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.
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.