when it seems as if the church is coming around me and lifting the sermon with their involvement and shaping the sermon with their presence, like we are together for the proclamation of the gospel. Your preacher’s sermons should be impacted by your presence and if they aren’t, you might just be watching the preaching ministry.
2. You are part of your local church’s singing ministry: The Scriptures are clear that believers sing to God. What is mysterious is that the Scriptures are also equally clear that believers are to sing to one another. Paul says, “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” The Psalmist says: “one generation shall praise thy works to another.” God has sovereignly ordained that Christians should be exposed to other Christians singing praises to God in different circumstances. I am a married man currently living in a healthy, happy season of life but on Sundays, I need to see from my church members that it is possible to praise God in different circumstances, to praise Him in singleness, to praise Him in depression, to praise Him in the midst of cancer. The singing of other church members prepares me for other seasons that God may withhold or shepherd me into. Like your church’s preaching ministry, your church’s singing ministry should be louder because of your presence.
3. You are part of your local church’s practice of communion: Communion isn’t “quiet time.” Before participating in communion, we encourage our church members to repent with one another and rejoice with one another. Husbands should lead their wives to the communion table by holding their wife’s hand or putting their arm around their wife’s shoulder and praying with her. Moms and Dads should take a moment to teach their kids why they are eating the bread and drinking the wine. No matter your sacramentology, communion is “all hands on deck.”
Your presence or absence at the Sunday Gathering is not inconsequential. The sovereign mind of God has creatively designed the gathering together of Christians in local churches to uniquely hold his presence like nowhere else in the world. This is what Paul is getting at by saying, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” And the early church gatherings were unlike anything in the world.
The Roman world, where so much of early Christianity took place, had a strong but sadly flawed understanding of the household. At best, the Roman household included concepts of “identity” and “sharing wealth” but at its ugliest, it included concepts of violence and alienation. Roman law vested husbands with absolute sovereignty over life and death within the household. There’s a historical court record of a husband who beat his wife to death in early Rome because she had a drink of wine.
His neighbors approved of this decision.
These are the types of people Paul is writing to in Ephesians. They would have known what it felt like to have their identities belittled by their mothers. They would have known what it was like to have the hands of their fathers, created for care, instead put on them with violent intentions. Some of you know what this feels like. And to you, God says: “I know your household has failed you. I’m building you a new one.”
And so Jesus says, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” He will rob Satan’s household of all its bricks and stones and, with them, he will build the household of God. And to build his church, Christ will carry his cross, he will die on his cross, God will resurrect him, and he will carry that cross to Satan’s house address to wield it like a sledgehammer. Brick by brick, stone by stone, he will tear down Satan’s household and once he has reduced it to rubble, he will look through the heaping remains. He will seek you out. He will pick you up. And then, with his own blood, he will wash away the graffiti that sin and satan had spray painted all over you. And then, he will build his temple with you.
You, the very last person you ever thought any skilled builder would ever want to use for any building of any value, Christ will build his church with you.
So if you ever wonder: what do I have to offer a local church? What do I have to bring to a local church? The answer is yourself. Yourself is what you bring to a local church. Yourself, even if you never preach on Sunday. Yourself, even if you never touch a microphone on Sunday. Yourself, even if you never lead a Sunday team. Yourself, even if it feels like you don’t matter to the gathering.
Say yes to Sundays.
Note: before these words formed an article for you to read, they formed a sermon for a local church. You can watch the sermon right here: