3 Reasons Why I Go to Church

Here’s a few thoughts that have been stirring for quite some time now. But only recently have I come to my keyboard to record them.

I want to write about church and why it’s important.

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The church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The earliest Christians bear witness to this as the place Jesus was buried for 3 days.

Ok, so churches often meet in particular places, but really the church is people.

But indeed, the term church often carries with it a host of memories. Maybe yours is of a Christmas Eve service with candles that ended with Silent Night. Or it’s of that long sermon on a hot day that had you fidgety and ready for ice cream. Maybe your church experiences are categorized via your sensory systems: the incense, the cologne people wore, the sound of a Hammond B3 or a pipe organ, guitar chords, a chorus of singers swaying, hands clapping.

My own experiences of church are fairly diverse, all things considered. I grew up in a church that was part of a really good preaching tradition. Concepts like the judgment of charity, of “stepping out of the boat,” and the prayer of, “God, throw the rock here!” were all concepts that moved me and challenged me. Musically we did ok, though our clapping was occasionally offbeat.

In college I was exposed to new things, like a church where I interned that changed its entire seating and design layout every six weeks and sometimes played songs by Coldplay, U2, and Elvis Costello. After college I began seminary, and as I did I also began my first real job as a youth minister in an Episcopal church from the “high church” Anglican tradition, which means they really like structure. Worship was regal yet somehow it was also warm and inviting. I sang in the same choir that Gerald R. Ford would have heard when the Grace community met on Cherry Street in Grand Rapids, just with different people. Lift High the Cross was one tune in particular that always arrested me spiritually-check it out sometimes and let it get stuck in your head for the rest of your life.

Later, I transitioned to lead worship in a small Reformed church in Wyoming, Michigan. It was casual, relaxed, with an established mission for living out Christian practices by loving one’s neighbor. Church was relationships, connections, common purpose, common life.

Since April I’ve been worshiping with a new community as a pastor for youth and families. It’s also part of the Reformed tradition. We sing some amazing and moving songs and listen to some gripping sermons. There’s also a deep yet inviting liturgy that guides the whole thing along, and the words motivate us to go out and invest in the community we inhabit. Thankfully, the church itself provides numerous opportunities for this.

So here are my three things [skip to the last one if you’re in a hurry]:

1. I’m easily distracted from imitating Jesus.

There’s this ancient song in the Old Testament. Found in Isaiah, it’s one of the “Servant Songs.” Chapter 53:6a says this: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…” 

Jesus [the famous guy who turns out to be the servant that Isaiah was talking about] invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, to imitate him. This is quite a challenge. And that’s why I get distracted. I need a weekly pattern to keep me oriented to God and caring about others, a consistent habit that keeps me imagining a more integrated way of living that extends generosity and grace to others and hope for people caught in destructive patterns of living. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how they love Jesus but not the church, and I get how church can be frustrating [there are people involved!], but after the dust settles I’m confident Jesus as well as the earliest leaders of the church intended for us to consistently meet together [Hebrews 10:25].

2. Church sheds meaningful light on everyday things.

For all the normal stuff of life, grocery trips and soccer games, road trips and office trips and embarrassing trips like when I flew head-over-heels down the stairway at my high school during the winter of my junior year, yes! for all these experiences, church is a place to find meaning.

By default, the average American watches Netflix programs, cooks a meal, gets a teensy bit annoyed in traffic, and sort of tries to be a good person. Church offers perspective for why movies are meaningful, reasons to enjoy the food God provides, how to see other drivers as created by God, and a path toward actually becoming the better version of yourself that Jesus sees.

3. Church is a community that turns faith into a verb.

In the words of my old friend Steve Argue who now works at Fuller Youth Institute, the church is a “faith-ing community.” Even as a pastor and genuinely committed Christian, I wonder about things, I doubt, I wrestle with God. But I’m doing that in the context of a community that is doing faith actively.

It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but we actually want to love our enemies as Jesus instructed. We actually believe there is purpose to life beyond getting oneself ahead. There is a God to be adored and understood most clearly in this enigmatic person, Jesus, who did miracles and changed the world. There are issues to confront ranging from confronting white privilege to preventing genocide.

There’s this song that really moves me. It’s all about eating and drinking in the fresh and revived world that Christians believe God is ultimately bringing about. It’s about experiencing full connection with God and rich community with others. And, like church, tasty treats are involved.

