[The following is excerpted from the book, Gather: Getting to the Heart of Going to Church, Copyright © 2021 by M. Hopson Boutot. Click here to download the entire book for free.]
For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about when it’s permissible to skip church. We’ve considered two categories of permissible reasons to stay home: works of necessity and works of mercy. But before we leave this topic, let’s consider one more group of people. How should we think about church attendance for those suffering chronic illnesses that keep them at home? Allow me to make three observations.
First, we must admit there are some who would abuse this privilege. Read that last sentence carefully lest we succumb to the Newman Effect yet again. I am not saying the abuse of this privilege is always true, or even usually true. I am simply admitting it is sometimes true. Sadly, in a fallen world there are some who would feign or exaggerate their sickness to avoid gathering with God’s people. 150 years ago, Charles Spurgeon warned his congregation about this very temptation. In a sermon about the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, he said this:
“But now-a-days, oh, how little a thing keeps men from seeking the wisdom of Christ who is far greater than Solomon. To go up to the house of God to hear about him is sometimes wonderfully difficult. Persons go out on Monday to business who cannot go out on Sunday. It is raining on Sunday, and it is very curious how rain on Sunday will keep some people in, their health, is so weak, though the same rain on Monday does not affect them at all in that particular way. Have you never observed how some persons appear to be periodically ill on Sundays? That seems to be a favourite day for being ill; and then they will say they cannot walk so far, and they would object to ride, the objection being, probably, to going at all, at the bottom. And then you will hear persons say, “Well, I found that I must stay at home with this child,” or, “I had something that must be done in the family.” You did not make those excuses if there is going to be a party to which you are invited, or if there is some fete [festival or celebration] to be held.” (1)
Charles Spurgeon is not alone. Every pastor with more than a few months of ministry experience has witnessed the phenomenon of members regularly sick on Sundays but back to work or school on Monday morning. Recognize this temptation lies in you, Christian, then fight against it for the glory of God and the good of His people.
A second observation about sickness and church attendance is that God may use your faithfulness amidst your frailty as a profound encouragement to the saints and testimony to the lost. Think about it for a moment. Whose church attendance is the greatest encouragement? The one who attends when its easy or the one who attends amidst suffering, sickness, or pain?
Now of course, it’s different if you’re sick with a highly contagious ailment that could infect others. In such cases mercy would compel you to remain home until you recover. But if your sickness is not contagious, think twice before you assume it’s best to remain home. Perhaps God would use your faithfulness as an example and encouragement to others. Again, Spurgeon is helpful here:
“There was a dear Sister, now in Heaven, who attended this Tabernacle for years though she was so deaf that she never heard a word that was spoken. The reasons she gave for being here were that, at any rate, she could join in the hymns and that had she stayed away, she would have felt as if she was dissociated from the people of God and other people, perhaps, might not have known the reason for her absence—and it might, therefore, have been a bad example to them. So she said, "Though I do not hear a word, I love to be there," and she has told me that some of the happiest hours she has ever spent have been those when she has thus had communion with the people of God, although she could not fully understand all that was being said or done. In like manner, dear Friends, as often as the people of God assemble for worship, join with them!” (2)
Suffering Christian, before assuming you should stay home this Sunday ask if God might use your faithfulness to encourage other saints to persevere.
Finally, we dare not conclude this section on sickness and church attendance without admitting that often the sick cannot gather with God’s people. Even long before Christians struggled with church attendance to the degree they do today, this was a recognizable fact of life. Around the year 150 A.D., Justin Martyr wrote about the common practice of pastors and deacons to deliver communion to homebound saints who were unable to gather with the church. (3)
But we can go even further back than that. The Apostle James himself writes this to those who were sick: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:16). Notice James doesn’t tell the sick to go to the church meeting and talk with the elders after service. He encourages the sick to call for the elders to come and visit them. Those who find themselves in short or lengthy periods of extended illnesses that preclude them from gathering should receive special care from their pastors.
Those who are sick need the love, care, and support of the local church no less than those who are well. If anything, they need it even more so. As Martin Luther said, “When people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.” (4)
So for all who read this book who are relatively healthy and able to attend worship regularly: let us not forget the sick. As Brian Croft so powerfully states,
As we fellowship, love, care, and encourage one another, let us not lose sight of those who can all too easily be forgotten. Those who are sick don’t have the energy or the ability to fight for our attention, like so many other things in our lives do. Instead, we must take the initiative. Visiting the sick will not slide easily into our schedules. It will interrupt our plans. But we must not grow discouraged or frustrated. We must take heart. As we are intentional in our calling to visit the sick, we can trust that we are engaged in a divine task — souls are being loved and nurtured; we ourselves are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ; the gospel is being revealed through this ministry; and God is being glorified. (5)
1. C.H. Spurgeon, “A Greater Than Solomon” (Sermon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, May 29, 1873), https://www.biblia.work/sermons/a-greater-than-solomon-2/.
2. C.H. Spurgeon, “A Sabbath Miracle” (Sermon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, June 11, 1876), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons50.xxvii.html.
3. Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers: Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1 (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1885), 185–86.
4. Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague,” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 121.
5. Brian Croft, Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 61–62.