It’s church again on Sunday. Just like it was last Sunday and the Sunday before, and the one before that. The truth is I’ve been going to church my whole life. It’s instinctive, so much so it’s hard to imagine a week without it. And just like anything so embedded in life, the habit has been formative. I have been shaped by church-going in ways that run so deep I can barely name them.
Of course, given I now get paid to be there it’s probably not surprising that I’m still so regular! Another pastor asked me recently, ‘If you weren’t the minister, would you still show up?’ It’s a good question, one I reckon church leaders should reflect on regularly. But as I’ve thought about it since, I can honestly say, ‘Yes, I would.’
There have certainly been times, especially in the last decade, when I’ve wanted to walk away from church-going. Honestly, I know the church too well and I can name its faults better than most. But when push comes to shove, I can’t. Many of my peers have left church behind, and some for good reasons, but not me. There is still something about the gathering that I just can’t kick.
That said, my sense of what the church service is about has changed considerably. There was a time when I thought the church building was where God lived. Another time when I thought my salvation depended on being there. And other times when I believed the depth of my spirituality was measured entirely by the intensity of my encounter with God when I got there. So much of that is different now. The fact is, I’ve come to experience the Holy in some of the most ‘profane’ places; to understand that the church does not contain God. I have come to appreciate that spirituality is forged in the midst of life as much as it is in the rituals of Sunday worship. Yes, a lot has changed; despite it all I’m still there.
There’s something about being with a community of people who share my longing to know God and to live meaningfully in and for the world that I can’t do without … that I don’t want to do without. While the Sunday worship service is not the main event anymore—it’s not the holy of holies—it’s still important. Being with people of faith, a community of the gospel—no matter how fragile—reminds me that (i) the call of God is about us, not me; (ii) we inhabit a world as full of wonder, mystery and longing as it is of routine and rationality; and (iii) our routine and shared confession of dependence upon a power outside of ourselves is essential to a life marked by humility and grace.
I remember some years back hearing the Australian theologian Charles Ringma describe Sunday worship as a ‘disclosure situation’. It sharpens our perceptions of the holy, he said, helping us to recognize the presence and purposes of God elsewhere. I like that. It makes showing up worthwhile.