Jay Blogs – Going to Church

This past week, I traveled to Philadelphia for work. I’m fascinated by cities like
Philadelphia, having lived in the South all my life. I’m not one of those people who look at cities like Philadelphia, or New Orleans, or New York, and see “dirty,” or “ugly,” or “mean.” These places fascinate me with their fullness of humanity, in all their brokenness, beauty,diversity, and potentiality.

But things are different up North. For one thing (and we all know this) but the first question people ask when they meet you in a place like Philadelphia is “What do you do for a living?” The cultural reason for this is complex, but it is mainly rooted in the Protestant/Puritan work ethic, an ethic we in the South share but that began (here in the U.S., at least) in colonial America.

In the South, it’s very different. Here, you’ll be asked one of two questions (and you already know them, right?): “Where are you from?” or, if they know that already, “Where do you go to church?” The first question is rooted in this region of the country where, culturally, place and people are even more important than work. The second comes because, even if we’re not all Christians in the South, we still live in a “Christ-haunted” part of the country. Where you “go to church” in some sense gives you an identity, and binds you to a community.

But, what does “going to church” really mean, anyway? For many of us, it doesn’t actually mean “attending church regularly,” at all. According to Gallup, 41 percent of those who say they are “regular attenders” make it to church one time per month. That doesn’t include the “Chreasters,” who show up on major holidays. Unlike much of the rest of the country, here in the South we still see church belonging as socially-becoming, although that spirit is declining. For some of us, going to church is just that: a social obligation or opportunity, to see friends and be seen as a respectable member of the community. For others, it’s a place to “meet our needs:” a desire for some level of spiritual focus, a message that will encourage or challenge us, or in some way leave us with positive emotional feelings.

The problem with any of these motives for going to church is that they make church attendance a hobby or self-help initiative. As pastor Matt Chandler once said: “church is a lame hobby.” So many better ways to kill time, if that’s all you’re doing. So, when other activities, like out-of-town travel or the million kids and youth sports leagues that create alternative programming to church on Sunday mornings come calling, church-as-hobby or as therapeutic exercise is a “nice-to-have,” but optional exercise in the life of the Christian.

The truth is that being a part of a church community is “optional” for an actual disciple of Jesus only in the same sense that parachuting without a ‘chute or scuba without a tank is “optional”- every once in a blue moon, someone actually survives, but the great likelihood is that you’ll die (spiritually). For Christians, belonging to a worship community goes to the essence of who we are, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. God exists in community, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the beginning, now, and forever. God created us in his image, in community, to live and exist together forever. Studies by the National Institutes of Health show that loneliness is a predictor of anxiety and depression. Social isolation increases feelings of perceived isolation, which, in turn, predicts higher symptoms of anxiety and depression. We weren’t intended to live alone, or be out of community.

And, doing life together isn’t just therapy, for our own well-being. When we become part of the Body of Christ, we are God’s sons and daughters (Heb. 1:5). This means we become part of a greater family than the one into which we were born. A family is a unit, people who were once separate and are now one. In the upper room, on the night before his death, Jesus prayed for unity, that we all would be one. It’s impossible to be one without being together. Nothing in the Bible suggests we’re supposed to simply be metaphorically one, or theoretically one. We’re called by God to be physically one, do life together. Jesus lived on earth in community with people, and he calls us to the same. We do that together as a Body.

Being part of a church also teaches us to love. As writer John Mark Comer has said, we’re not called to be Christ’s disciples simply for our own benefit, but to benefit the world around us. That means we’re called by love, to love. Jesus told us that love is how people would identify his disciples (John 13). And, love requires a subject, someone to love. Being a part of a church body teaches us how to love.

Of course, the process of love is messy. Of course, all those people are sinners and hypocrites, meaning they say one thing and do another. That’s what the gospel is all about- we’re saved despite ourselves, not because of who we are. That bunch is going to be a mess, because you and I are there. But, that’s not a reason against being a part of a body of believers, but a reason for being together.

In Luke 6, Jesus says (in so many words) “So what if you only love those people who love you? Any depraved person can do that! But, if you really want to love, love people who don’t like you or are hard to love.” We learn to love by loving people who are hard to love. You know who is hard to love? People who we do life with in church! Including us. God made it that way to train us and teach us. We sharpen each other.

Finally, we can’t become disciples as Jesus commanded without each other. We’ve been given gifts from the Holy Spirit. These aren’t like superpowers, made for our own edification, to make us special in and of themselves. They have no value or worth if they aren’t used to serve each other. We are called by God to confess our sins to each other, worship with each other, eat with each other, hold each other accountable, care for each other, pray with each other, and read Scripture together. Most of God’s promises to us, like “You are the light of the world,” are plural (“Y’all are the light….”).

In our independent, individualized culture, it may seem like we could or should be doing life separately, but that’s such a foreign concept to Scripture that it’s hardly ever mentioned. We live, work, and play in community, and God never planned, intended, or hoped for it to be otherwise. We just weren’t made to do it alone, and it’s not healthy when we try.

Church is not something we “go to,” it’s something we “are.” And, life that is not life together is not really full life at all.