Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Do We Still Need A "Physical" Church?

Dear Friends,

This is the worst time for churches in our lifetime. In the past year, many thousands have permanently closed their doors because of nearly empty sanctuaries and no income. A recent church survey showed that as churches can no longer pay salaries, 51% of Protestant pastors are searching for a secular job. It grieves me every time I read about a church becoming a community center, an indoor skate park, a brewery, a Dollar Tree store etc. 

Many years ago, the once-largest Methodist church in Glendale closed due to declining attendance and had a “going out of business” sale. Most were buying kitchen equipment, office furniture and books and I did buy a Bible that had been on one of the Civil War ships. The Bible had been rescued as the ship sunk and was subsequently donated to this church. A cross is the sum and substance of our faith and a plain wooden one had hung over the altar in the church’s chapel – it was the very essence of that historic church. Ninety five years of worship and prayers, celebrations and tears, are embedded in that cross and it now hangs over the fireplace in my living room. 

The death bells toll daily for churches throughout our Country as the pandemic continues because many one-time committed church-goers now prefer to watch a service on TV. For many, their churches have in-person services, but let’s face it. Is a physical church really still important in our fast-paced, energized, digitalized world? I can turn on my “smart” television or any web-connected device and live-stream services of Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Tim Keller and other church superstars. So why do I need to sit through a sermon by an “ordinary” pastor at a church? I can download music from the top worship bands in America’s megachurches, so why do I need to listen to amateur worship singers in church and Edna Müller’s enthusiastic but off-key “special music” during the collection? I can interact with my Christian friends online and even meet with my Bible study on Zoom, so why do I need to spend time with a bunch of people at church? In this day and age, isn’t church just a quaintly old-fashioned tradition that’s on its way out?

A woman 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?”

The writer of that letter was a “spectator” in a mainline church and I understand the point she’s making and why she feels that way. She attended her church as she would attend any class, lecture, movie or concert – as a spectator who expects to be entertained or taught something that would be of value to her. At church, she would passively sit, look, listen and then wonder why she’s there. 

The mainline Protestant churches are closing because those in the congregation who were only spectators became the online spectators during the pandemic. After awhile, they wondered why they were even doing that and did something else on a Sunday morning. I’ll be the first one to admit that it really is pointless to attend church if you’re only a spectator. Because God calls us into His Kingdom to be a participator. The Christian faith is both God’s offer of His love to us through Jesus Christ and our active response to that love. We glorify God and respond to Him with worship and praise! 

But if we can easily remain a spectator with an online church service while sitting in our underwear, drinking coffee and eating our chocolate donuts, what could possibly be the purpose of getting up and setting aside all other things in order to go to church? Why do we dress up and look nice? Why do we sing and clap and raise our hands and pray and stand and kneel and shed tears and confess and take His Body and Blood? Because God didn’t call you to be a religious hermit sitting alone, watching a digital church service; He called you to be the church that Jesus created for His followers.

When we are participants in our church we intercede in prayer for each other and carry their burdens. We mark our calendars to remind us that a brother or sister has something that day that needs our prayer covering. We send each other thoughtful notes and get well cards. We volunteer to do the hospitality time after the service. We spend our own money to prepare a meal for the family of that new mom or someone who is ill. Active participation in our church family is an expression of our love for Christ.

Why do we go to church? To participate! The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” Whether our liturgy is high church, low church, mainline, Catholic, Evangelical or Pentecostal, what takes place in our service that brings glory to God is not just the work of the pastor, it’s the “work” of the people – our church family. 

We hear the Word of God spoken by our pastor. He’s not Joel Osteen but then Joel wasn’t the one who sat by our side in the hospital room the day after our surgery. And Edna Müller will never win a GMA Dove Award but we love her spirit as she shares her love for the Lord with us through her solo. And there is absolutely nothing that takes place through your Wi-Fi that can possibly come close to the exhilarating experience of singing praise and worship songs with your congregation to the glory of God! And that my friends is why we still need our quaintly old-fashioned church service!

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