When God Goes Missing
Why do you go to church? When I ask that question of Christians who attend churches where they are members, I am usually surprised and dismayed by the answers I hear. “I really like our minister. His messages are powerful.” “I think it is important for my family to be in church.” “The church we attend rescued our son from drugs.” “Our church has a strong youth program. In fact, that is why we started attending this specific church.” “The music program attracts people from all over the city. That is why we ended up there.” “The messages and the whole service are so uplifting.” “I go and usually take one of my friends because it is fun and entertaining.” “I want to be involved in ministries to less fortunate and hurting people. Our church is known all through the city for such outreach.”
These answers made the list because I have heard each one multiple times. Most of these answers are related in some way to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they miss the one true reason that God calls us to His house: to meet with Him. I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard in the last forty years, “Why do I go to church? I go to meet with God.”
As our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, God calls us to meet with Him. He had Moses build the tabernacle for this purpose. He said to Moses and Israel in Exodus 29:4, “There I will meet you and speak to you.” He used similar words with Solomon and Israel when the temple was built. The people were going to God’s house to meet with Him.
In the New Testament, Jesus set about designing and building a new temple where He would meet with His people. He told His disciples that He would be present and meet with them wherever they gathered: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20).
Those same disciples understood what Jesus meant as they saw His church being erected by the Holy Spirit:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
God lives in the midst of the gathering of His people. This is the temple that Jesus is building.
In the Old and New Testaments, worship was what happened when God met with His people. Therefore, everything we do in worship is in response to His presence with His people. Before we meet with Him, there is thought and prayer anticipating His presence. The call to worship and hymn of adoration are our initial responses to His presence. No part of our worship can be validly separated from His presence.
I have gone to some length to define our primary purpose for gathering with God’s people because the evangelical church has a proclivity to be casual in its activities in God’s sanctuary. If our main purpose in attending church is to meet with God Himself, then we dare not approach the Almighty with a carelessness that we do not see from even the angels. Some justify a relaxed attitude by saying, “We are striving to be authentic as we meet.” Others have pointed out that many churches are meeting in buildings that were once stores, shops, schools, garages, and so on. The building where our church currently meets was a new car showroom in what was once an automobile dealership. Those mundane surroundings do not lend themselves to what we consider to be “church ceremony.”
However, such excuses do not change the primary biblical purpose of attending church. Whether I am going to a cathedral or a car showroom to gather with God’s people, I am still meeting with the transcendent, triune Creator and Redeemer, who is majestic in His glory, holy in all His ways, and before whom the great seraphim cover their faces. He is most certainly gracious in His immanence. But the mercy and grace of Calvary didn’t eradicate His transcendence.
When I discover that my approach to God in the assembling of His people is “casual,” I cannot blame it on an effort to be authentic or on my informal surroundings. If I am honest with myself, I must confess that I have forgotten the primary purpose of my attendance. I have forgotten His presence and His true identity. Sometimes, the blindness and deafness that once kept me from seeing and hearing Him partially returns and prevents me from perceiving His nearness and His character.
The immanence of the transcendent God speaks to our preparation for, participation in, and parting from worship. When I am late coming to meet with Him, I must ask myself why I took great pains that week to be early to my doctor’s appointment or to the meeting with my banker. When I leave immediately after the message, I must ask myself why I refrained from singing the hymn of response—refusing to reply to God Himself who just spoke to me. Why am I already out the door when God is giving me His benediction? As His child, why am I refusing to be blessed by my Father?
Has God’s presence gone missing from our assemblies? Biblical theology tells me He must be present. Thus, nonchalance is a perilous trifling with the Holy.