How about these penalties for skipping church:
• First absence – pay a fine;
• Second absence – get a flogging;
• Third absence – execution.
Really? Really. That’s one way to fill the church. Those were the rules for church attendance in the mid-1700s in colonial America, according to Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. The rules were set by the Church of England, but were rarely enforced in the colonies, says writer Alan Pell Crawford. Good. Even so, church attendance was pretty standard in those days. And here I thought the church would be filled when the Lord blesses persistent prayer, passionate Bible preaching, honoring worship and lives radically committed to Him regardless of cost. But there’s a vast difference, isn’t there, between getting people in the seats because they must be there and getting people in the seats who want to be there.
Colonial America had this piece upside down and backwards. The church isn’t supposed to persecute people for skipping worship services. The unbelieving, Christ-hating culture is supposed to persecute people for attending worship services. That should be obvious, but somehow church leaders missed it. I’m guessing that dissenters to the common view in those days were not received well.
The common picture of the good-old-days of colonial Christian gentility, morality and quiet godliness gets an extreme makeover when reading about how things really were back then. How about these: taverns were commonly built before churches, and leading men in the community entertained themselves with binge drinking parties marked by gambling for large stakes with cards or dice or billiards. (If the leading men were doing that, what was everybody else doing?) And, in 1748, the Virginia legislature decided it was unlawful to cut out a person’s tongue, pluck out an eye, or bite a nose or lip. And, oh yes, no kicking or stomping. Thank you for the legislative guidance.
In the midst of today's freedom to attend or skip worship services, there seem to be a lot of weeds in the church. Weeds are people who attend church for all kinds of curious reasons, but not out of love for Christ. The church may require a solid season of persecution to clear out the weeds, to separate those devoted to Christ from those who attend church for any number of other reasons. Bring it on. That’s preferable to the colonial American culture of Christianity that forced weeds into the church. Or in today's American church—leaning on marketing methodologies, psychologies, slick personalities or the traditions of men—luring people into the church for the wrong reasons. They lead to comfortable gatherings overrun by a lot of weeds.
But take courage. Even if cleansing persecution is long-delayed, Christ will sort it out. Matthew 13:24-30. We just need to do our job, as did the apostle Paul. Philippians 1:15-18.