ast summer, the church I serve participated in a midweek discipleship study titled, A Summer in the Scriptures: Understanding and Applying God’s Word. One of the sessions included a media clip depicting a man who was incarcerated for sharing his faith in Christ.
This man’s nation of origin is governed by a totalitarian regime which prohibits the free expression of religion. He was interrogated, beaten, and tortured for his refusal to denounce his Christian faith. He spoke of his ability to tolerate the beatings and torture, but what he desired most was a copy of God’s Word.
Miraculously, he obtained a Bible, and was elated over this prized possession. However, after only a few months, the Bible was discovered and he was severely beaten.
After 10 years, this man was released from prison and continued to follow Jesus. Following his release, he testified that God’s Word had sustained him during his incarceration.
As I reflected on the freedom, rights, and privileges we enjoy in America, this man’s hunger for the Word of God convicted my heart.
The American experiment stands alone among the kingdoms and nations of history. The founding fathers framed a document known as the United States Constitution, containing amendments that established parameters for living and secured rights for citizens. Collectively, the first 10 amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights, outline and enumerate the incomparable rights and freedoms of American citizens.
The First Amendment, which is crucial to our democracy, guarantees every citizen specific freedoms. It prevents Congress from instituting a single religion above others or restricting the religious practices of the individual. Congress is prohibited from suppressing the media or inhibiting the rights of individuals to free speech. The First Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to peaceful assembly and to petition the government.
These rights may seem insignificant, even trivial, to those who grew up in the United States. Said differently, those who have been privileged to enjoy such lifelong rights often take them for granted. Only when such rights are understood in comparison to life in other nations─especially those with totalitarian or dictatorial forms of government─are they cherished.
Consider the religious climate in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China: Freedoms were suppressed to the point of incarceration and even death. Contemporary examples can be seen in certain parts of the Middle East, where openly expressing one’s faith in Christ can result in martyrdom.
Compared to a large segment of the global populace, we who live in America are incredibly blessed. Without fear of intervention or suppression, multitudes gather each week for worship. Attending one’s preferred house of worship is a given.
Outside the church, openly reading the Bible is protected by law. One’s faith may be freely shared with others. With the proper permits and approval, gathering in most any outdoor venue to sing, worship, and preach God’s Word is a precious privilege. However, such rights do not exist in a vacuum.
While living in America affords many privileges, with those rights come certain responsibilities. We have an obligation to take every advantage and utilize our God-given rights.
Contemporary culture and technology have created a climate of individualism and isolation, with an ever-increasing number of tasks being engaged at a distance. Entire degree programs are available online. Electronic global communication and correspondence occur daily. A large percentage of shopping is now done from the privacy of one’s home via the Internet. Adolescents grow up spending countless hours gazing at electronic devices.
Unfortunately, isolationism has begun to impact the way many Christians engage the church. For example, numerous congregations now live-stream their worship services, with an archive of weeks, months, and even years posted on their websites.
For shut-ins, those experiencing temporary illness, and those whose vocation requires them to work during worship times (and even those on vacation), watching a worship service via archived programming or live-stream is invaluable. However, for those able to attend a worship service, yet choosing not to do so, such venues may become an excuse for laziness and non-participation in corporate worship.
Another view popular among some is summed up in the statement, “I love Jesus; I just don’t like the church.” With this faulty method of engaging the Christian faith, personal preferences and individual interpretations of Scripture reign. Self-made parameters and a lack of accountability are spiritually hazardous to one’s spiritual health.
Why is one’s personal presence in worship important? One of the benefits we enjoy as followers of Jesus is gathering together with those of “the same precious faith” (2 Peter 1:1 NLT).
Scripture clearly reveals our Lord’s will regarding participation in corporate worship. Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (NLT).
Corporate worship has been designed by God for Christian fellowship, instruction, encouragement, and growth to be experienced by all.
As the New Year begins, let us respond accordingly to the religious freedoms we enjoy. May we may never take them for granted. Doing so could lead to their eventual loss. That said, here are three suggestions for engaging the New Year with a renewed sense of appreciation for our freedom of worship.
- Approach the Father in petition, asking for a fresh awareness and appreciation for the freedoms He has given. If needed, don’t hesitate to confess any neglect of, lack of appreciation for, or taking for granted the wonderful freedom to worship according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. Express gratitude to God for your own privilege to worship, but also pray for fellow believers in regions hostile to Christianity who do not have the same privilege. Ask God to give them sufficient grace.
- Be aware that no Christian has the right to assume a Lone Ranger approach to serving Christ. Paul wrote that Christ “makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Eph. 4:16 NLT). Each believer is interconnected with other believers, and each contributes to the whole body. Become intentional in getting involved in a Christ-centered local assembly and begin contributing to the spiritual health of those believers. They need you and you need them.
- Commit to being a faithful and consistent participant in corporate worship. Live-streaming, archived worship services, podcasts, and media ministries all provide opportunities of engagement for those unable to attend the services. However, if one enjoys good health, a sound mind, transportation, yet simply chooses to abstain from corporate worship, then a reassessment is in order. Let us say along with David, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Ps. 122:1 NLT).
Russell A. Morris, D.Min., Ph.D., serves as lead pastor of Harvest Hills Church of God in Burlington, North Carolina. He is a member of the online faculty at Lee University.