By Jim Law, Senior Pastor First Baptist Church Gonzales
[img_assist|nid=5978|title=Jim Law, Senior Pastor First Baptist Church Gonzales|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=94|height=100]Is missing church sinful? If you have the flu, many would be grateful you stayed home.
But I don’t think illness is the reason that absenteeism among Southern Baptists is so widespread.
Neither do I think that absenteeism can be explained by providential hindrances. According to a 2007 Lifeway Research study, Southern Baptists have some 16 million on the denominational role, however only 6.1 million show up for church on any given Sunday.
When you look at the numbers, it would take a lot of “oxen in the ditch” to explain a 10 million person discrepancy.
I would assert that widespread absenteeism occurs because of the sin of “forsaking.”
The writer of Hebrews spoke of this sin of forsaking the gathering of believers for worship and encouragement. He even noted that some were doing that very thing.
A. T. Robertson’s comments are insightful: “Already some Christians had formed the habit of not attending public worship, a perilous habit then and now.”
At the heart of church life is a covenant commitment that binds us together in common fellowship and purpose.
Our biblical identity is not a loose band of believers, but rather a body brought together under the tight cords of the new covenant.
We have not been well taught on what it means to be a people gathered into a local church by covenant, and yet this has historically been understood by Baptists to be the public witness that a person was indeed living as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
With the loss of a covenant conviction regarding church life, the sin of forsaking comes easily in our culture of individualism.
Nevertheless, we must return to the truth that God has always called His people to gather together.
We are given no indication that He ever intended for believers to think that they could make it on their own without the fellowship, nurture, instruction and encouragement of a local church.
The Old Testament illustrates this truth in stunning language.
The Day of Atonement carried with it a stiff judgment. God said in Leviticus, “for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy.”
The judgment for the one who neglected the Passover was equally sobering.
In Numbers 9:13 the Bible says such a “person was to be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the Lord at its appointed time.”
With such dire warnings can you imagine an Israelite ever thinking, “You know, I’m not into the feasts. I can serve God just as well in my own way. I don’t need the priests or the temple. I don’t need to offer the sacrificial lamb.” Such neglect and arrogance would have been deadly – literally.
I’m not arguing as a sabbatarian or a legalist, but we need to grasp the intensity of the Old Testament admonitions regarding the sanctity of Israel’s worship.
The gathering of the people of God was not an option for those under the old covenant.
This biblical fervor and understanding has certainly been present in Baptist history.
Greg Wills in his work Democratic Religion noted that during the Civil War, Southern Baptists removed an average of two percent of their membership annually for non-attendance, and at the same time their churches demonstrated rapid growth.
These Baptists believed that the ongoing, willful neglect of the gathering of the church was one of the worst transgressions one could commit, because it served as covering for every other sin.
While believers may be sluggish to embrace commitment to their local church, our culture understands the sin of forsaking.
I was reading on the Rotary International website some time ago and found this statement, “Rotarians count on one another to contribute their time to weekly meetings, committee work, and service events. One hundred percent attendance is urged and honored in Rotary. Try not only to attend all the meetings, but also to stay for the full program and give each speaker your complete attention.”
In another section on the Rotary website it reads, “If a member fails to attend as required, the member’s membership shall be subject to termination.” I think Rotary understands the sin of forsaking.
Little League understands too.
If you say to your son’s coach, “Coach, we don’t like practice and don’t really want to be identified with the team in that way. Just keep us on the roster (and the starting line-up) and we will show up when we feel like it.”
We all know such a response would be unacceptable. You can’t keep a team on the field with that type of lukewarmness.
Academia also understands the sin of forsaking.
One of our college students at LSU was touching base with her professor before an upcoming mission trip. She told him that she was going to miss one of the classes because of a mission trip.
He replied, “I don’t care if you are hung over or on a mission trip, you have two absences for the semester and that’s all.” Why would he be so demanding? Well, because the earning of a degree is to be marked with integrity and that is lost with poor attendance.
So, what would never be acceptable in a civic club, athletics, or in education is freely and without regard accepted when it comes to the things of Christ and His church.
I believe this is much of the reason why the church in North America has become ineffective.
We all commit to what we love. Jesus loved the church. He has called us to love one another, and we cannot do that in absentia.
The next time you are thinking about doing other things when your church is gathering, think again, and remember the dangers of forsaking.