The topic of this post was suggested to me by a reader. She asked, “What is the purpose and value of in-person church attendance? Is church meant to refuel believers? Can believers get the same fulfillment or growth elsewhere?” If you have more topic ideas or questions, send them in! I’d love to hear them!
Because I’m a hopeless romantic (and because a theology teacher of mine once said “You can’t have any good theological conversation without talking about sex”), this post necessitates some fanciful anecdotes.
I’ve been single for a long time.
Like, a long time.
And with singleness comes a starvation of sorts. For someone like me who is a huge people-person, loves physical contact, etc, being single for that long means going without a lot of these meaningful gestures. So, in 2016 it had been roughly 4 years since I’d had a good kiss.
Or a bad one.
Or any at all.
As a typical American, I see kisses constantly, primarily on TV and in movies, but of course those do not compare to putting your lips on those of another real, living, 3-dimensional human being.
Many midnights ago, I found myself whipping through the mountains of South Carolina with a beautiful woman, feeling more alive than I had in a long time. I abruptly yanked the car to the side of the road and grabbed a blanket from the back of my car and we ran out into a field beneath the stars.
We talked for a while and then she rolled over onto her side and said, “I want to kiss you.”
And she did.
And it was nothing like watching a kiss between two actors on a screen.
I think part of the issue of talking about church to people my age is that it is nothing like describing a good kiss. Our eyes don’t light up. If anything, it’s more like describing the experience of putting rash ointment on your butt. It’s effective and it cures the problem, but that’s about it. Nothing to write home about.
But church should not be old and stale.
Church is the place where Christ comes to us in the form of one another, ministering to each other as ‘Christ with skin on.’ It’s the place where theoretical theology becomes beautifully tangible and real. It’s the place where we literally ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ when we come to the communion table.
It’s the place where we stop thinking about a good kiss and feel the warmth with our own lips (especially if your church has a good singles ministry…).
Watching church happen online provides almost none of that. Yes, we can learn about the Bible a bit, but we are not participating in the life of the church by doing so. We are effectively watching others participate. Besides, if everyone had that mindset, eventually all pastors would just be preaching to empty rooms with a camera in them!
I think one of the most consistent and clear images the Bible gives us regarding the church is that of a body. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes each member as having a different role to play, just like a finger, a spleen and an ear. The body struggles without each and every part functioning well as part of a unified whole.
And that, in essence, is the church. A body where people come together and belong and have a function and are cared for, the same way you care for your teeth.
A professor once told my class that to segregate yourself from the body is like cutting off your pinky. You can hold it, severed, in your hand, and try to reattach it. You can rush to the emergency room and have it set back on, and for a time, there is a good chance it will be accepted back.
But say you leave that pinky in your basement for a day. A week. A month. Try reattaching it then. At a certain point, the digit is just a rotten piece of ex-flesh. It is rancid and useless.
My professor was describing Christians who try to maintain their faith while cut off from the life-giving community of Church, the Body of Christ. Sure, you may retain a flicker of warmth for a season, but ultimately, you are cut off from the source of life, the Body.
There is a lot of debate among American Christians right now over whether church attendance is really important for spiritual growth or, according to Donald Miller, if walking in the woods could have the same effect.
I’ll spare you the technical details of running through the sacraments, fellowship, the mission, the justice and redistribution of wealth as God’s vehicle to heal the world, communal worship, and the teaching of the Word. Can you get some of these things online with the advent of sermon podcasts, or worship music? Of course! And they are great things!
But they are not church.
Rich Mullins, one of the greatest Christian songwriters to live, once said, “Come to see people like me for entertainment, not spiritual nourishment. If you want spiritual nourishment, go to church.” (Do yourself a favor and watch that whole video)
There is so much I could say about this topic, but I’ll simply list off a few more reasons Christians should all be members of a local church.
It is selfish not to. Being a part of a local body means you’re receiving worship, sermons, sacrament, etc, but it also means you are giving to the other members as well. We all have different gifts and are all able to serve in one way or another. Your severed pinky didn’t just receive nutrients from your body without giving anything back; it was necessary to rock climb, play football, type, count to 10, and a dozen other daily tasks! To call your Andy Stanley sermon ‘church’ is selfish, because it suggests that church is simply what it can give me. This does not look at all like the give-and-take relationship described in Acts 4, where the members had this beautiful community where everyone was cared for.
The church is the only place in the world to receive the sacraments. You may have grown up in a denomination like me, where this was not really taught or understood very well. I always thought the one-song-long act of communion was pretty expendable and life would go on if we stopped doing it. Wrong. You may not understand the mystical transaction that happens at the sacramental table, but it is more real and central to the Christian life than we know. Same with baptism.
Community > Individualism. We live in a ME-culture. We are not brought up to think of collectives, tribes or families, but of individual people. Church is one of the richest expressions of fellowship and raw honesty in the world. It’s a place where elderly widows come and sit side-by-side with tattooed millennial boys. It’s a place of coming together, eating potlucks, helping others move, and encouraging. We profoundly miss this community (in which we give and take) by skipping church (For further exploration of this isolation vs. connectivity, check out this amazing book).
Come and be fed! The last thing I would say to a Christian questioning the validity of church attendance is simply to ask, ‘why wouldn’t you come to the source of life every week?’ Would you stop eating and let your body disintegrate? If not, why do that to your spirit and soul? We go to church because it is nourishing and filling to us, and reminds us of the abundant grace we have received in the Person of Jesus Christ. Why would you want to cut yourself off from that??
And lastly, a caveat. Many of you may have found yourself resisting certain parts of this post, as if it seems legalistic or that you will be damaged if you continue at your current parish. If that is the case, it may be time to look around for a new church to be a part of. Yes, there are some unhealthy and lifeless churches out there, and yes, some churches may be a better fit for you than others. But! Don’t expect any church to be completely perfect. every one is imperfect and every pastor needs grace just like the rest of us. Wrestle with your issues with church attendance to determine if they are more selfish in nature, or if you are in an unhealthy body and it’s time to look for another church to attend.
Just like every spouse has his or her flaws but you love them anyway, no church is perfect. That doesn’t mean you marry everyone you meet, but commitment and contribution to a church is not only valuable, but essential in the life of a Christian.
May we be Christians who love our churches and brag about them to others. May we accept them despite their flaws and love them for the unique expression of Christ they present. May we come to them both to be filled and to pour into others. And may we encounter Christ richly in our churches, that we may be lighted and become a light to the world.
Let’s be Christians who contribute to a solution rather than complaining about the problem. And that won’t happen simply by ceasing to show up.