Jim Samra, pastor of Calvary Church and author of The Gift of Church, spoke to my class this week on the church. His main point was that the Greek term for church, ekklesia, which means “assembly” rather than “called out ones,” is deeply rooted in the Old Testament.
God cut his covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai “in the day of the assembly” (Deut. 4:10; cf. 9:10; 18:16), and subsequent generations of Israelites reenacted that day when they gathered around the tabernacle in “the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1-3; cf. 1 Chr. 29:10, 20). So when Jesus told Peter that “on this rock I will build my assembly” (Matt. 16:18), he was saying that his gathering of believers was the fulfillment of Israel’s assembly.
The tabernacle was a portable Mount Sinai, and when Israel gathered there for worship they were pulling that historical, nation-defining event into the future. In the same way, when the church assembles for worship we are pulling our future, heavenly assembly into the present (Heb. 12:18-24). Just as God was uniquely present at Sinai and in the tabernacle, so the Lord Jesus is present in a unique way whenever the church assembles (1 Cor. 5:4; Matt. 18:20).
Jim’s talk, and his book, are a powerful explanation and exhortation for the importance of church. It is difficult to hear Jim’s passion and biblical exegesis and not think that few of us truly appreciate what it means to assemble as God’s people.
Here are a few of Jim’s applications, in no certain order.
1. If the heavenly assembly will include people from every tribe and tongue, then the church which anticipates this assembly should be as diverse as possible. Some regions, such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, may be fairly monolithic, but the most diverse group in any community must be the church. We lose this diversity when we divide into separate services for worship styles or when we exclude others who are not in our racial or socio-economic class. A church will have a common language and geographic location, but any other commonality hinders our ability to foreshadow our future, heavenly assembly.
2. Since the heavenly assembly contains members from every nation, the church should remove patriotism from its worship services. Will there be an American flag in our future assembly? Then why is it here now?
3. Our worship services should facilitate the experience of God’s presence. We must not interrupt our worship to give announcements, but should get them out of the way at the beginning or end of the service. And rather than rattle off the names of those who are ill, why not mention them in the pastoral prayer? In this way we include them as part of worship rather than as an item of information.
4. And here is one which Jim alluded to and which I want to take a step further. If corporate worship is where we access the power of God (Matt. 16:19; Eph. 3:20-21; Jam. 5:14-15) and experience the presence of Jesus in a unique way; and if Jesus is most powerfully present in the preaching of the Word and Sacrament; then what are the implications for multi-site venues? What might be lost when the preacher cannot even see his congregation, but is delivering his sermon from another part of town?