If anyone anywhere is going to go to church, Christmas is the most likely season that they will feel compelled to go. I’d be surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t been in a church service in the past week.
After all, it’s family, and candle light and sweet baby Jesus. All the warm fuzzy feels. And most churches put on a pretty good show. There’s special music and sometimes cookies.
But the Christmas season is the exception. Less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church, and church attendance is declining. In the past few months, these are actual reasons people have told me that they weren’t in church:
- We had to re-grout our bathroom.
- My tennis coach had an opening for a lesson at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.
- We had to go watch our son do mountain bike racing.
- I had to go to a baby shower scheduled during church.
- We had a friend in from out of town.
You might add sleep, football, brunch, bad past experience, personality differences with the pastor (or basically differences with anyone you might run into). I don’t share these to shame anyone, but to note how much our culture has changed.
In days of yore church was the norm for most of our culture and not going was the exception.
Now, with a consumer mentality and a cynicism that has come as a result of leaders behaving badly, church on a Sunday morning is a totally optional choice, usually only IF there’s nothing more interesting going on or the weather is bad and we can’t go kayaking/skiing/running/…
Even as a committed follower of Jesus I can empathize. I usually feel nearer to God in the sun and trees, the wind and water, than anywhere else.
Recently I read this written by John Ortberg:
“Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith says the fastest-growing religion in america today is nether Christianity, Islam, nor some eastern religion. It is what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). In MTD, the most important “truth” about God is that He wants us all to be nice, to feel happy, and to be delivered from pain (that’s the therapeutic part) Outside of being available when I need him, God will not interfere much with my life (there’s the deism).”
If that’s the deal than the most important question every Sunday morning is “What’s gonna make me feel happy?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. On the one hand, we read:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another…” Hebrews 10:24, 25
On the other, we have vibrant online churches and great teaching through podcasts, and some say that their small group is really their church.
Also, it’s not like “church” has taken the same form over the years since Jesus! Our gatherings today would not be recognizable to a first century Jesus-follower.
So with those disclaimers (and the fact that I’m writing this on a Sunday morning when I’m not in church), here are my top 5 reasons for attending church every Sunday:
1. Worship – This is the top element I think we miss when we don’t attend church regularly. We have gotten so far away from the “fall on your knees” bowing before God and honoring Him because He is God and we’re not. He alone is worthy of my worship. Taking time out of my schedule to go to church says there is something and someone more important than me or my happiness (gasp!).
2. Formation through inconvenience – We really resist this one because we have become such consumers. A common question after a worship gathering is “How was church today?” The answer is often a critique of the sermon.
The value, as Brian MacLaren writes is that,
“I go to a place I didn’t choose at a time I didn’t choose to be part of something I do choose. This is part of disciplining oneself. In a world that caters to our every whim, the fact that I choose to inconvenience myself to go to church is an act of spiritual discipline and formation.”
Maybe we learn a small part of what the Bible refers to as “dying to self”.
3. Carrying – There are seasons in our lives where it’s “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” We naturally want to praise God who is clearly good because life feels good. But there are other seasons, when it is all we can do to drag ourselves out of bed because we’re so discouraged. We need to be in the company of believers, because we carry each other. Some Sundays you need to sing the words of truth loud and hold hope for those who are floundering, and some Sundays you need others to hold hope and carry you.
4. Change of Pace – When we attend church regularly we interrupt the loud voices and frantic pace of our culture to make space for God. We open ourselves up with a different rhythm – slowing, and a different volume – silence, and a different place – to hear from God. The busier we are the more tempted we are to be autonomous – to blast through on our own instead of acknowledging our need to sit first, before God. Church helps us recalibrate.
5. Communion – This is another one that we rarely do, apart from in church. How often do we sit around our table at home with bread and wine, celebrating God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus. We are told to partake in this ritual regularly as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. At church, we are reminded that we are hungry – hungry for love that is only satisfied in Jesus.
So that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Sometimes I go to church and I feel moved to tears by the love of God, or I have my eyes opened to some truth that is helpful or convicting.
But other days church feels like I’m just checking a grown-up responsibility off my list – like making a dentist appointment, or buying underwear. What I know for sure is that I’m a different person today than I was twenty years ago and I think God has used church to form me.
I’d love to hear from you! What are your thoughts about church attendance? (There are a couple hoops to jump through to comment the first time, but if you’ve done it once, it’s easy-peasy after that!)