Last week I made a big stink about how unimportant the one hour a week of church is. The Worship Minister at our church thought it was one of the best blogs he’d ever read. Ok, that’s not true. I did leave one glaring question unanswered. Why on earth would I ever encourage someone to be part of something that I call unimportant?
Here’s the short answer. Being part of a church is very different than going to church. People show up at church for 1,000 different reasons. Whether it be force of habit, attempts to appease a spouse, a desire to change a spouse, or the hope that their presence will pay their admission to eternal bliss, lots of folks go to church as part of a strategy to get something out of life.
The person who shows up at church looking for that hour to save them or fix something in their life will always be disappointed. Church doesn’t save. God does. Church is also incapable of giving peace. That is also under the job description of God. Church cannot be the sum total if your spiritual investment. A life without an honest seeking of God will leave one incapable of truly finding God. I know, this is bad news in a lot of ways. I’ve got a couple of decades invested in this Christianity bit, and I still find myself wishing there was an easier way.
The power of going to church in a person’s spiritual growth is found in its power to interpret. Because life is both unpredictable and prone to disappointment, each person will encounter events, or even lengthy blocks of time, in which your experience of life does not jive with 1) what you thought you knew of God and 2) what you expect from life. The ways in which a person makes sense of these troubling times is by folding them into a story that can offer a satisfactory sense of meaning.
We have several powerful tools we use to create these life stories. We draw on our family of origin, our past successes and failures, our fears, our assumption about good and evil, and our theories about God. We also lean on the perspective of close friends, mentors, and acquaintances. We find nuance for our life interpretation based on the cultural air we breath.
The Christian witness- by that I mean the story offered by the Bible and the living history of the Christian community (worship, preaching, prayer)- provide a profound interpretive response to all these narrative threads that we use to make sense of our imperfect lives.
If you have different core beliefs than me, you’ll argue this point, but I believe that the primary role going to church plays in our spiritual growth is that it provides the language, the stories, and the basic truths that will allow us to interpret our lives with an honest understanding of God’s movement. In other words, you don’t know how to talk about what God is doing unless someone teaches you the languages. You don’t really even know what the movement of God looks like without someone showing you the signs.
Growth cannot happen in a vacuum. It must be shaped and refined by the presence of additional voices speaking into our lives. Too many of us go to church each week in a way that leaves our faith in a vacuum. We don’t engage or open up. We walk the halls and fill the seats of church buildings with no space for any relational connection. To do church in this way leaves you disconnected from these powerful voices and influences that can help you more fully understand the nuances and counters of your life.
The giant but in what I’m proposing, is that by developing honest relational connections with Christian community you make yourself vulnerable to hurt. Churches and the people who make them up are sometimes good at making mistakes. There are churches that try not to do so, but many will just say they believe in grace and they know their not perfect. Also, not every person who sits in pews next to you will be as interested in spiritual growth as you will be if you try to approach your church community in this way. You may have to search for people who can offer the type of relational spirituality that growth demands.
People sometimes say this risk is a bad thing and should prevent us from pursuing spiritual growth through Christian relationship. I call shenanigans on that. People do all sorts of stupid stuff that is filled with risk. Usually this doesn’t really have much of a payoff. Trying to dive more fully into your spiritual development through Christian community is not nearly as risky as jumping out of an airplane, driving a car, or even having a kid.
The real question is not what it might cost you or how you might get hurt. The real questions is what you really want for you life. I do believe that if and when you discover God on the deep levels of the soul, you’ll find a way of living your life that is beyond your expectations. You have to actually search for this life though, you can’t just sit in a pew and wait for it to find you. So go to church. But if you do go, then you need to show up ready to search, to question, to open your heart and your life. You need to show up ready to be part of something bigger than just yourself.