Once I got to church on time, but God arrived 20 minutes late. On the other hand, occasionally I’ve been to church and God didn’t manage to turn up at all. At least, that’s the impression you’d form if you judged by expectations.
The times I remember when nobody expected God to show up at church involved some friendly, relaxed informal gatherings. Don’t get me wrong; I personally like friendly, relaxed informal gatherings. But every so often, I think we may have been so keen on being friendly, relaxed and informal that nobody seems to be expecting the creator and judge of the universe to do anything in particular. We all had a great time of enjoyable fellowship and good coffee, and we talked afterwards about the latest TV shows, and then we went home.
At another church I visited, God did turn up quite spectacularly, but he was 20 minutes late. Church started at 7 pm with a series of slow, reflective songs. The band was excellent; the choir on the stage was full of young, smiling faces; the lighting was comfortably moody. Slowly, imperceptibly, the music started to get more intense. At 7:20 pm, it reached a crescendo, the choir started swaying back and forth, and the lights suddenly became intensely bright. At that point, the bloke on the stage with the microphone said, “Wow. I reckon God’s really here now!“ I kid you not.
What should we expect of God when it comes to church? The Bible does talk about God or Jesus being especially present when we gather. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them“. Paul talks about the “power of our Lord Jesus“ being present when Christians are “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus“ (1 Cor 5:4). When the “whole church comes together“, Paul says that outsiders should recognize that “God is really among you“ (1 Cor 14:23, 25). We should expect God’s presence in church.
But what should we expect God to actually do when he shows up? Should we expect a buzz of excitement as Jesus electrifies the crowd, rocks our world and transports us to the third heaven? Or should we expect a feeling of awe and holiness in the presence of a semi-tangible divine essence? Perhaps we should expect a sense of inexplicable inner peace, which transcends our busy or humdrum existence and helps us to feel calm and happy.
Well, not exactly. In fact, the Bible verses I just cited are all about people being convicted of their sin. The “two or three“ who are gathered in Matthew 18:20 are two or three witnesses to the sin of a brother (Matt 18:15-16). The power of the Lord Jesus in 1 Corinthians 5:4 is there to judge a sexually immoral church member (1 Cor 5:1, 5). The outsider in 1 Corinthians 14:25 says, “God is really among you“ because he has been convicted and called to account, and has had the secrets of his heart disclosed by the church speaking God’s word (1 Cor 14:24).
What should we expect God to do among us when we gather? In a nutshell, we should expect God to be doing his gospel work. We should expect God to be among us, convicting us of sin (Matt 18:16, 20; 1 Cor 5:4-5; 1 Cor 14:24). We should expect Jesus to be among us, rescuing sinners from God’s judgment (Matt 18:15; 1 Cor 5:5). Or, looking further afield in the Bible, we should expect Jesus to be among us to enable us to do his will and keep his commandments (Heb 13:20-21; John 14:20-21)—especially the command to love one another (John 15:11-12). We should expect Christ to create the hope of glory in us (Col 1:27). Fundamentally, we should be expecting God, our creator, Lord and saviour, to speak to us in church by his creative and powerful and saving word (John 17:20-23; 1 Cor 14:24; Col 1:5-6).
This can happen in all sorts of contexts, can’t it. It’s not ultimately a matter of the formality or informality of the gathering, the leadership (or non-leadership) style, the number of people, the band, the songs or the lighting. What does matter is that God’s word is spoken, heard and taken to heart. When that happens, we should expect great things. That’s because church is always intimately connected to that great heavenly gathering where God, the judge of all, is present and where Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins speaks to us a serious, comforting and awesome message (Heb 12:22-24).
What are you expecting from God when you come to church?