During my recent 6 months sabbatical, apart from being committed to worshipping at True Way once a month, my family and I decided to take this opportunity to visit different churches on Sunday mornings. After serving as a pastor for almost 22 years, I was hoping to acquaint myself with how other churches conduct their worship services and to learn about their discipleship and outreach endeavours.
Here, I must confess that it has been a rather mixed experience, especially in the initial months albeit there were also moments when I felt “liberated”. I reckon that one reason for such feelings would be that I have been so used to a certain routine on Sundays that I was totally unaccustomed to this newfound freedom. Given my transient status, no one from those churches I visited would be expecting me to show up regularly for their worship service. For the first time in my life as a Christian, no church leader from a church will be following up on my absence nor would any worshipper be passing remarks about my attendance or lack of. In fact, in some larger churches, no one noticed my family and I were newcomers even when we were in the sanctuary before the majority of worshippers arrived.
Without the need for accountability, it did not take me long before I began toying with the option of taking the easy way out. You see, while I do believe that the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day is commanded by God and has been the established practice of God’s people (Acts 2:42, Hebrews 10:23-25), alas, there were two or three occasions where I succumbed to joining a live-stream service.
On those Sundays, it was convenient to simply switch on the laptop and enjoy the comfort of worshipping at home. The thought of having to brave heavy downpours enroute to church or dealing with the inertia of exchanging pleasantries with strangers after a tiring week (of tending to sick children, etc) proved to be somewhat overwhelming. I was easily swayed by the many pull factors to remain at home instead of leaving home to stand alongside other believers in offering praises unto God.
Hopefully, none of you who are reading this perspective would think that a lack of accountability is something desirable. Let me just say that to remain in such a state of affairs where a Christian is not accountable to anyone would be to the detriment of one’s spiritual growth. Since it is God who has assigned church leaders with the responsibilities of shepherding believers and keeping watch over our souls (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), it would be unwise for any to wilfully neglect this aspect of our lives. As much as one may need time to prayerfully consider which local church to commit to, prudence requires us to set boundaries and a dateline.
Evidently, learning to submit ourselves to God’s appointed leaders is a needful exercise in obedience to God and humility towards fellow believers. To linger in limbo where we have no one keeping a lookout for us not only puts us in danger of losing our spiritual zeal but also increases the risk of us becoming spiritually proud.
Indeed, Christian discipleship is not merely about one’s spiritual experiences and relationship with God. Instead, it has always been about a way of life in the context of community – both in the local church and the world. When we commit ourselves to gathering with others to worship God on Sundays, we are doing so as unto the Lord as well as living out God’s call for us to love our neighbours. After all, if there is no opportunity for one to interact regularly with other worshippers, how can we demonstrate love to people? How will we be able to grow in sanctification if we do not get to serve others and learn to consider their interests above ours (Philippians 2:4)?
Even though the Lord has graciously ministered to me and my family during those Sundays when we stayed at home, I am mindful that we would be missing out on what is ultimately needful and vital for our spiritual growth if tuning to live-stream services becomes our norm. In the course of visiting churches, I am now even more convinced that our gathering for worship has to be more than just about the songs we sing and the sermons we hear.
Yes, there is always room for improvement and churches can learn from the best practices of others. But as disciples of Christ, we are not supposed to be consumers evaluating and enjoying a “product” that others have faithfully laboured to offer unto God on Sundays. We are to be a spiritual family, sharing a bond of love and imitating Christ in his example of self-giving service (Ephesians 5:1-2, Romans 12:1-2). Hopping from one church to another or replacing in-person attendance with online viewing is neither virtuous and an inadequate substitute for partaking the means of grace.
When my family and I started visiting churches, it was admittedly a breeze to blend in and slip out unnoticed after the service was over. There was little risk of getting entangled with interpersonal conflicts or being misunderstood when a smile or a nod in the lift or carpark would suffice. But it also meant that there was little to look forward to in terms of fellowshipping with others. We were also missing out on the encouragement and prayers we would otherwise have received from those whom we can share our lives with.
Given that we were not plugged into the life of a church, we could only observe what is going on during their worship service. Usually, things would appear to be fine. In some churches, those on duty were truly “professional” in carrying out their roles. Looking from the outside, we easily forget that a church is a spiritual family consisting of people who will not always get their act together and will always be in need of God’s grace and transformation by the Spirit.
As my family and I return to worship at True Way, I am reminded that while there are hundreds of churches here in Singapore, in God’s eyes, there is only one Church. This Church is the bride of Christ whom he has shed his blood for (Acts 20:28). Thus, the local church which the Lord has sovereignly placed me in is one whose well-being I am to zealously seek for. And thanks be to God, I know I won’t be alone in this endeavour. For there are many others whom I will have the joy and privilege of serving alongside with who are just as compelled to do so to the glory of God until Christ comes again.
*Note: During my sabbatical, I signed up for a module on Christian Ethics at Trinity Theological College. I gained good insights from the assigned readings and enjoyed my weekly interaction with my classmates. Although there were some ministry matters that required my attention and my DG continued meeting regularly, the sabbatical was a refreshing break. I got to spend more time with my family, to exercise and in further self-study and contemplation. One of the fruit of this extended time-off is a DG bible study material on Missions that I hope to be sharing with our church in due time.
God is truly good and sovereign in his timing. During this period, there were some health concerns on the home front, particularly with regards to my father-in-law’s post-surgery recovery and mobility issues. Being on sabbatical meant that I could provide more support to Sharon and help out with errands and family commitments.
Rev Edwin Wong
March 12, 2023