As is the Manner of Some: When Pastors Disassemble the Gathering

By: Veritéetfeu Topic: Ecclesiology
Image: Ben White

I haven’t read much from The Gospel Coalition (TGC) since 2018. That was the year I began to realize that rather than build up, their content slyly compromises the Gospel message and undermines the growth and maturation of the Church.

For instance, in 2018, they published a piece entitled “How to Be a Safe Space for the Same-Sex Attracted”. Written by Rachel Gilson, the article essentially asks the Body to put down our Bibles and silence the Gospel so that church members who identify as “same-sex attracted” feel safe in coming out to us. Rather than preach repentance and encourage their sanctification through the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, Gilson charges us to “listen, listen, listen” when the same-sex attracted share their homosexual desires, and she suggests that we read various worldly resources that we educate ourselves on, and can be more compassionate towards, same-sex attracted individuals. I wrote a response to TGC and Gilson here

Later that year, during the 2018 TGC Women’s Conference, TGC hosted a “women of color gathering” as a “safe space” largely for Black, Christian women to vent and lament over perceived offenses from “the White Church”. Event organizers not only explicitly discouraged our White sisters in Christ from attending, the tone and rhetoric during and surrounding the event was divisive, and news of the gathering sparked disputes amongst Believers online and off. I wrote a piece addressing concerns with that event here

With this context in mind, I wasn’t surprised to learn of TGC’s most recent nonsensical appeal to the Church. In “Why Our Church Canceled Christmas Service”, Pastor Fletcher Lang, founder of the Boston Center for Biblical Counseling, lists several reasons his church won’t be gathering for worship this Sunday, which this year falls on Christmas Day. 

The thing is, neither of Pastor Lang’s reasons is Biblically sound, his sharing this information isn’t edifying to the Body, and I am concerned his take is yet another sign of a dangerous trajectory churches have been on since the 2020 Covid closures (which TGC supported, and I was against, of course). So, as I have with other TGC offerings, I am writing to express a few concerns with Pastor Lang’s article here.

“A City on a Hill Cannot Be Hidden” – Matthew 5:14

According to Pastor Lang, there are three primary reasons his church, City on a Hill Church, won’t be meeting this Sunday: 1) they are a church plant, 2) most of his members will be out of town, and 3) his church is based in a mostly secular town. 

“Like many church plants, we meet in a shared space. We can’t just roll up on Sunday, flip a few switches, and be ready for a church service. We need to put out chairs, set up sound equipment, and place signs outside,” he writes. 

While they are able to “roll up” to set up on any other Sunday, Pastor Lang says this Sunday is different, as many of their most reliable helpers will be out of town.

“The problem is around 80 percent of our church travels for Christmas,” he adds. “The secular nature of the city also means our neighbors are uninterested in visiting our church on Christmas morning. Our area is so far post-Christian that it’s exceedingly unlikely a sudden influx of non-Christians will wake up to visit our church on Christmas Day,” Pastor Lang goes on to explain. 

With all due respect to Pastor Lang, and with as much charity as I can muster for what he and his leadership team seem to deem legitimate hindrances to his church’s ability to gather this Sunday, these reasons all sound like excuses. Worst yet, they sound like temptations that he nor his leadership is willing to flee. 

Yet, the Lord is faithful, and there are a few ways of escape! 

Earlier in the piece, Pastor Lang notes that his church membership is made up of about 100 congregants. Even as 80% of them will be traveling, 20% (or 20 members) will still be in town. That’s more than enough to gather for worship, but small enough to decrease the usual amount of labor required to set up for service. And if they are unable to access their shared space, the smaller numbers should allow them to find an alternative space or meet in someone’s home. In the time Pastor Lang and his leadership team mulled over the “tough decision” to close their church on Sunday, one could reasonably consider how they might have instead devised a plan to execute such alternatives. 

Moreover, given that City on a Hill Church is a church plant, it goes without saying that they’re located in a town of mostly unbelievers. Isn’t that the point of planting churches – to go where the Gospel isn’t? So one is right to question why being surrounded by unbelievers factored into the leadership’s decision to cancel services. Furthermore, as a church plant in a largely secular community, it stands to reason that City on a Hill is likely the only church in their area (or one of very few in their town). Isn’t that all the more reason to keep their doors open? Who’s to say that there wouldn’t be Believers traveling to their town for Christmas who would have desired to visit? Who’s to say there aren’t residents already in that town the Lord has been drawing to Himself who might have repented after hearing the Gospel preached this Sunday morning? 

