Church attendance is in decline – I’m not presenting any shocking news here. What’s surprising, however, is the shifting worship attendance patterns among committed Christians (my own informal survey concludes that twice a month is the new normal for core and committed Christians).
Of course we can come up with many fine reasons for why this is so – it’s a day of rest after all, and a busy professional/family just needs some downtime; it’s an opportunity to worship in creation (skiing, hiking), Sunday is the busiest sports day for my kids and my opportunity to connect with people who don’t come to church. Then factor in the aesthetic quality elements (can’t worship be dreadfully boring, poorly planned, aesthetically weak, poor preaching, and all-round uninspiring) and you’ve pretty much made the case for doing something else on any given Sunday morning.
So why should anyone bother with going to church these days when there’s so many other, better, ways to accomplish what happens at a Christian worship service? Do you want to hear the preaching of God’s Word? Well, you can download pretty fabulous sermons throughout the internet. Seeking to worship God? Why not put a worship CD on and praise God with the best choirs or worship bands available. Want to give money – every charity let’s you conveniently do that online. So, again, why bother with going to church at all?
If church is simply about doing certain things (singing, listening, praying, giving), a place where stuff happens, where you find instruction or inspiration, there are surely more clean and effective means to meet these ends.
But what if this line of thinking reduces church to something less than its full biblical dimensions? What if we’ve completely misunderstood church itself and so have distorted the practice of going to church? What if its not a place where stuff happens, not an event where we do something? What if that is all secondary and the most important thing about church is that it’s a people where God lives, and if you don’t gather with that community you’ve missed out on the actual presence of God.
Julie Canlis wrote a really fine article on this shift in our understanding of church in “Downloading our spirituality: why going to church doesn’t seem necessary in a virtual age.” (CRUX, Spring 2009). She argues that we’ve become pagans (Gnostics), seeking out a “privatized, un-embodied” spirituality that we can mostly live out through our minds, seeking out a knowledge that will change us and save us.
But here’s the deal: the gospel is not a philosophy providing an insight that saves, not a therapy that improves our lives, providing peace and joy – if it was these, then the most important thing about church should be about knowledge or psychological salve.
The Christian gospel is not less than these but far more, the scandalous message that God works through flesh-and-blood means, that salvation is about a new relationship, one that necessarily connects us with other people who are now a part of us because we are now a part of Christ. Julie Canlis writes: “Every time we go to church, we declare that we are not individuals – as the culture around us would have us believe – but rather are made up by these new relations (which are not always easy, not comfortable).” We are saved and formed in relation.
It’s a scandalous notion in our day and age of privatized, ethereal spirituality. If we’re honest, going to church offends our best sensibilities. Seriously, aren’t there better ways to know God? How can God be in this amateurish affair, with these raw and uncooked people, in this forgettable worship? That reaction parallels the offense caused by the humanity of Jesus – how can this carpenter, this one just like us, be the Messiah? The mix of humanity and divinity, whether in Jesus or his Body, the Church, is always scandalous.
I continue to be grabbed by Lesslie Newbigin’s observation that Jesus never wrote a book, didn’t leave us a philosophy or a strategy for becoming spiritual – the only thing he left was a community. That’s the place where the Trinity works and lives.
Who knew, the simple practice of going to your local church might be the most spiritually formative and radically counter-cultural thing you do all week. See you Sunday then.