I admit it.
I like going to church.
I know that’s not the hip or cool thing to say these days, but I actually do enjoy spending my Sunday mornings at church.
That’s not to say that those who struggle with or get frustrated by church don’t have legitimate frustrations. Many of them do and, as I’ve argued before, perhaps sometimes they do need a break from regular church attendance.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of those frustrations or the pain they cause one bit.
But for me, church is somewhere I actually want to be.
Yesterday, my wife and I began the process of finding a new church home here in Connecticut. The service at the church we chose to visit wasn’t by any means the greatest service I’ve ever attended. But, after having been away from church for a few weeks due to various trips and moving across country, there was a sense of being home again.
Granted, I had never met any of the people at the church before, but there is that wonderful quality about the Body of Christ, particularly when you are in a church within your own tradition, that gives you a sense of being at home with family when you’re at church even when that church is 1,200 miles away from your “actual” home and family. Sure, not all churches are like that, but when you find one that is, at least for me, it’s not something you want to let go of.
Church, for me, is also place of much needed nourishment and encouragement. Being away from the Body for too long left me feeling drained, or at least incomplete, but I didn’t fully realize this until I was there. Sure, the church exists beyond the four walls of the local parish, but the truth is that the physical gathering of people within those walls is a tremendously important thing. The handshakes, the smiles, the kind words, and even the unwanted hugs have a way of physically imparting a much needed inward and spiritual grace.
Of course, church is a rather peculiar place. And I don’t just mean the awkward meet and greet time during service that nobody really likes. Other than karaoke bars, who else gets together regularly to sing songs together? Where else do teenagers regularly mingle with senior citizens? And it’s not often that you find a place where people so willingly (and sometimes without even being asked) share their hope, pain, joys, and struggles with strangers. But it’s this peculiarity that I think, at least in part, helps make church such a wonderful place.
It’s true that this peculiarity also points to the fact that church is an imperfect place as well. There’s always a singer singing off-key. Inevitably the sound system doesn’t work exactly the way it’s supposed to. And the preacher is sometimes a bit, well, boring. But I think there’s a certain kind of beauty in that. That imperfection reminds us of our own flaws, but as the service continues forward despite these flaws and is finally brought to a holy completion, we are reminded, in turn, that despite our own imperfections, we too can be brought to a holy completion as well.
But we should be careful not to pass over the ending of the service too quickly for it is there that one of the unique, but truly incredible moments of the service takes place – the “sending forth”. Most of us may ignore this time, distracted by our lunch plans or so eager to rush home to kick off that we miss the pastor’s words. But if done correctly, this final moment may just be one of the most important moments of the service, for it is here that we are not just sent out with a blessing, but we are sent out with a mission.
Week after week we are commissioned for the days to come with a renewed purpose to spread the good news of the gospel. That may seem routine, but if we take it seriously, and I think we should, then it is an important reminder that we all have been called by God for a purpose. That, at least in my mind, is a pretty incredible thing.
Now, yes the church has her flaws. And yes, she needs to be held accountable when she fails to live up to what it means to be the Body of Christ, particularly when people get hurt. But those necessary changes and corrections don’t happen from without. They happen from within.
Congregations vary greatly from church to church, street to street. Your church may be really screwed up, but that doesn’t mean the church across the street isn’t ready to welcome you with open arms. It’s ok to be angry, but it’s not ok to hold every church everywhere responsible for the actions of a local congregation, because the truth is there’s always a church somewhere in which you will find loving, compassionate people actually embodying Christ to the world.
Yes, it might take some effort to find that church and yes that effort may at times be a painful process, but the church was given to us as a gift, even if sometimes it feels like a curse. Transcendent thought it may be, it’s a gift that can only be fully received amongst the physical gathering of believers. So, if you haven’t been in a while, let me encourage to give church another chance.
You never know. Your visit may just surprise you. If you really make an effort to give it a chance and you pay close attention, then tucked away between the off-key special music and the awkward hugs from strangers, you may just catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God here on earth, just as it is in heaven.
Grace and peace,