“I guess it’s been about a year now since I’ve been at church. Has it really been that long? I guess so. Man, that’s crazy.”
After I prayed to open a lunch gathering for a dynamic organization in Kansas City, I sat down at my assigned table. The gentleman next to me said he really appreciated the opening prayer. In my attempt to make a connection with this stranger, I asked him if he was engaged in a church in the area. That’s when he gave his response above. He looked surprised at himself. It pains me to say: I wasn’t.
Since he was so transparent, I went ahead and asked him, “Why? If you think church is important, why haven’t you been engaged? I mean no judgment. I’m just genuinely curious.” His response was epic: “No one in my family wants to really go. My teenagers have their plans with their friends, and Sunday’s the only day to work on my golf game. I guess life just happened.”
It was the most honest response I’d heard in a while, but since then I feel like I’ve heard that a lot. “Life just happened, and time got away from me. Has it been six months since I’ve been to church? Geez.” Life…just…happened.
There are a lot of folks who are frustrated with church for one reason or another. And I get it. Different local churches have done some terrible things. Pastors and priests have abused power and people. For those of us where that’s been true, I’m sorry. Seriously. Alongside of this, though, more and more people are just “over” church. Church just isn’t as compelling as _________(fill in the blank with literally anything else).
Attending church has become erratic for most and nonexistent for many in the United States. Whether it’s the rise of nones (not nuns) or empty church buildings, self-proclaimed Christians are looking to other options to fill their Sunday. And maybe that’s you as you’re reading this.
Ok…so why church anyway? Why meet together with other believers like Christians have for over 2,000 years? We could talk about commands in Scripture that highlight the community of faith. When Jesus commands us to do something, it is always for our good. It may not seem like the most obvious proximate good, but He always has our best good in mind even if we can’t see it from where we’re standing.
We could focus on duty, where there is always responsibility with privileges. But instead, let’s focus on value. Let’s not center in on duty but delight. I’m convinced we’re missing out when we’re missing gathering together to worship every week.
Now to be clear, I’m not pumped about Sunday mornings because I’m a pastor. You should have a healthy skepticism when a pastor pushes Sunday. I didn’t become a pastor because I love the pageantry of Sundays. I felt called to pastor, and I delight in seeing people follow Jesus and become more whole in Him.
The biblical authors had a conviction for deep intimacy within a community of faith as essential to following Jesus over the long haul. And you won’t get that without making being there a priority on the regular.
So why is going to church on Sunday greater than everything else you could fill your time with on Sunday? Here are at least three reasons that have kept me believing in the church gathered as better than anything else I could do on Sunday morning.
1) Communion with God.
Far too often we focus on the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence of the individual Christian at the expense of the Spirit’s unique presence with the people of God when we gather together. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just dwell in ME but also dwells among US.
In Ephesians 2:22, the Apostle Paul paints a picture of the church as individual stones laid together to build a temple where the Holy Spirit dwells. The Spirit of God is uniquely present when His people come together! Then in Ephesians 4:18-21, this “filling of the Spirit” is cultivated by the community of Jesus engaged together in activities that invite His presence.
This is more than having a quiet time by yourself or meeting with a friend over coffee. The church is an invitation to experience community with people who aren’t like us but are one with us by the Spirit of God.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s not my experience when I go to church.” I get it. What I will say, though, is that when I’m looking for it, God has met me in some of the most boring and surprising of places where His word is preached, songs are sung praising His Name, and God’s people gather around the Lord’s table to receive and remember.
What if before you joined with the community of faith on Sunday, you asked God to meet you as He promised He would? What if you went expecting His presence with His people? What if you went looking for Him? He might just surprise you.
2) Belonging to a family.
A lot of times we can talk about the church as a community, which is important. It is! But Scripture talks about the church WAY MORE as a family. Jesus calls those who obey the will of God the Father His brothers, sisters, and mothers (Matthew 12:46-50). And like every family, there are crazy aunts and weird uncles. Family fights, meals, and parties.
It seems like today so many of us are like a college freshman who returns home for the first time. You come home after being gone for a few months and things feel really awkward those first few hours home. You’ve changed and so has life back home. When all we do is go to church sporadically, church is the incessant awkward experience. And who wants that?
One of the most oft quoted passages about church engagement is Hebrews 10:19-25. But that isn’t talking about church attendance full stop. It’s talking about meaningful relationships within the church family. You can spur one another on to love and good deeds only if you know each other, and really 90% of relationship is just showing up consistently with enough proximity that relationships can build over time.
And that’s hard when a trip to a Caribbean resort for a weekend is available on Groupon or your college friends are getting married every weekend of the spring. Travel is exciting, but it comes at a cost. Are you counting the cost of each trip you take?
Now maybe you’re thinking, “Gabe, I’ve gone to church for years, and it’s never felt like a family.” First, I’m sorry. Families are hard, and sometimes local churches can be exclusive and closed off. But there might be another reason. Maybe it’s because you’ve wanted someone to father you, when instead you were the one who needed to take initiative in being the big brother or sister? Families never thrive when everyone is looking to everyone else to make connection happen.
What if you took the step towards family? Maybe you’ve been burned before. I’m so sorry. But it doesn’t have to rob your joy in the future. What if you didn’t just show up but you dove in headlong? You might find that the church family you have is the one you need.
3) Reorientation to the real world.
Everything in our world is forming us into a particular kind of person with a particular outlook on life.
If you pull out your iPhone, it can feel like one of the most liberating tools we own. I can mitigate nearly all my problems and fulfill most of my desires with a few swipes on the screen. And yet, social scientists and computer engineers have tailor-made algorithms with extraordinary accuracy to make us feel free and simultaneously guide our decisions.
The question is NOT whether you ARE being formed. The question is WHO is forming you. The church gathering was always meant to be a family gathering in a particular place engaged in particular practices to help the Christian be reoriented to the real world, God’s world.
Something interesting to research is how every New Testament letter was written either to local churches or to those who led local churches. Early followers of Jesus had no category for someone who claimed to follow Jesus and was disconnected from the church, specifically a particular local church.
We are, as the old hymn reminds us, Prone to wander. Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. And when left to ourselves, like a lone gazelle on the African tundra, we are vulnerable prey for the deformation caused by our own self-deception, the surrounding broken systems of the world, and the evil plans of the evil one.
We not only need God’s Spirit and God’s family but God’s word spoken to us, shared with us, sung over us, reorienting us to the real world. In a world growing in despair, we need the gospel’s promise. In a world with growing rage, we need the gospel’s forgiveness. In world of growing unrest, we need the gospel’s reconciliation.
More than an intriguing book or thought-provoking podcast, we need the liturgy of the church gathered. C.S. Lewis brilliantly described learning the liturgy of the church like learning a dance. It’s awkward at first. There’s dissonance from the other dances we’ve learned elsewhere. But the longer we dance, the more we can just lean in and enjoy the rhythm.
And if we let this dance shape the way we move, we’ll find we’re dancing to the music of the universe with trees clapping and clouds shouting, all making melody to our Creator King.
Do you want to experience God more deeply? Do you want to rediscover a family you didn’t know you had? Do you want to learn the dance of the universe? This Sunday put those travel plans on hold, pull off the covers, put on your dancing shoes, and make it to church. Then do it again next week. And the week after that.
Don’t let life happen. Make church happen. It’s just better that way.