Attendance at Public Worship
One of the effects of conversion is a new desire for the public worship of God. In regeneration, the Holy Spirit joins the soul to Christ, and through Christ the soul is united to all other believers, as members of the same body. The soul now finds itself drawn to the place where prayer is ‘wont to be made’ – where ‘two or three’ are gathered together in Christ’s name, where Christ himself is in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). ‘I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord’ (Psa. 122:1). The child of God loves the habitation of his house and the place where his honour dwelleth (Psa. 26:8). The public worship of God is better to him now than all else besides: ‘A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness’ (Psa. 84:10).
This desire for public worship continues with the people of God all their lives, to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes they feel it strongly, especially on the Sabbath day, when they see the ungodliness and Sabbath-breaking all around them, and the world lying ‘in wickedness’. The house of God becomes a place of refuge to them. When David fled from Saul it was to Nob, the city of priests and the place of the shewbread and the ephod, that he went (1 Sam. 21:1,4,8). ‘In the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me’ (Psa. 27:5). Their souls long for Christ and for the company of his people as a bird seeks to flee to her mountain (Psa. 11:1). They are glad, in the place of worship, to see even one or two others who fear the Lord and who think upon his name (Mal. 3:16). Their fellow believers may be of little consequence in the eyes of the world, but they are God’s jewels, sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty, and they bring the savour of heaven with them. ‘They that fear thee will be glad when they see me; because I have hoped in thy word’ (Psa. 119:74).
Another time when the desire for public worship may be strong with God’s people is when they are deprived of it by providence – whether through persecution, or ill-health, or on account of their lawful calling, or because of the place where their lot is cast. David in the wilderness longed for the worship of God: ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?’ (Psa. 42:1-2). When John was banished ‘to the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ,’ he was ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1:9-10).
It is a bad sign, therefore, when people are losing their desire for the public worship of God, and when they readily find excuses for absenting themselves from the Sabbath services and from the prayer meeting. We should be exhorting others to attend, rather than falling off in our own attendance: ‘Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is’ (Heb. 9:24-5). A declining attendance may be a sign of a believer losing his ‘first love’, or it may be a mark of an unbeliever whose religious convictions are wearing away.
In a sermon on Hosea 6:4,1 ‘Your goodness is as the morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away,’ M’Cheyne describes the sinner, first awakened, and then sinking back into indifference:
He is an arrested hearer; he drinks in the words of the minister; he is lively in his attendance on the Word; if there be preaching in the week-evening, he puts by his work in order to be there. But when his concern wears away, he begins to weary first of the weekday service, then of the Sabbath; then perhaps he seeks a more careless ministry where he may slumber on till death and judgement. Ah, this has been the course of thousands in this place.
A very different case is described in Records of Grace in Sutherland (pp 222-3)2. A man, William Mackay, who had walked 16 miles to the church in Tongue on a day of drifting snow, when there was no road, was asked by the minister why he had ventured out, when only people in the near neighbourhood were at the service. In reply he stated that there were three things that moved him to attend the house of God:
First, the Lord had given him strength and he considered it his duty to wait on Him in public worship. Secondly, he came to add to the number in the congregation and thus encourage the minister when he knew that many would absent themselves. Thirdly, he came so that if the Spirit of God should be moving in the church that day, He might not find his pew empty.
The Spirit of God is sovereign and we do not know when he will work. The revival under Hezekiah ‘was done suddenly’ (2 Chr. 29:36). The outpouring of the Spirit on Monday, 21 June 1630, at the Kirk of Shotts communion was unexpected3. Probably there were some among the people of God who were slothful and missed the blessing, and regretted it. Thomas was absent on the evening of the first Christian Sabbath and he did not meet the risen Christ (John 20:24). No one should be absent from public worship unless it is unavoidable, least of all the people of God. ‘Make conscience of the prayer meeting’, the present writer was advised some years ago. The Psalmist envied the sparrows and swallows because they had made their house and their nest in God’s altars (Psa. 84:3). The child Samuel had his bed ‘in the temple of the Lord’ (1 Sam. 3:3). The heart of the believer ought to dwell in ‘the gates of Zion’ (Psa. 87:2). David’s crowning joy was the thought that he would be there for ever: ‘In God’s house for evermore my dwelling-place shall be’ (Psa. 23:6).
- This sermon can be found in Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Banner of Truth, 1966), pp. 442-9.
- Free Church of Scotland, Publications Committee (1953).
- See, for example, Samuel Rutherford and his Friends, pp. 114-5; The Scots Worthies, pp. 369-70; and, in the preacher John Livingstone’s own words, Scottish Puritans: Select Biographies, Volume 1, pp. 138-9.
Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, June 2009. Notes added.
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