The Church Beneficent
Hebrews 10:25
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more…

We can scarcely help reading into a passage like this ideas which belong to our time, and not to the time of the writer; that is to say, ideas which are our own rather than his. Our notion as to Christians assembling themselves together is that which has been fixed in our minds by our custom, an old custom now, of attending church on Sundays. The truth is, however — and it is a point which has not received all the consideration to which it is entitled — meetings of Christians in those early times were not exactly of the same character as ours. Not only were they not as formal as we make ours by having an official person to conduct them, and, in fact, to take up most of the time with set religious discourse — not only were they not as formal as ours are thus made, they had, it is evident, different objects from those at which we aim in ours. These people who are here charged not to forsake the assembling of themselves together, did not meet to hear a sermon, or to pray and sing hymns; they met, it is plain, as Christian workers, to discuss their work and to carry it on. "To provoke unto love and to good works," to consider one another, to take steps for the relief of their poor, the succour of their sick, the instruction of the young, the conversion of heathen friends, the advancement of their faith, the promotion of every scheme which an enthusiastic philanthropy suggested for making the world better and happier; this was the business which brought them together. Their meetings did not end as ours regularly and systematically do, in nothing at all; if there is anything certain with regard to them, it is that they served to combine the intelligence and the energies of the Christian brotherhood for the accomplishment of a variety of objects which were none the less Christian that they were not always what you would call religious. And yet it is not to be supposed that on this account their meetings were less devotional than ours are. Because, instead of being devotional and nothing else, they were taken up chiefly with matters of Christian business, those primitive assemblies which are here in question would not, in the nature of things, be less favourable to the spirit of supplication or the spirit of thanksgiving, than Sunday meetings are now. I cannot but declare my conviction — I have long been firmly convinced — it is because we have no business in our meetings except devotion, that our devotion is so dull a business. I must take for granted for one thing, that every intelligent man, who is not strangely destitute of religious feeling, has known at times the need, or at any rate the good, of joining with numbers in acts of worship. There is something in the voices of a congregation united in the praise of God which lifts a dull worshipper out of his dulness as nothing else can. It is to be deplored, therefore, that so many nowadays forsake churches, and, in doing so, at any rate deny themselves whatever profit there is in public worship. It is obvious, whatever is the reason of it, our present system of what we call public worship is not what it once was in point of health and vigour, and rough-and-ready methods of putting new life into it, from which much is hoped, have little outcome. So far from the attendance at church increasing over the country, it is, I believe, steadily falling off. It may well be a question, therefore, whether we should not, along with the multiplication of churches or in place of it, begin to consider whether churches ought not to be somewhat different from what they are, and perhaps made a little more like what they were once. While we are thinking only of how to enlarge our ecclesiastical machinery, or to drive it faster, the question perhaps really is, whether it ought not first to be remodelled. The thing which is to be done, the only remedy for the evil, is to make the church a more attractive institution than it is. In the first place, it is obvious we deny ourselves much of the advantage we might have from attention to what is beautiful and pleasing. Independently of the sermon altogether — for the sermon is made the most important part of public worship, utterly against the nature of things — there should be excitement in our church services sufficient at any rate to keep people from falling asleep in the middle of them. Congregations, not ministers, no doubt are to blame if this excitement is often conspicuous by its absence. Wherever the blame may be supposed to rest, it is certain this part of our worship, not the least important part, is in general made as unattractive as complete neglect can make it. They complain that long extempore prayers, such as are common among ourselves, are often sermons without a text, or Scripture in great disorder. They allege further, that as the sermon is generally made the most important part of the service, so it is generally the most tedious part. If this, then, or anything like this, is the account which is to be given of our public worship, or a great part of it, we can scarcely wonder if there are some who forsake it, and many who are not attracted by it. I hasten now to remark, that while we more or less deny ourselves the advantage of the beautiful, we altogether reject the far greater advantage of the practical and useful. To put the matter broadly: in connection with churches much good work is done, done by ministers and office-bearers, by committees, by associations of members, but as churches we do nothing. When we come together here on Sunday, after having been for hundreds of Sundays in the habit of coming, it is just to go through the old routine of prayer, praise, sermon, and go away home; the congregation, as a congregation, after the benediction, goes away home, that is to say, goes out of existence. Nothing equals the regularity with which our meeting takes place, except the regularity with which nothing comes of it. Take them as they commonly are, churches are like corn-mills carefully constructed and plentifully supplied with steam or water-power, but never put in motion, never made to grind a bushel of grain. In our congregational life it is all saying and not doing. It would involve the remodelling of our churches to an extent to which few of us, perhaps, would care to see them remodelled; but, if the practical and useful were as prominent in their arrangements as other things are, they would not have to complain so much as they have now of being forsaken. What is needed to fill churches and put life into them, is to revert to the original idea of a church, and make it a society " to provoke unto love and to good works." If we were, even in the loosest sort of way united as a congregation in an endeavour to further Christian objects, to relieve the poor, to comfort the sick, to instruct the ignorant, to reclaim the erring, to remove temptation out of the way of the young, to promote decency, sobriety, honesty, truth, gentleness — if we were ever so loosely united as a congregation in this endeavour, it is impossible, being as many as we are, that we should not accomplish something. Now, if there were this kind of business first, and devotion followed it, or if business and devotion were somehow combined in the order of our Sunday services, we should have what gives zest to meetings for other and inferior purposes — the sense that we are dealing with what is of immediate practical utility to ourselves and to others. Before I conclude, let me advert for a moment to an objection which may be urged. Would you, some one may ask, suppose it were possible, divert the activity of churches from those purely spiritual objects, which only churches are fitted to promote, and direct it to philanthropic but still secular ends, which other institutions and other agencies are intended to further, and are possibly better fitted to further? To this, however, it is to be answered, that charity never faileth, nor the need for that organised charity which a church ought to be. When all other institutions and agencies, even the most benevolent and most useful, have done their best, much will still remain to be done, for the welfare of mankind, much which only Christian philanthropy can do, or will attempt to do, and it is the business of churches to concern themselves with that.

(J. Service, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

WEB: not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as you see the Day approaching.

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