by Rich Shoenert, David Young, and Tom Wilkens
Go back to 1742, when a pastor in Northampton, MA, sensed loss of spiritual fervor among the church. In the memoirs of that pastor is a written account titled “The Temporary Abatement of Religious Attention.” The pastor’s name was Jonathan Edwards. About a decade prior the church had experienced revival in what is known in American history as the First Great Awakening. Since then, the faith of the people had become flat; their practice of Christian faith had become rote. For most people the passion abated. Previous spiritual fervor was overtaken by sterile religious behavior. Jonathan Edwards called the church to a “…solemn public renewal of their covenant with God.”
At VitalChurch Ministry, we serve churches in complicated transition seasons that often involve loss of vision and passion. Previous spiritual fervor in Christ has somehow devolved into going through the motions or walking through the distress of disruptive conflict and damaged relationships. Through the years, we’ve discovered processes and practices to help churches navigate difficult seasons. One such process is called sacred assembly.
What is sacred assembly?
The Old Testament records at least twelve times when Israel’s leaders called the nation together for reflection, confession, and to renew their commitment to the Lord (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 29; Nehemiah 8-9; Joel 1:1-4; 2:12-15). Sacred assemblies were called for during seasons of moral laxity, spiritual apathy, leadership corruption, and when the people lost their joy in God. In the New Testament, Jesus calls His people to address their sin in order to experience intimacy with Him (Rev.2-3). Church leaders in every period of spiritual awakening have engaged prayer and solemn assembly to restore their congregations to a right relationship with God and one another.
Sacred assembly involves a church-wide call to worship and renewal. It includes a corporate recognition of sin (often centered in a failure of leadership) or a sin pattern that has had significant impact on the whole church. In our culture of individualism, we easily minimize the corporate reality or body life of church. We might give credence to being a body and family where what affects one member directly affects the others at least indirectly, but we often act as though our personal practice of faith or patterns of sin do not impact the whole church. They do.
What are some signs a church could benefit from sacred assembly?
Church movement can be inward (loving one another), outward (sharing God’s love with others) and upward (loving God because He first loved us). All three movements are essential to the vitality of a church. If only one or two of these movements are detectable it is a good indicator that sacred assembly is called for. If there is little movement or negative movement in all three, then sacred assembly may be critical to reviving a church back into God’s will and way.
Here are some additional indicators it might be time for a sacred assembly:
- When conflict is unresolved or sin patterns are evident
- When spiritual insensitivity is the norm or when life in Christ has become little more than religious activity
- When souls are parched and leaders feel burned out
- When the joy of the Lord is not our strength or our experience
- When people are more consumers than faithful contributors
- When people in a congregation use threats and manipulation to get their way
- When people have known Christ for years but show little evidence having grown or matured in Christ
- When sins such as misuse or abuse of power, or misappropriation of money, or the inability to disagree agreeably and maintain unity in diversity are real
How does a church prepare for sacred assembly?
VitalChurch Ministry pastors often say that corporate renewal begins with personal renewal. Calling people to sacred assembly begins with times of personal reflection and examination before God. Leading up to the sacred assembly, church leaders often facilitate a time of church-wide fasting and praying and deliver a sermon series that teaches on sacred assembly from scripture.
Sacred assembly typically involves prayerful preparation and timely implementation. The assembly gathering is pastor led and includes worship, prayer, and confession that starts with the leaders. It focuses on consecrating ourselves to God and renewing our relationship with God. It includes embracing church as “we before me” and committing to be at peace with one another as much as it depends on you.
Sacred Assembly will often refresh relationship with God, bring closure to past things, and open doors to the work of the Holy Spirit in hearts and relationships to go forward well.
What does sacred assembly look like?
Sacred assembly is a prayed over, planned, and solemn service.
Three elements are typically present during (or leading up to) a sacred assembly:
- Focused personal examination before God (Joel 1:2, 15-18).
- Repentance from these times of personal examination (Joel 2:18-19, 21, 23).
- Spiritual refreshment and renewal brought forth from repentance (2 Chronicles 30).
A sacred assembly often includes worship in song, scripture reading, public silent prayer, and a time of private and corporate confession. There is also a time of consecration and commitment to a new season of church life. The service may conclude with a time of rededication and celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Jonathan Edwards noted it this way, “…on a day of fasting and prayer, (the congregation) all together presented themselves before God in His house, and stood up, and solemnly manifested their consent to it, as their vow to God.”
VitalChurch Ministry has walked with many churches through sacred assembly and have seen firsthand the spiritual renewal and revitalization that can occur. If you want to hear more about how VitalChurch Ministry might serve your church, contact us.