We all recognize it’s a serious mistake to think that going to church is the biggest or most important part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Such a view overemphasizes our meetings and tends to trivialize all that takes place outside them. At its absolute worst, it can produce the bankrupt thinking that if we do this a few times a week, we can live like pagans the rest of the time. This is the kind of compartmentalized thinking Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for (Matthew 23:27-28).
However, it is also erroneous to fail to see our coming together as a significant part of what God calls us to do and be. Coming together as the church (a phrase that Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 11:18), is like your physical family coming together—it’s what healthy families do. A failure to practice this diminishes who we are.
Why do people go to church? I suppose there are many reasons. Some of them are as feeble and frivolous as the excuses people use for not coming to church. This much is true: down through the centuries people have come together as church because of God—nothing more and nothing less. They’re like the little girl who slipped a precious ring off her finger and put it in the collection plate as it went by. Her concerned parents discussed the matter with her afterwards and assured her the church didn’t need the ring. She stiffly replied, “I wasn’t giving it to the church—I was giving it to God!”
In Psalm 122, the writer touches on some of the reasons why he rejoiced at the opportunity to come together with the people of God in worship and celebration. He begins with a truth we may have never considered—worshiping God together provides the architecture for our lives. “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. This is where the tribes go up—the tribes of the Lord—to praise the name of the Lord”(v. 3-4). When you were in Jerusalem for the festival, you were in a place where everything fit together. From the stones in the wall surrounding the city to those in the temple itself. There was nothing out of place, loose, or laying off to the side. There was structure and integrity in the construction that held everything together.
What was true physically was also true spiritually. Everything came together at Jerusalem. They were with God’s people in God’s specially appointed place, worshiping Him and celebrating His goodness as it expressed itself in the feast and their fellowship. When we gather together, our fragmented lives find fullness (the fullness that we will one day experience in the presence of God). We find the framework and structure in worship that brings the pieces of our lives together and points us in heaven’s direction.
This is where the tribes go up—the tribes of the Lord—to praise the name of the Lord.