According to a Christianity Today (CT) publication (November 2021), the abandonment of organized religion is a new “public health crisis.” That got me thinking because anecdotally I know this to be the case. We are a committed individualized culture and that has inevitably spilled out into organized religion. We go where we want (not necessarily what’s close). We leave when we want (despite membership vows). We give what we want (instead of pitching in the tithe at least). It can be a lot more than this but it isn’t less.
We have to be taught to be corporate. CT and other publications discuss the very practical benefits to going to church (e.g., reduced health risks, happier marriages, reduced risk of divorce, reduced rate of adolescent depression, etc.). These things are good as we make our way in this world. Yet, these things can be sought and found (at least in some measure) outside the corporate body of Christ.
I’m not sure the church spends enough time self-consciously reflecting on what makes the church unique in the world and why it is necessary (in a logical sense: essential) in a person’s life. Below are seven reasons why I need the church.
#1. I will hear messages I need but wouldn’t seek.
I preach every week. Early on in my professional ministry career, I decided that I (with the elders) would choose whole books of the Bible and preach through them. Once I’d complete a book, I’d move on to the next one. What I have discovered is this process doesn’t allow me to linger on texts or on points that are “hobby horses.” This doesn’t allow me to hammer a topic endlessly–unless the topic is in the text or flows from it naturally.
So, not only do I not choose the text, I am subject to the movement of the Holy Spirit’s illumination as I write a sermon. Many times before worship when the elders gather to pray, I’d say with fear and trepidation, “I’m not sure about this one!” Without trying to sound mystical, the text and the sermon choose me not the other way around.
This is in stark contrast to my Twitter feed, Facebook friend-group, news outlets I choose and Instagram account. Each one of those does what I tell it to do (usually). I work to curate every aspect of my life (as we all do) with the one exception of Sunday morning worship. I don’t even know how much I need messages I would never seek.
#2. I will have fellowship (community) with people I wouldn’t otherwise choose (mostly).
I think it’s fair to say that each of us has a picture in our minds of what kinds of people we’d choose to be in our community. It varies depending on each person but all of that is obliterated at church. God brings to our local church exactly who is supposed to come to our church. One downside of large churches (and I’ve served them) is you can still curate your fellowship by surrounding yourself with people you’d choose. Not so at 90% of all the churches in this country.
And not true at our church. At our small church, we have a large variety of ethnicities, education levels, career choices, family sizes, schooling choices, preferences for food and drink and sports teams. We have every age and have much of the United States represented. What is probably true at most churches is true of us: we are a group of people thrown together by the grace and mercy of God and that’s all. Since this is true, we all have to learn to live with that.
#3. I am lifted out of the common into the covenantal.
I share a street with neighbors. If I “tagged” people, I’d find we all go to the same grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, movie theaters, coffee joints, beer pubs and bathrooms. What God is preserving through the covenant He made with Noah is all around us. We share it in common and it has many really good things about it (I had some shrimp and cauliflower grits the other day…OH MAN…).
It is common all around us except at Sunday morning church. At church, I step into the Embassy of the Eternal. There is nothing common about the Call to Worship, the invocation, the confession of sin and affirmation of faith, the assurance of pardon (!), the prayers, the preaching and the weekly Lord’s Supper. You can’t find this anywhere “out there in the world” because these things are not of this world.
It isn’t just that by being a church-goer I might have a better marriage or less depression; if God wills it. It is that I step out of the matrix and into the real world; that is, with the entrance fee paid by our Savior, we get to stroll in the halls of the “not yet” with the Lord by His Spirit. We step into the rest that He has earned for us that He gives us through the means of grace. It is for these reasons online worship isn’t worship; it is being a spectator as worship is happening. Sure, there’s a time and place for such a thing but it isn’t the real thing!
#4. I am reminded of my citizenship.
I’ve traveled widely on this continent and in Europe. I have been regularly amazed at what happens when I come back to the States and I go through customs. “Welcome Home” is one of the sweetest phrases there is. I remember once I came back from abroad and went through some electronic customs situation and was greeted by no one. It was a dejected feeling to have lost the opportunity for someone to welcome me home.
I’ve been to some wonderful places but I am a citizen of only one. Sunday morning worship is the only place in all of creation where I’m truly “home.” I wonder if we spend enough time contemplating that fact. At church, I am reminded that I am a citizen of heaven–the new heavens and the new earth waiting to be revealed at the return of the Lord.
I like America (a lot). But living here can be hard; harder for some than others. All human communities are like that. I am a citizen of this country but I’m really just a sojourner, a resident alien, a stranger here. These true facts can easily be obscured if we minimize Sunday morning worship.
#5. My sojourning in this life gets fresh perspective.
I mentioned my Twitter feed. When I read it, I feel like Gollum did with the Ring: I love it and I hate it. I try to populate my feed with opposing viewpoints to mine. On those and the others similar to my own, so much seems so daunting, divisive, dangerous. The globe is warming and we’re all dead in a generation; Iran-NKorea-Russia-China all seemed poised to pull the trigger and blow it all up. Gas prices, inflation, national debt, abortion all just pile on and pile on.
Turning away from Twitter doesn’t solve much. The gloomy messaging is all around us. Almost. Inside the halls of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, there’s no gloom: resurrection. There’s no despair: salvation. There’s no alienation: community. There’s no poverty: depth of soul. There’s no wandering: glory of God. There’s no threat: Christ, the Head of all.
We step into church and these are the emblems and they give perspective on all the rest. Yeah: there’s a lot that sucks out there and there always will be. But inside, where Christ is by His Spirit, I recognize that one day, what is common will be rolled up like a scroll to make room for what is new. I have a stake in that and I am reminded of it each Sunday.
#6. I receive God’s grace.
God is kind and merciful to His people all the time. He even upholds creation for the good of all those made in His image and by His hand. But there is only one place where full measures of grace is dispensed: in the community of the faithful on Sunday morning through the means He has chosen: prayer, preaching, fellowship and the sacraments.
Only on Sunday morning is God invoked to attend to us. Only there do we pray as a body for His help, saying, “Our Father….” Only there is the word of God preached with power by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Only there will we find the Supper table set and the Spirit ministering more sanctifying grace to the worthy eater.
The teaching of Scripture is that we must not forsake the assembling together. To do so, we constrict the grace of God in our lives: He has designed us to worship together and receive His grace. Only in individualized Western countries have we compartmentalized God such that I think all I need is “me and Jesus.” Hogwash. Jesus is with me, true. Yet when I am with His Body, He is there in ways I do not receive when I am alone. If there is fuller measures of grace to be had in the corporate worship, why wouldn’t I go regularly?
#7. I minimize what should be minimized.
I will take with me through the grave only one thing: the righteousness of Christ. In heaven, I will greet those rewards that I have earned in obedience to Christ in this life. But those are prepared for me “over there.” That means the things that I have “over here” are important but not ultimate: my health, my wife, my children, my roles, my job and on.
Too often, in the church, we maximize what we should minimize: COVID sure made that obvious! In the church, where all the things of this world hold no place of prominence, I am reminded of what I should give my life to. Serve my wife, love my children, work hard – of course! Live for them? No. I’d never hear that if I didn’t go to corporate worship every Sunday.