When You Don’t Feel Like Going to Church: The Puritans on Worshipping Together

In highschool, Sundays were my favorite days. If I had to miss school or a hangout with friends, I would be disappointed, but if I had to miss church, I felt off for the whole week. I loved hearing the message, singing our songs, eating a big lunch, and laying around in someone’s living room talking about anything. And when Sunday was over, I couldn’t wait until the next one.

Years later in university, Sundays became my least favorite day. I started taking medication that made me sick from Saturday to Monday, and going to church became the time I had to pretend to be happy when all I felt was depressed. On Saturday nights I dreaded the next morning, and on Sunday nights I fell asleep happy. Of course, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know how to get back to where I was.

As my health improved, Sundays became more enjoyable, but leftover feelings of dissatisfaction still come back every now and then. As an introvert, Sundays tire me out more than any work day or social event; the whole time I have to be “on,” and I sometimes feel like I don’t really connect with anyone.

Whether it has lasted for a couple of weeks or a couple of years, many of us go through phases when we don’t feel like going to church. This is when our trusty friends, the Puritans, come to the rescue again. Many believe that when it comes to their theology of the church, the Puritans only cared about following strict rules. Though they did say a lot about things like keeping the Sabbath and adhering to the regulative principle, this was not all they said, and they didn’t talk about the church in a cold manner. For them, an essential part of the church was cultivating love, peace, and unity between believers as they worship God together. Here are four lessons I’ve learned from them:

  1. The local church is a group of people bound together by a spiritual and voluntary love

Love in the local church is not just a natural love that waxes and wanes, but a spiritual love that is maintained by a real commitment. John Owen defined the church as men and women united by the internal bond of the Holy Spirit as well as the external bond of their covenanting together. Similar to a husband and wife, they “give themselves unto the Lord and to one another.”[1] The same can be said of multiple local churches working together. Their love for one another is a special grace of the Spirit that “animate[s] them unto all those mutual acts that are proper”[2] to their relationship, including giving advice and assisting one another in ministry. Thus, a principal mark of the church is love[3] that is “mutual, intense, peculiar,” “affectionate [and] sincere . . . in all things, without dissimulation.”[4] This love even reaches out to the world, “unconfined as the beams of the sun, or as the showers of rain that fall on the whole earth.”[5] It shown by praying for deliverance from sin and the devil, and taking action to bring relief.

Owen does not hold back when he talks about love as a main characteristic of the church: “love is the fountain of all duties towards God and man (Matt. 22:37), the substance of all rules that concern the saints, the bond of communion, ‘the fulfilling of the law,’ (Rom.13:8-10), the advancement of the honor of the Lord Jesus, and the glory of the gospel.”[6]

 

  1. Fellowship between Christians has an immense amount of benefits, and this makes public worship more important than private worship

We are often willing to spend whatever it costs to get a health or food product that boasts of many benefits, but did you know there are also benefits of worshipping with other people at church on Sundays? Richard Baxter lists eight benefits of fellowship in his Christian Ecclesiastics:

  • Life: though Christ is the Head of the church, “yet the nerves and other parts must convey that life to the members; and if any member be cut off or separated from the body, it is separated also from the head, and perishes”[7]
  • Strength: “in the army of the Lord of hosts we may safely march on, when stragglers are caught or killed by the weakest enemy”[8]
  • Love: unity and love exist in a circular relationship so that “concord is the womb and soil of love, although it be first its progeny.”[9] Thus, when the Christian sees God’s grace in others, they are drawn to love and be close to them, even insofar as that they might “love God himself in [them]”[10]
  • Beauty: though concord without harmony can still bring strength, it does not bring the “truly beauteous symmetry and delectable harmony” that concord in something good does[11]
  • Success in ministry and spreading the gospel: “love, and peace, and concord are such virtues, as all the world is forced to applaud”[12]
  • Peace: “the very exercise of love to one another doth sweeten our lives and duties” thus making it easier to live a godly life[13]
  • Excellence: fellowship mirrors the church’s future state in heaven

We tend to think that our “alone time” with God is the best or only part of having a healthy relationship with him, but it’s actually better to worship with others than alone because it glorifies him more and brings us more comfort. This doesn’t mean you should forsake one for the other, but it does mean that when your local church gathers, it is better for you to be worshipping with them than to be worshipping alone.

