Someone asked me recently what prompted me, from week to week, to write about one topic or the next. I told him my scientific formula – it simply boils down to whatever happens to be consuming my thoughts that week. So, for instance, several weeks ago when I wrote about the popularity of “living together” nowadays, it came in a week where I’d run across this issue numerous times during the week.
Well, having just come off of Memorial Day weekend, as a pastor, I can’t help but think about the issue of worship attendance. Now, please understand what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. Memorial day is absolutely a worthwhile holiday. However, from a church worship perspective, Memorial Day weekend is like the Lex Luther to Easter’s Superman. It, and it’s uglier stepsister Labor Day, serve as bookends to the consistently worst worship attendance throughout the year. People in the north, in particular, having endured a long and bitter winter, don’t like to miss the opportunity to get out into the sun, onto the lake, or up to the cabin.
Don’t get me wrong, I live in Minnesota too, so I understand that you have to take advantage of nice weather when it’s available. Family time, vacation, camping, boats, sun tans, it’s all great. It’s all fun. It’s all a blessing. But when northern worshippers exodus from the pews to the sun during the summer weekends, let’s be honest here, a statement of priority is made. I’m not talking about taking a weekend off for a family trip. I’m talking about treating worship from June-August as you would a summer vacation from school. What does this do to a faith? What does this mean about a person’s priorities?
Years ago I overheard the conversation of a person in a moral crisis that had a lasting effect on me. Some of his buddies were planning a bachelor party for their friend. They were discussing the night’s itinerary, which included a trip to see “lady dancers” (just so we’re all on the same page here, they hadn’t purchased tickets to “Swan Lake”). This young man simply said, “I can’t. I just keep thinking ‘what if Christ came back while we were there.’ What would I possibly say to him?” I didn’t tell him that I’d overheard his comments, but his words have stuck with me. Now I’m far from perfect, but that thought consistently pops into my head when faced with decisions. I think it definitely applies to our topic for the day too. What if Christ comes back in July or August or any other time of life where worship really has not been a priority? What if he says to me, “2 hours for worship and Bible Study on Sunday mornings is approximately 1.2% of your week and I wasn’t enough of a priority for you than that?!”. Am I prepared to answer that question?
Now, if someone wants to call the “legalism” card on me for guilting people into church, go ahead. But as a pastor, if I’m not using both law and gospel where needed to encourage God’s people to be in God’s Word with brothers and sisters in Christ (the occasion we call “church”) then frankly I’m probably not much of a pastor. The Holy Spirit established “The Christian Church” with the intention of keeping us spiritually on track throughout our lives. So if “church” isn’t part of my life at all or much of a priority in my life, spiritually speaking, I’m off track, heading to a dangerous destination.
As was the case with the “living together” situation, I’ve heard many arguments from logic regarding public worship absence. Through door-to-door canvassing, following up with people I haven’t seen in worship for a while, and simply talking to non-churchgoers, I believe I’ve literally heard 1000 “good” reasons people give for not regularly coming to worship services. I’ve narrowed it down here to the 5 I hear most frequently.
REASON#1 – “I’ve heard it all before.” You’ve gone to Sunday School as a child. Your parents made you attend worship and maybe even get confirmed. Perhaps you even attended a Christian school at some point in life. At the very least, if you’ve ever heard the story of Jesus – his life, death, resurrection – the fundamentals of Christianity, you have some familiarity. Over 70% of America, despite our fairly poor worship attendance, claims Christianity as their faith. That means that most of America (and for that matter much of the world) has heard the simple gospel story before. If the Christian faith were like riding a bike, maybe hearing the gospel a couple of times might be enough. That’s a horrible analogy for faith though and yet that’s how many people view it – “I know the facts so I’m good.” That’s not the way Scripture talks about faith. The Bible depicts faith more according to the analogy of nutrition and exercise. Faith is something that either moves forward or backwards, up or down, grows or shrinks and dies. In the same way that I wouldn’t expect to lift a dumbbell once and be ripped for the rest of my life, when it comes to faith, you can’t just sit there. That’s not what faith does. The ONLY way for faith to increase, according to Romans 10:17, is “by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” For the past 2000 years, the way God has most frequently facilitated the planting and nourishing and strengthening of faith, is through the gospel proclaimed through Word and Sacrament when believers gather as a church.