Whether or not you believe that God created us, whether or not you think Jesus was for real, and whether or not you think we are made for eternal connection with God and one another [and this involves tasty treats, of course], I’ll bet you want to believe it. And I believe you were made that way, with the hope of good things that last engraved on your soul.

And to think, your deepest longings might just be true.

That, friend, is reason enough to go to church.

 

Cynicism: The Downhill Slide to Apathy

Some things come so easy in life. It’s easy to breathe, easy to eat, easy to enjoy a great movie. It’s also so incredibly easy to become cynical.

How often do we exude a cynical, scornful, maybe sardonic attitude toward others, even people we love? The political climate and the current election cycle in particular brings this out of us in a special sort of way. We are so quick to dismiss, quick to disown, quick to slide into a lackadaisical sense of self-asserting cynicism. Well my friends, this only leads to crippling apathy. 

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I tried to find a picture that captured apathy. This is the best I could do.

This downward slide toward apathy can begin quite early in life. Remember being a kid? Remember how you watched other kids put down each other, making themselves feel better about themselves? The bullies in school thought they were getting ahead by making other kids feel awful, but in reality they were simply hurting others and creating memories that sometimes never fade away.

For me, I still remember when other kids in my fifth grade class made the connection between the minty muscle rub, Bengay, and its implication for persecuting me. By the cubby boxes where we kept our personal items, Kory-the coolest kid in our class-dubbed me with the title that I would fail to shake for the many long months of that 1997-1998 school year. Ben-gay. There you go. Bullying and taunting leaves marks, scars that last for decades. I am not bothered so much anymore about having been called Bengay in fifth grade any more than you are bothered by the insults you received during your formative years-or even now, but the fact that I remember it reveals how painful it was.

But we continue the same crudeness that marked elementary school playgrounds and junior high locker rooms. We just change the format, moving toward a disdaining, self righteous, and dismissive kind of humor that decimates, crushes the distant “other.”

The educated are especially capable of this kind of easy scorn. Right now, progressives are quickly branded as amoral communists who cannot define right living while conservatives become xenophobic ostriches who can’t foster a bit of sympathy for someone different than them. It’s not too terribly different than 5th grade, is it? I live in San Francisco, so I tend to hear a bit more bashing of conservatives than I did back in the Midwest. There, I had only a slightly more balanced diet of who bashed who. Slightly, mind you.   

Known as one of Jesus’s brothers, James had some serious words about our words. In chapter three of his New Testament letter which many scholars perceive as a written sermon, he says this:   

“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Deadly poison? Surely, he overstates. Or maybe not. Have you been on Twitter or Facebook recently? Have you listened in to the world of politics? Our God-given desire to promote meaningful change and respectful community so quickly devolves into cynical denunciation of others around us. Before we are aware, we become numb, apathetic.

Just verses later, James suggests an alternative:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

I literally just breathed a sigh of relief. A good life speaks vital words to communities that desperately needs purpose. A life well-lived imbues a sense of hope by modeling a sense of God-given humility stemming from wisdom. Humble folks have a harder time being cynical: their wisdom, earned by honestly observing their own foibles, reminds them that they have received a lot of grace. And a lot of forgiveness. And this leads to a sense of indebtedness toward others instead of a cutting and self-asserting I-know-better-than-you kind of mentality. 

But where does it all come from? Again [surprise surprise], James helps us as we follow his logic: 

…the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James was a Jewish Christian, and in the minds of 1st century Jews, heaven was the place where God is [fully. see your local pastor or rabbi for further details]. Wisdom that comes from heaven is wisdom straight from God. And look at how James describes wisdom. It is pure, merciful, submissive, impartial, sincere. It is not apathetic or cynical. And it certainly is not easy. It’s easy to dismiss, to roll our eyes and look down our noses at others who understand things differently than we do. It’s easy to roll downhill toward apathy land where nothing really matters-not even people [even people who we thought we cared about]. 

Christian sisters and brothers, we are called not to what is easy, but to what is hard. Resist cynicism, scorn, and the easy words that come to us that cut others down. Don’t roll down the easy path of subtle hate that leads to apathy. Instead, practice love, forgiveness, peace, submission, mercy, sincerity. 

It may not be easy, but I believe it’s what we are called to. And, if I’m honest, I’ve got my work cut out for me.