I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about church. Not God, or scripture, or prayer, but church. My church, their church, the Church, all the churches. Church culture fascinates me, even when I disagree with it. This fascination has buoyed me through several traditions, through years of studying things like history, art, philosophy, and theology, and led me to a season of working at a church doing some of the on-the-ground stuff that makes ministry happen. So I’ve invested a lot of energy – mental and otherwise – in this aspect of the faith. Which is why I feel okay tackling this question.
There was a season in my life where I was really pissed at the church. I had gone through an evangelical phase that left a weird taste in my mouth, and made me not want to be affiliated with Christianity. I started to come back around in college, but even then, I wasn’t totally on board with the idea of church. It seemed kind of like a useless formality: I was getting an excellent Christian education in school, which was supported by a strong community of peers who loved the Lord. But I went to church anyway and kept going back. It seemed like the right thing to do, even before I understood why.
I’m pleased to report that I think I understand now why Christians ought to go to church, even if they read a lot and even if sometimes the church does things they don’t like.
Church is for God first and above all else. What happens on Sundays is a feeble attempt to respond to the miracle of resurrection, the gift of salvation, and the promise of the Kingdom. God has made his move, and the ball’s in our court – so we sing songs, pray prayers, and confess sins, because God deserves our praise and honesty. On paper, it seems a little absurd. We’ll never give God his due, because what he’s done for us is so big, and because we’re not God so we’ll never be able to return the favor. The least we can do is our very best: we can sing the loveliest songs, pray the most honest prayers, and create the most beautiful and hospitable worship spaces. This is why I’ve come to value and even depend upon liturgy so much. When facing the God of the universe, I feel a little better leaning on millennia of tradition. These are practices that have stood the test of time, and that are re-affirmed every week. On Sundays, I take these prayers and creeds to God immensely comforted by the knowledge that I’m not taking them alone.
Along these lines, church is also for communion. I mean this very metaphorically and very literally. An ordinary church service reaches its climax at the Lord’s Table. So many things are happening in this meal: Mourning, celebration, anticipation. Infinity and tangibility coming together to affirm creation. History converging in a manger, around a table, on a cross. In this meal, we receive the spiritual nourishment of hope and forgiveness by way of the physical nourishment of bread and wine. Maybe the best part of this is that what happens at the table spills out into the rest of the church’s life. Because of God’s communion with us, we can make peace with our neighbors, recite creeds alongside of millions, and have robust friendships that carry us through everything else.
Church is also for people. God’s generosity is strange in that when we worship him we aren’t just shouting into an empty cosmos. The stuff that happens on Sundays changes people. Of course, this is what Jesus wanted all along: churches ought to make disciples over and over and over again. This doesn’t mean that fleeting alter-call evangelism, but slow, careful conversion. This is why churches need to be consistent and welcoming. I happen to live in a place where most people aren’t Christians, which means that the churches here need to open their doors wider and preach the gospel louder and clearer. Here, I’m going to go so far as to say that church isn’t for Christians – not overtly anyway. It’s for God, and then it’s for the people who don’t know God yet. Christians are somewhere in the middle, making the necessary introductions.
Lastly, church is for the stuff that happens on the other side of its walls – its city and neighborhoods. Through prayer and service, church is for schools and hospitals, the elderly and the homeless, the widows and orphans. The church ought to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and Jesus fed and healed, wept and prayed. Sometimes it’s tempting to task the church with actually solving society’s big problems, but the church knows it can’t do this, only Jesus can. In the meantime, it can raise up leaders and activists, who are compelled by the gospel to fight injustice, speak truth, cultivate beauty, and do good.
In practice, the way this actually looks is quite dependent upon context. (I could write a whole other post about how I think churches also ought to be dynamic, as to adequately respond to and serve the communities they’re in). At the risk of sounding really relativistic, different kinds of churches work for different kinds of people. And at this point it’s pretty obvious that every church is screwed up in its own cute and terrible ways, so it’d be a little ridiculous to claim that one “kind” of church is superior to the rest. The best a Christian can hope for is to find a church that they can call home – where God is honored, people are converted, and communities are served.
[Image: Pieter Janz Saenredam. “Interior of the Church of St. Anne in Haarlem,” 1652. Haarlem.]