Certainly, practically-speaking, such occurrences may not be probable, but they’re not impossible. In fact, with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). It’s never been our job as Christians to play the numbers game when deciding whether it’s worth our time to avail ourselves of feeding the flock or evangelizing the lost. Pastors are to simply feed the sheep and the Great Commission commands that Believers simply take the Gospel to every creature (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2; Mark 16:15). We simply sow the seeds. It is the Lord who gets the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). 

If nothing else, Jesus has declared that a city on a hill cannot be hidden and that a lamp cannot be put under a basket (Matthew 5:13-15). Yet, through the decision to close their doors this Sunday, City on a Hill Church is effectively hiding itself and dimming its own light.

Image: Jodie Walton

“Not Forsaking the Assembling of Ourselves Together” – Hebrews 10:25

After listing their primary reasons for canceling service this Sunday, Pastor Lang concludes his piece by noting that he and his team’s decision ultimately boils down to Christian liberty. 

“[W]e have freedom to meet or not on special Sundays like this,” he argues. 

“We don’t think canceling one Sunday worship gathering puts us in danger of violating the Hebrews 10:25 command to not forsake gathering together. In this passage, the author of Hebrews addresses a group of people in the church who have made it a habit of forsaking the gathering. One Sunday does not a habit make. Let him who has never missed a church service throw the first stone!”

I can appreciate his attempt to support his decision with Scripture, and he isn’t wrong in pointing out that many of us sometimes miss a church service. Yet, my concerns remain for a few reasons. 

First, he admits that their decision to cancel service is indeed forsaking the gathering, even if it is for this “one Sunday”. Second, as previously shared, their reasons for closing this “one Sunday” are frivolous, which sets a precedent that will only make future closings more tempting. Third, the warning against forsaking the gathering is that we AVOID such an act becoming a habit, but the warning doesn’t apply only in the event of it already being a habit. Fourth, even as an individual congregant might miss a Sunday service for one reason or another, that individual is still accountable to the church and may be subject to church discipline depending on his circumstances. That individual also will have to answer to God only for himself

Pastors who cancel worship services disassemble the gathering altogether, which places a stumbling block before their entire flock, especially those who may have gathered otherwise. It also has consequences for the Pastors, who have to give account to God for themselves and the souls they oversee (Hebrews 13:17). 

“Pastors who cancel worship services disassemble the gathering altogether, which places a stumbling block before their entire flock, especially those who may have gathered otherwise.”


As is the Manner of Some” – Hebrews 10:25

This is largely why canceling in-person gatherings in the wake of Covid was ultimately an unloving and unbiblical decision, even if leaders who took their cues from the world’s “experts” thought it wise or a best practice. No matter how one hopes to spin this issue (as the TGC attempted to here), these men left their sheep without a shepherd, “so they were scattered” and “became food for wild beasts” (Ezekiel 34:5).  For this reason, many still have yet to return to gathering in person since most churches closed their doors in 2020.   Certainly, some fell away because they were never of us (1 John 2:19), but some may have fallen into self-deception, thinking they don’t need the Body after all. Others may be struggling with feelings of abandonment by their church leaders and church families. Still others may have lost trust in their leaders’ ability to shepherd them at the height of uncertain times, or they may have lost respect for their ability to stand in the face of worldly pressures. Again, the sheep were left to the beasts!

Yet, many Pastors quoted the same sentiments as Pastor Lang and his leadership team. They, too, claimed that they weren’t violating Hebrews 10:25 because the closures were “temporary” and for “special” or “extenuating circumstances”. Ironically, Hebrews 10:25 warns the Body against forsaking the assembling of ourselves that we be an encouragement to one another as the days grow evil before Christ returns. Indeed there is no circumstance more “extenuating” than times of persecution, yet God exhorts the Saints to gather even then! 

Nevertheless, among Pastor Lang and his leadership team is a growing number of church leaders who “think” their decision to disassemble the gathering is a matter of Christian liberty, even as it ultimately disobeys God, spiritually harms the Saints and is a terrible witness before the world. 

Consider that just as The Gospel Coalition is platforming this error, a recent article in the New York Times also covers the phenomenon of Protestant churches deciding to cancel worship services this Sunday.  

