Does meeting with my earthly family at home provide something better than an assembly of the saints? In some cases, listening to a podcast in my car would be better. My father-in-law once took me fishing and explained how he felt so much closer to God in the woods and water than at church. He doubtlessly spoke the truth.
But I don’t go to church to be fed, served, or make friends. I go to church to feed, serve, and be a friend. And I can’t do that in the woods, in my car, or at home with just my family.
I may not be able to do that at the local Church of Christ if they’re too legalistic and cultic. But the Church of Christ is not the only body of believers in most towns.
No church is ideal, and like individual Christians, they all have their fair share of brokenness and weakness. But that just means that if I associate with them, I have a God-given role to play. I can help. Maybe I’m only a very small part of the solution, but I can make things a little bit better. I can be gracious to my fellow Christians. I can live a life of faith. I can set a Christ-like example. I can serve, submit, sacrifice, and even suffer among my fellow Christians — never imagining myself to be any sort of cure but still able to leave things better than how I found them.
Churches are all messy, icky places. All political. All far from perfect. And the more involved we become in church life, the better we see their flaws. It’s why we all need Jesus and why we need to be Jesus to each other.
In other words, if we see being part of a local church as mission, that we’re there to be of some help, not to be helped, then wonderful things happen. After all, if I measure the church by how well it helps me, I may have next to no control over how well that happens. I quickly become frustrated and feel powerless. But if I measure the church by how well I’m able to be Jesus to the church — how well I can wrap a towel around my waist and wash the filth off the feet of my fellow believers — well, that’s largely in my own control. Not entirely, but much more so. And if I measure my happiness by the smiles on the faces of those whose feet have been washed, well, that can make for one wonderful local-church experience.
I just came across this article by a woman who’d grown up in church, got frustrated and found satisfaction in serving in community-service projects, only to rediscover the joys of serving in her local church —
Then one day, an older church lady put my husband and me in charge of finding people to serve communion each week. We were still “the new couple,” so I’m pretty sure she was just trying to rope us into consistent, punctual attendance—and her plan has absolutely worked.
Now that we’ve shouldered even just this tiny bit of responsibility, we recognize how many people have to show up consistently to create the prayerful, welcoming, worshipful space we experience each week. If everyone involved in leading music, running sound, teaching kids’ classes and preaching sermons only showed up on the days when they didn’t feel stressed, busy, tired, bored, sad, frustrated or enticed outside by beach weather, we wouldn’t have much of a church at all.
So I’ve slowly learned that going to church can be about something other than moral requirement, fear of punishment, social connection, getting spiritually fed, or even looking for likeminded people with whom to pursue justice in the world. Going to church can be about holding this space in which to experience the grace of God together, learn together, fail and forgive and stumble forward together.
I’ve benefitted from the sacrificial commitment and consistency of countless people who have welcomed me into community over the years, and now I recognize the invitation for me to do the same thing for others: to hold that space even on days when I don’t seem to personally benefit from it. When the songs don’t do anything for me, when I don’t want to talk with people about the difficult week I’ve had, or when I’d rather sleep in instead—it is then that I am invited to go to church anyway.
Not because God or anyone else is judging me by my attendance, but because it is a chance for me to be church to the people who are sharing this journey with me. It is an opportunity to hold space for others to encounter God, and to open space in myself to encounter, even when I least expect it, God in the midst of the people who are my church.
We just had a huge, megachurch open a campus near our congregation. Plenty of our members sneered at their lazy, consumer-oriented approach to Christianity — assuming to be true what they wished to be true. But the mega-church requires members to volunteer in their church. REQUIRES. It’s not a suggestion. It’s not a request. In their mind, if you’re going to be a member, you have to be active. You can’t buy your way in with a check and semi-regular attendance.
(And they have a smaller full-time ministerial staff than we do. More volunteers means less staff needed and more money available for ministry and growth.)
Why? Well, I suspect they found that you can’t grow a church on consumerism and a me-focused approach to church life. The way you get people outside of themselves and concerned with others is to give them a job. In church. Dealing with their messy, icky, weak, broken, woefully inadequate brothers and sisters. It’s in service — as practice, not theory — that we are transformed into servants and so become more like Jesus.
We traditional churches are so caught up in the consumer mentality that we are terrified of making any demands on our members. After all, they might transfer to a church that makes even more stringent demands! It makes no sense – except the reality is that our members will get mad at our demands, leave, and join a new church that makes much tougher demands out of resentment for making the demands. It’s like the members who change churches to protest a relocation. Then again, any change can be done in a way that makes people mad. How you do it matters.
Here are some more tests for whether your church is doing this right:
- When you ask for volunteers, do people volunteer? Or do you have to beg?
- What percentage of your members are actually, honest-to-God engaged in church service?
- Is service considered a privilege or burden?
- Is the least desirable, most unappreciated job in your church being in charge of getting volunteers? Have you ever canceled involving members in something you thought really needed to be done by volunteers because getting volunteers was too much trouble?
- Do you hire staff to do things your members cannot do or things your members just don’t want to do?
So I understand those who object to the theory of an attractional church. Get to know us, we aren’t all that attractive! But out in the community, where we love strangers, well, we’re just all kinds of great people.
But that’s not the biblical model. It’s not God’s plan. There are no short cuts. We can’t skip the messy, dirty parts of life together. In fact, the real power of the gospel, the Spirit, and the cross are found in the dirty, nasty, difficult pain of congregational life.
And so we need some community disciplines — routines, habits, and rituals that help us along the way toward loving one another. Prayer mazes and lectio divina aren’t the solution.