Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Why Do You Go To Church?

Maria has been faithfully attending our services for the past three years. She is a small, frail woman in her eighties who speaks no English at all. She listens to the pastor singing unfamiliar hymns and worship songs and hears prayers and a sermon in a language she does not understand. She has difficulty walking but always struggles to her feet and reverently crosses herself before receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during Communion. Once when her daughter joined her for the Sunday service I told her how much I appreciated her mom being there even though the service was in English. She told me her mom always feels the peace of God after attending the service. 
A woman who attended a high-energy Pentecostal church told me that she was bored in the service and “not being fed” by the pastor’s sermons and needed to find another church where she could again feel excited about going to church on Sunday. (“not being fed” is what we say when we don’t enjoy the pastor’s sermons but we want to say that in a way that makes us sound more spiritual than shallow) A woman in a mainline liturgical church wrote: “Frankly I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and the listening?” These two women are religious “spectators” and I understand the point they are making and why they feel that way. They attend their church as they would attend any music concert, lecture, class or movie – as a nonparticipant who simply sits and listens and expects to be entertained, emotionally moved or taught something that will be of personal interest to them.

If church really is only about the music and the message then I’d be the first one to say that it is pointless to attend any church considering that we live in an entertainment-oriented world where we can watch professionally produced church services that rival any Las Vegas show. On any web-connected device I can live-stream services of Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Charles Stanley and other church superstars. So why do I need to sit through a sermon at that little neighborhood church? I can download music from the top worship bands in America’s mega-churches, so why do I need to listen to amateur worship singers in church? A pastor has an online church that even celebrates Holy Communion. She pauses during her taped service while you run to the fridge and fetch the grape juice or something else to drink and then get a cracker or grab a cookie. As you watch her read the words of the ritual, whatever beverage you have in the glass is automatically turned into the “blood” of Jesus. Then as you hold your Oreo cookie up to the screen on your phone, her prayer of consecration turns it into the “body” of Jesus Christ. Is this the church that Jesus founded 2,000 years ago? Something is missing.

Jesus established the “church” (Greek: ecclesia meaning a community of believers) to glorify God and worship Him forever. Centuries later, church leaders turned His church into an institution that became the “mediator” between the believer and God. The Protestant reformation turned back to the first Century church that focused on a personal relationship between believer and God, but many of today’s Americanized Protestant services have become performance events with professional worship bands, short, funny, self-help messages by pastors and, for some, an unrelenting focus on social justice activism. Something is missing.

What’s missing is what Jesus established the church to do. It’s missing our reverent worship. The church is a “thin place.” In Celtic spirituality, thin places are where the ordinary of our lives and the holiness of God meet and our worship moves us between both of those realities. Thin places are often described as being where the veil between heaven and earth seems transparent. The sacrament of the Eucharist pulls back the veil and reveals the presence of God. During the moment in the service when the Eucharistic Prayer is said over the bread and wine, the sanctuary becomes thick with His Presence. If you have never experienced church as a “thin place,” you have never experienced the church as it was meant to be. Author Annie Dillard writes, “If we really understood the power we routinely invoke during Sunday worship, we’d wear crash helmets in church.” 

Our ecclesia – our community of believers – is where we gather to glorify God and worship Him. But if our focus is solely on what the church can do for us, then we will inevitably become  disappointed. Church is not our spiritual health spa, it’s where we go to worship the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The service is not for us and not about us. It’s all about God. But it’s when you gather on a Sunday morning to worship and glorify God, that’s when He reaches down and touches us. When we worship Him, we are changed–transformed–and we leave church a different person than when we walked in those doors.
It doesn’t matter to Maria that her church service is in a language that she doesn’t understand. She is there to worship God. She knows the English words “God” and “Jesus” and so she knows that the songs being sung are hymns and worship songs. She hears those two familiar Names in the prayers and in the sermons. That’s all she needs to know. She knows that worship is taking place and in her heart and in her language, she joins right in. She is not there to be entertained or educated but to worship her God. And in doing so, He meets her right there and takes her into His presence. She loves God and knows that He loves her. She feels His peace. She comes to worship and leaves transformed. That’s why she comes to church.

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