“On Christmas Day, StoneBridge will offer a simple community breakfast, but no religious services,” executive Pastor Mitch Chitwood tells the Times.  

“‘We still believe in the Sunday morning experience, but we have to meet people where they are,’” Chitwood says. 

JD Greear, pastor of Summit Church and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, shares Chitwood’s sentiments. 

“‘Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and it ought to be a day you spend with the family of Christ,’” Greear tells the Times. “‘But I don’t want to be the Pharisees of this generation, where I turn it into some kind of rule that there’s never an exception for.’” 

As a result, Greear says his church will be following its approach to its church closures in 2020, which Greear describes as “a year of exception”, and Summit Church will be closed this Sunday. 

Greear says he and his family will instead worship together at home, then go for a walk. No word on what his church members will be doing this Sunday. In fact, who cares?  Amirite? 

Image: Dylan Ferreira

I Said All of This To Say

To be clear, I’m not arguing that churches be open this Sunday because it’s Christmas. I’m making the plea that we continue with service as usual despite the Christmas holiday.  As I’ve previously written, December 25th is just another day in the Lord. But this year, as it did in 2016, it falls on a Sunday – the first day of the week, which is the day Believers have gathered for corporate worship for 2000 years in celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:1-2; Acts 20:7).

And while I’m also not arguing that we only gather on Sundays merely for the sake of tradition, I am concerned with our growing habit and increasing willingness to forgo our Sunday gatherings for whatever frivolous or worldly purposes, undoubtedly to our spiritual detriment. 

As the Times article highlights…

“The American church landscape looks quite different from how it did the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. While some Pastors stressed the importance of worshiping in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, sometimes in defiance of public health recommendations, some in the same cohort also experimented with sophisticated online productions that have reshaped what it means to “go to church” in the 21st century.”

In other words, Covid church closures have introduced to the American church a new manner of worship for some, and many pastors are leading their flock in these practices. Rather than remain faithful to their responsibility to search out their members and oversee their spiritual growth and health, some overseers are leaving their sheep to fend for themselves. 

In his article, Pastor Lang asks church members to think the best of their leaders and to give them grace to make these decisions. However, if they’ve been feeding their sheep as they ought, men like Lang, Greear and their respective leadership teams should well expect at least some of their parishioners to respectfully question such decisions. “Test every spirit” means even pastors are subject to examination (1 John 4). 

Pragmatism has its place, of course, but not at the expense of God’s instructions and wisdom. After all, our warfare is spiritual and God’s ways are higher than ours (2 Corinthians 10:4-5; Ephesians 6:12; Isaiah 55:8-9). We sincerely must exercise sharpened discernment in these evil days. 

If pragmatism must win out, let it be so that the works of God may be carried out. In the Times article, Greear argues that his decision to close his church this Sunday is akin to Jesus healing on the Sabbath, seemingly implying his church closure breaks a Pharisaical rule that he might meet a greater spiritual need. But if Greear applied this account genuinely, he would see that Jesus healing on the Sabbath is all the more reason he should keep his church open on Sunday. Christ, who is Lord of the Sabbath, is our rest, and we enjoy His rest in this life when we hear, trust in and live by His word (Hebrews 4). We rest when we put down our own efforts and simply to submit to Him, and one thing He has asked us to submit to is our coming together for corporate worship. Indeed, the Church will know our final rest in the Lord in Heaven, where we will be worshiping the Lord joyfully and corporately!

If pragmatism must win out, consider that the Christmas season is known as the most depressing time of year for many. Feelings of hopelessness, loneliness and stress are at all time highs this time of year.  Why can’t church leaders keep church doors open for such individuals to come receive encouragement in the Lord? To feel the love of Christ? To feel a sense of community and belonging in a world that ultimately rejects Believers and enslaves sinners? And why is there a presumption that every church member has family to visit during the holidays? For the sake of Christ, many Believers lose relationships with some of their families according to the flesh. So what of these individuals when they also can’t gather with their adopted families in Christ?

Of all the Church has endured with the world’s attempts to threaten and force us to cancel our weekly gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s disheartening to see some church leaders and members now choosing to forsake them. 

And yet, I knew this time was coming. I knew Covid closures were ultimately an attack on the Body of Christ and only the beginning of a massive falling away.

Thankfully, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18).  But I deeply loathe and lament reading content from The Gospel Coalition and listening to Pastors like Lang and Greear when they appear to be working to undermine her edification.