I haven’t gone to church for the past two weeks. First, I was sick and stayed home to sleep. Last week, my wife and I headed off for a church that met in an office complex, but the doors were locked. I’ll save that story for later.
I wasn’t bothered about not being in church these last two weeks; I didn’t miss it one bit – and that does bother me. Church has apparently become such a trivial experience that I feel no void when I skip it. I actually feel guilty because I experience no guilt over my truancy. Of course part of the problem is that, despite knowing better, I still tend to attend church as a consumer: What will church do for me? What will I get out of it? Since I get little from most church services, I don’t value them much.
So why go to church? I can think of two key reasons.
One is to worship God. If our goal is to truly worship God, then nothing else really matters: not the music, the message, the people, or the facility. Yes, those elements can make worshiping easier or harder. I’m still working on that one. What I do know is that I find worshiping God easier in places other than most church services.
Another reason is to hang out with other followers of Jesus. In fact, the Bible tells us to persist in meeting together. This could happen at what we call church or it could be something else, such as meeting at a coffee shop or sharing a meal. Having recently moved and presently in a temporary situation, I’ve not made many connections with people to hang out with. Plus, in visiting churches, I’m unlikely to ever again see the folks I meet.
This meeting together is what I call Christian community; it’s what I miss and what I need: not superficial community but true, deep, intentional spiritual comradery. I hope to one day find that at a church, and I expect to find it outside of church.
But right now, I don’t have it, and that’s what I miss most.
Athaliah is an evil woman. She encourages her son, the king, to act wickedly. He does and is soon assassinated. Then Athaliah seizes control and asserts herself as queen. Her lust for power is so great, she kills all the members of the royal family, including her own grandchildren.
One baby, however, is rescued by his aunt, Jehosheba. His name is Joash. Six years later, he, the rightful heir to the throne, is crowned king by the priest, with the support of the Levites and heads of the leading families.
Athaliah accuses them of treason and tears her clothes to express her outrage. But she can’t change what has happened. At the direction of the priest, the army kills her.
The country celebrates her death and calm returns.
Athaliah could have positively influenced her son and helped him rule wisely. She could have protected and groomed his successor. Had she done so, the people would have celebrated her life; instead they celebrated her death.
Is our life worthy of celebration?
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #30.
We also attended Sunday school at this church, the only time we did so on our sojourn. The problem was that we didn’t intend to. Their website said church was at 10 a.m., and their pastor confirmed this fact via email.
When we arrived a man said, “Sit anywhere” as he gestured to an almost empty sanctuary. For the next hour, we endured a most pathetic ordeal: welcome, announcements, prayer requests, greeting time, offering, hymn sing, sermon, and closing prayer – just like at any church struggling to slog through a sixty-minute church service. Then the speaker said, “Thank you for attending; church will start in ten minutes.” Only then did I realize we’d just suffered through Sunday school.
In sales, they call this “bait and switch.” I was seething. Exhausted after enduring their Sunday school, I was in no condition to have a good attitude for church. Though their actual church service had many positive elements, being tricked into attending Sunday school looms as my primary memory. I will never go back.
Many years ago, when public access to the Internet was in its infancy and dialup was the only means to connect, I pondered the idea of church online. The World Wide Web did not exist then, so I considered if Usenet (online discussion boards), file sharing, and email could cobble together a church experience. I concluded it was possible, but I’d let others pursue it.
Three decades later, courtesy of many technological advances, church does occur online: Internet church, e-church, church 2.0, church in the cloud, or whatever label you might want to call it. Church can indeed occur online – and it does.
Church is one thing. The more important question is community. Can Christian community occur online?
The quick answer is, “Yes, of course!” All manner of communities exist online, including Christian community. Facebook groups, Google+ circles, blogs, and a myriad of other tools can all provide a means to make personal connections and foster community online. This community can be good and may be the only community some people have.
Just as an online church can approximate a physical church experience, so to, an online Christian community can approximate the benefits of physical community. But is this enough? To the point, can a meaningful spiritual community occur online? With effort we can get close, very close.
However, one element it would lack is physical touch. After all, what if the one thing a person needs more than anything else is an appropriate touch from another human being? How can you hug someone online?
But then, when is the last time you hugged someone who was in need at church?
Church, whether online or in person, often falls short of what it could be. So, too, community, both online and in person, often falls short, too. We can do better; we need to do better. We deserve it, and Jesus expects it.
The real question isn’t, “Can you have a meaningful online spiritual community?” The better question is, “Do you have meaningful Christian community anywhere?”
An unnamed Israelite girl is captured in a raid and forced to work as a slave in the household of the enemy commander, Naaman. Although Naaman is an accomplished military leader, he suffers from a limiting physical ailment: he has leprosy, a contagious skin disease that can cause a loss of feeling, decay, and even deformation.
Though she could have been bitter over her forced servitude, the young girl instead desires the best for her master. She tells him of the prophet Elisha who can heal Naaman of his terrible disease. Naaman proceeds at once and is healed – as soon as he humbles himself and follows Elisha’s instructions.
Naaman then affirms the power of God and pledges to worship only him.
Though she had every reason to remain quiet, the girl’s confidence in God’s power and her willingness to speak up, led to a man being healed and God being praised.
May we be willing to help others, regardless of the situation.
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #29.
With their minister gone, church members lead us in the service, the entire service. They don’t need paid staff or a guest speaker to conduct the service; they can do this on their own.
