May 9, 2007

Why Go to Church?

2007 1513 page26 capT’S NOT UNUSUAL ON A CHRISTIAN CAMPUS to hear a parent express concern for their child’s spirituality. But it is a bit unusual for that conversation to be with a father worrying that his daughter is too religious.
I knew this young woman to be active in campus ministries, fun-loving, dedicated, and well-balanced. Yet her father saw her as dangerously religious. The degree of his fervor made me wonder if his cautions might, in fact, be more about him. And as our conversation continued, he did indeed tell me that he was once just like her, very committed to and active in his church. Through a series of situations, his church had disappointed him, and he had left it in anger and hurt, never to return. He didn’t want his daughter to experience that kind of pain.
We wound up in an interesting conversation about the value of church membership and church attendance. He believed, he said, that there was no reason to attend church. After all, he could commune with the Lord anywhere, anytime, and said he felt the presence of God more fully in a forest or seaside than he ever did in a church building.
I’m always tempted to ask people who use this line of reasoning how often they actually do intentionally seek God’s presence in that forest or at the seaside. (If all the people in singles columns who say they enjoy long walks on the beach at sunset do it so often, wouldn’t they meet there? Or is it, rather, that they like the idea of long walks on the beach . . . ?) Sometimes the reasons we advance as strongly believed truths are more truly thinly veiled excuses, adopted to help us feel less guilty or responsible.
2007 1513 page26That unusual conversation started me thinking about the benefits of faithful church attendance. While it’s true that we can fellowship with God anywhere and anytime, there have to be reasons why the God of the universe urges that we gather together in His name, and urge us to gather, He surely does:
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 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” (Heb. 10:23-25).
“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). Here are a few of the reasons I’ve discovered why I need to participate in “life together.” You may have discovered even more.
To Obey God
His wisdom is high beyond mine, and if He urged that I not neglect the assembling of believers, that should be reason enough.
To Acknowledge and Strengthen Family Ties
Just as in my biological family, there are all kinds of members in my church family, at every stage of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and social development. We are—all of us—fellow sinners, saved by grace. If this is my spiritual family (however dysfunctional), how could it be that I would avoid them at all costs? If I think myself more capable than they, don’t they need my input? If I feel less capable, don’t I need their insight? Isn’t that part of what families are for?
And as part of a family, how can I respond to the hurts, joys, celebrations, griefs, and victories of others if I am not part of the circle who know their stories? Being in church each week updates me on who has suffered the loss of a loved one, who is recuperating from surgery, who was recently baptized or dedicated, who appears to be struggling, whose home burned down in the night. These are needs I can respond to, and my tokens of love and assistance can make a difference. But I can’t respond to these needs if I’m not there to hear of them.
To Broaden Our Insight
Though I maintain my own personal devotional life, if I’m not very careful, I’ll ensconce myself comfortably in my own familiar thought patterns. Even when I choose the writings of others to augment and expand my own thinking, it’s still the same “me” selecting those resources: I’m in danger of being unwittingly narrow in my choosing. When I attend a healthy church each week, I encounter presentations not of my choosing, ones more likely to challenge my thinking. From the pulpit I often hear in a familiar Bible passage an application I had not made myself. These experiences keep Bible study fresh, keep me listening to others, and make me aware that their insights often add meaning to my life.
To Understand Ourselves and Exercise Our Gifts
Being part of a fellowship teaches me about myself. In fellowship I’m more likely to discover and develop my gifts. In fellowship I’m more likely to become aware of my shortcomings, excesses, and sharp edges. Fellowship and service reveal and polish up the rough spots! As I spend time with my brothers and sisters, I’m more likely to learn of crises in their lives, giving me opportunity to exercise my developing gifts on their behalf.
To Deal With Our Disappointment About the Church
How often we hear people say they would attend church if it weren’t for all the hypocrites. Which is a little bit like saying we would go to a hospital if it weren’t for all the sick people. We know that it was Jesus’ custom to attend worship services with others. If we think church members were better back then, we need just remember who attended church in that era: Judas Iscariot, Ananias and Sapphira, the rich young ruler, the Pharisees and Sadducees. . . . While it’s true that I’ll notice more of the church’s weaknesses from within it, it is also true that while there I’ll notice more of its strengths. If I keep invested and stay involved with individual members, I’m guaranteed stories of breakthrough, changed lives, and the shared stories of God’s goodness in the lives of fellow believers.
Because We Need It
I don’t know the ending of the story of the vibrant young woman and her worn and worried father. But I do understand his concern. He’s a sheep who was wounded within the fold. I can understand why a wounded sheep would flee from the fold, out into the desert, hoping to find it safer outside.
In the Bible story of the shepherd seeking out the one lost lamb, the shepherd is portrayed as a loving caretaker bringing the sheep back to safety. That lamb’s very survival depended upon the fellowship of the sheepfold and the protective hand of the shepherd. The shepherd knew that the likelihood of the lone sheep getting lost, hurt, and preyed upon was far greater alone and outside the sheepfold than in fellowship within it. As in all of nature, a lone animal is a prime target. In fact, a predator’s first task is to separate one animal from the rest of the flock. How sad when we do that work for them.
Just being a sheep in a world of predators guarantees dangers and limitations; that’s true even inside the fold. But for all of the reasons listed above, and for reasons my heart knows but can’t quite put into words, this particular sheep will gladly choose to take her chances inside.
Valerie N. Phillips is the associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Her monthly column, “Lessons Learned,” appears in the AnchorPoints (third) edition of the Adventist Review.