 

  1. Christians should strive to value public peace over private peace for the sake of unity and proper worship in the local church

If you don’t want to go to church because you don’t really like the people or are in a tiff with someone, Jeremiah Burroughs’ advice for you is to value the public over the private. He explains, “it is because we have such private spirits that there are such contentions among us. Were we more public-spirited, our contentions would vanish.”[14]

Your relationship with other believers has a direct impact on your worship of God. Commenting on Matthew 5:23-24, Burroughs writes from the perspective of God saying, “my worship shall stay till you be reconciled. I love my worship . . . but I must have peace and love among yourselves first.”[15] Then from his perspective Burroughs explains,

I beseech you let us not make God stay too long. Remember while you are wrangling and quarrelling God stays on you all this while . . . some of you have made him wait upon you for an acceptable duty of worship many weeks, yea it may be many months, and yet your spirits are not in temper to offer a sacrifice to God. What a fearful evil it is then to stand out in a stubborn, sullen, dogged manner, refusing to be reconciled![16]

 

  1. In the biggest crises of their lives, Christians can be most helped by other Christians

It’s impossible to get through trials alone, and some of the most supportive people in your life will be Christians in your local church. John Bunyan described this by comparing the Christian life to a journey that requires friendship. For example, in one of his books on the church (written entirely in poetry), he says that when two Christians see each other,

These should as mother’s sons, when they do meet
In a strange country, one another greet
With welcome; come in, brother, how dost do?
Whither art wand’ring? Prithee let me know
Thy state? Dost want or meat, or drink, or cloth?
Art weary? Let me wash thy feet, I’m loth
Thou shouldest depart, abide with me all night;
Pursue thy journey with the morning light.[17]

Bunyan draws out this travelling metaphor at length in Pilgrim’s Progress. Though it is not a systematic treatise on ecclesiology, it still has lessons about Christians encouraging and helping each other through life. For example, when the main character Christian met another traveller, Faithful, “they went very lovingly on together, and had sweet discourse of all things that had happened to them in their pilgrimage.”[18] Even after Faithful tragically dies a martyr, Bunyan introduces a new friend by noting, “now I saw in my dream that Christian went not forth alone.”[19] In fact, Christian’s new friend Hopeful converted because he saw what happened when Faithful died. When Hopeful meets Christian, they “enter into a brotherly covenant,”[20] and soon go through Doubting Castle together where they are tempted to commit suicide, as well as Christian’s most difficult trial yet: crossing the river (a metaphor for death) to the Celestial City. When Christian waded into the river he began to sink and became delirious. He focused on his past failures and present despair and compared these to Hopeful’s successes, but Hopeful pointed him to Scripture and Christ, and Christian soon reached the shore. For Christian, one of the most immediate sources of God’s comfort in his worst times were his fellow travellers reminding him of what God says in his Word and how far God had brought him in his journey.

 

If you don’t feel like going to church, or even worse, feel like your relationship with your local church is dying, remind yourself of the real reasons we join together on Sundays—not to run programs, pretend we have our lives together, or go through the motions, but to worship God together, which is better than doing it alone since it brings him more glory and us more comfort.

 

[1] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1826; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 16:27.

[2] Ibid., 16:194.

[3] Ibid., 16:6, 137.

[4] Ibid., 16:137, 13:62.

[5] Ibid., 15:69.

[6] Ibid., 13:62.

[7] Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed., William Orme (James Duncan: London, 1830), 5:170.

[8] Ibid., 5:171.

[9] Ibid., 5:172.

[10] Ibid., 5:172. On the other hand, “if love dwells in us, God dwells in us.” 5:186.

[11] Ibid., 5:172.

[12] Ibid., 5:173.

[13] Ibid., 5:174.

[14] Jeremiah Burroughs, Irenicum: To the Lovers of Truth and Peace, Heart-Divisions Opened (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 375.

[15] Ibid., 434.

[16] Ibid., 434.

[17] John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan (ed., George Offor. Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1861), 2:587.

[18] Ibid., 3:117.

[19] Ibid., 3:132.

[20] Ibid., 3:132.

 

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