REASON#2 – “I’m really busy right now.” This is a very easy excuse for a lot of things in life. And for a lot of things in life, it’s a legitimate excuse. I don’t have time to put a new patio on the house. I don’t have time to get together with friends as much as I’d like. I don’t have time to do as much volunteer work as I’d like. People are busier today than people have ever been. We carry Blackberry phones with us today because we have so many items scheduled every day that the human brain can’t keep them straight. And we feel VERY important when we have so many things going on. In our minds, as stressed out as it causes us to be, it validates our existence when every minute of every day is consumed because we’re just that important to the world. The reason this excuse just doesn’t work when it comes to worship attendance is that it clearly indicates a not-God-first pecking order in the priority list of our lives. If dedicating 2 hours to public worship and Bible Study on Sunday morning is too much that it can’t be done, how does that reflect on my priorities as a Christian. The things in our lives that take precedence on our schedules are typically the things which we recognize as most important. God doesn’t tell me to dedicate X hours/week to Bible Study, worship, & prayer. But Jesus clearly made me a priority in his life – every thought and every movement was calculated with me as a priority in his mind. This is what motivates me to dedicate my life to him (and a portion of my hours to this concept of church – his body).
REASON#3 – “I feel closer to God when I’m _____________.” There is a fascinating truth involved in this statement that is a testimony to what Lutheran theology refers to as the “Natural Knowledge of God”. In a true sense I can feel God as I stand in awe of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). The problem is, by jogging or fishing in nature, by listening to beautiful music, by standing on a golf course, I can’t be reminded of the essentials of the Christian faith – I am a sinner, I need a Savior, I have a Savior, this drastically affects my eternity as well as my day-to-day life. That can only be proclaimed through the “Revealed Knowledge of God” (i.e. the Bible). Church is an occasion that revolves around the Bible.
Wherever or whenever we feel God really isn’t the issue. Feelings are perhaps more deceptive than anything on this planet outside of the devil himself. Somedays I feel good about myself. Other days I feel lousy. One day, when all dolled-up, a woman might feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. When she first wakes up in the morning, that same woman might feel like the ugliest creature on the planet. The truth is that the rest of us think, relatively speaking, she looks pretty much the same most of the time. Feelings can be based on the truth or they can be based on internal chemicals or they can be based on something you had for lunch. The point is, feelings, or lack thereof, aren’t always the best barometer for faith. As a pastor, my hope would be that when you come out of a worship service you would feel rejuvenated by God’s love and promises. However, you might come out of a worship service and not “feel” any different. That doesn’t mean you haven’t been touched by the gospel. If you are actively exposed to the gospel, the Holy Spirit has worked and you can trust that you have been spiritually nourished.
REASON#4 – “Church is so boring.” One of my favorite Christian parenting techniques is to tell children “You don’t have to go to church. You get to go to church!” While there is an element of truth in the statement, there is so much wrong with it that I’m not quite sure where to begin. I understand the idea – going to public worship would ideally always be gospel-motivated. That’s certainly true. I hope and pray that people enjoy public worship. But is worship something we do simply because we enjoy it, or is it something we do because we know it’s good for us, and it’s an additional blessing when we enjoy it? I don’t know anybody who enjoys paying their taxes. I don’t know anybody who enjoys being on a specific diet. But I know plenty of people who recognize the necessity of them for their well-being. As faith matures, it recognizes that what is essential for me can also be something that I enjoy. For instance, I know that to maintain health I have to have some physical exercise. I enjoy playing basketball. Through basketball I also can get the physical exercise that I need. The two – enjoyment and necessity – don’t have to become mutually exclusive. Both enjoyment and necessity are then good reasons for coming to worship too.