I always appreciate seeing laity – that is, nonprofessional, nonpaid people – take part in leading a church service. It’s more personal and real, less of a performance or show. Some churches aren’t able to conduct a service without their pastor present (or at least have a guest preacher to give a message), while others manage just fine.
Having paid staff and professional clergy is an Old Testament model; it distracts us from the example set forth in the New Testament, where we are all priests, ministering to one another. Our churches would all be better off if we learned how to conduct services on our own, without the need of trained ministers to lead us.
Given the chance, I think we’d do just fine.
I often write about the importance of being in meaningful community with other followers of Jesus. I also lament that churches frequently fail to provide significant community. While many churches offer superficial community, few are able to provide a deep, nurturing, caring place. I long for this level of spiritual kinship – and right now I don’t have it.
However, I must remind myself that community isn’t the goal; it’s the means. While it’s comfortable to bask in the embrace of people who care for each other, groups with an inward focus don’t last. They need a greater purpose. Here are three:
- Spiritual Growth: Our spiritual community should spur us on to a deeper understanding of God, intensifying our connection with him and our interdependence. I’m not talking about another class or more Bible study. We don’t need more knowledge; we need more experience. The result of growing spiritually is to put our faith in action, not inaction.
- Minister to Others: Within community, we become ministers to one another. Then we move beyond our community to minister to those outside it. We teach through doing, and we model by our actions. We learn to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, doing what he says, when he says. He might not always make sense; it may be scary and will sometimes require risk. But God isn’t asking us to play it safe; he wants us to make a difference.
- Serve Others: A third reason for community is as a platform for service. Through service, we demonstrate the love of Jesus to the world around us. When we serve without agenda or expectation, we surprise people by loving them as God loves us. Though we hope to point people to Jesus through our actions, the motivation isn’t to proselytize, it’s obedience.
But, you ask, isn’t this what the church is supposed to do?
Yes, it is, and we are the church. So let’s go do this; it starts with community.
Elisha travels to the city of Shunem, and a wealthy woman urges him to stay for a meal. From then on, whenever he’s in the area, he stops by. Realizing he’s a man of God, she makes a room for him to stay when he’s in town.
Grateful, Elisha wants to do something nice for her. She has no son, and with an older husband, she has no expectation of ever having a son. Elisha prophesies that within a year, she will have a boy.
As promised, a year later she gives birth to a son.
When the boy grows older, one day his head hurts, and he later dies in her arms. She puts him in Elisha’s room. Without telling her husband what happened, she searches for Elisha. With great intention, she finds him but then blames him for raising her hopes in the first place, when she didn’t ask for a son.
Elisha sends his servant to resurrect the boy, but she refuses to leave Elisha. So the two of them head for her home. It’s a good thing they do, because despite doing what Elisha instructs, his servant can’t restore life to the boy. Though it takes a couple of tries, Elisha brings the boy back to life.
Later, Elisha warns the woman of a seven-year famine and sends her away. When she returns, the king restores her land to her, along with the profits it generated while she was gone.
The Shuammite woman honored God by caring for his prophet. As a result, God cared for her, through both good times and bad.
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #28.
Steeped in ritual resulting from centuries of carefully protected tradition, the spiritual mystery of this tiny liturgical church presented me with an enigma I’m yet to fully comprehend. With worship that both confronted and comforted me, I have much to contemplate as I wrestle with confusion over its practices that are so foreign to me.
I remind myself: Different isn’t a bad thing; it’s actually good if the result draws me closer to God. This church did that for me. They left me in awe of who he is and amazed at the diverse ways we can worship him.
My admiration, however, doesn’t end with the official service. Though it only lasted an hour, the informal gathering afterward continued for another ninety minutes, as we immersed ourselves into community. I learn much about the people and this church, enjoying our conversation and all they have to share. These are good folks, fellow pilgrims who enjoy being with each other. I know that I must return for another visit.
My plan was to never tell people at the churches we visit that we might come back. And for fifty-one churches, I never did. However, I do tell them I’ll be back – just that it won’t be for quite a while. We have twenty-four other churches to visit first.
As I consider biblical spirituality, I feel a strong pull to community, a place where significant spiritual connections occur. This should be our experience at church, the reality of church, but it seldom is.
A friend read my updated home page on this website and asked, “Where do we find Christian community?” Her plea bordered on the imperative, “Tell us where.”
The truth is, I don’t know. I’m still searching.
That doesn’t mean I never see it, because I do. I sometimes see it after the official church service ends; it can occur in small groups; and it may pop up in service organizations amid the push to achieve a common goal. But none of these are regular enough or reliable enough to provide the spiritual community my soul longs for.
I’m more apt to encounter meaningful community when meeting a friend at a coffee shop or hanging out with other like-minded Jesus followers. These experiences give me a sense of the type of Christian community that we can all realize but seldom do.
Although church should be the ideal place, she usually falls short, at least as church exists today. The present-day church is an institution. As such it’s good at providing structure but bad at offering true community. This isn’t to imply I’ve given up on the traditional church; I haven’t (yet), but I am discouraged. I write a lot about church, often with a critical tone, not because I’m down on church as much as I hope church will one day rise up and become all she can be, all she should be.
In a few hours, I’ll head off for church and later eat lunch with friends. I expect to experience better community afterwards in the restaurant than in the church sanctuary were it should occur.
Where do you find true, spiritual community?