In all honesty, I truly sympathize with people who feel this way. I had a number of classmates in school who wanted to become pastors because they enjoyed the church experience so much growing up (often even had fathers who were pastors). I got into this line of work for other reasons. I can’t say that I began truly “enjoying” public worship per say until about the time I got to the seminary. When I recognized its professional relevance for me, I started paying more attention to it. At that time I also happened to start worshipping at a location that had several pastors who were very gifted communicators, the music was incredibly polished, the people were very friendly, and I became more involved in volunteer service (an active member in the body). For me, it was a combination of circumstance, experiencing a certain level of excellence, and personal maturity.
If you’ve felt “bored” with your public worship experience, talk to your pastor. Pastors in general and worship in specific always benefit from productive feedback from members. Typically pastors desperately want things to be done well and want members to be inspired by public worship. Tell them what is connecting for you. Tell them what isn’t registering. You’ll feel better. Worship will be better.
REASON#5 – “I know I should, but…”(i.e. “I’m apathetic about it”). It’s hard to say much about this. It’s a scary moment when Christians just stop caring about sin. That typically means that it’s been so prevalent that the conscience has become calloused to it. And yes, lack of faithful use of God’s Word in worship is a sin.
The most terrified I’ve ever felt when reading the Bible was one occasion when I happened to stumble upon Hebrews 10. Verse 25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The writer to these Hebrew Christians addressed a people who formerly had been commanded by God to meet on the Sabbath day. Recognizing that Jesus had fulfilled all ceremonial regulations on their behalf, the converts recognized their newfound freedom from these ceremonial laws. They needed to be reminded here by the author that just because God hasn’t given them a specific day anymore on which they have to meet certain worship regulations, it’s still good for them to gather as a body of believers regularly in God’s Word. The scary part is actually the next couple of verses. Having just told these Christians the importance of not sinning by giving up on public worship, the author goes on to say, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (verses 26-27). In other words, don’t use Jesus’ forgiveness of your sins as a license to sin. If that’s your attitude, you’re not forgiven. We don’t ever want to think that Jesus forgiving us for our mistakes entitles us to further mistakes like avoiding public worship. That’s not how faith treats the object of our faith – our Savior Jesus.
There are a lot of great reasons for worship. Some have already been cited. But finally, it boils down to one essential reason why public worship should be part of our lives:
ONLY REASON NECESSARY – Gospel proclamation (as found in worship) is the single most important thing on this planet. God created this planet. Mankind ruined it. God saved it through Christ because he personally loves us that much and he continues to demonstrate that same special care in our lives. That’s it. We get bogged down filling the 24 hours of our days, worrying about stuff that doesn’t amount to much of anything in the end. Stepping back, we realize that we desperately need to be re-centered and refocused on the secrets of eternal life and how that impacts this life.
So when I hear the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen for me, I know I always have reason to be optimistic since God will always be in my life, I know that I am a special creation, and I know that my life (particularly when passing into heaven) is only getting better from here on out. That proclamation has historically best been heard in church. Likewise, when I see the light of Christ in the eyes of fellow believers, I am touched to experience what sacrificial and selfless love really means (btw, was very humbled to see and hear the many comments of concern after last week’s article. Thank you.) The love of Christ has historically been best experienced through fellow believers in the church. Knowing God is inseparable from being in his body.
If public worship either hasn’t been regular for you or you feel hasn’t always been as fulfilling to you as you’d like it to be, please pray with me: Heavenly Father, you have done great things for me. I have sinned. You have freely forgiven. I have needed. You have graciously provided. I was lost. You found me. Help me to find a home in my church, that I may enjoy regularly hearing your promises of love and forgiveness proclaimed to me and that I may experience Christ in my fellow worshippers. I trust that you, Father, will give this to me, your child. Amen.