Confession time: during my summer vacation this year, which included two Sundays, I did not attend church. I know some may be shocked that a pastor would skip church. Most pastors I know take the opportunity during their vacations to visit churches other than their own, to enjoy the experience of worshiping without leading, and perhaps pick up a few good sermon illustrations as souvenirs. Usually a pastor’s greatest passion is worship, so skipping it is unthinkable. But this year I decided that God would understand if I took a couple of Sundays for Sabbath rest. I worshiped in my own way on those days, and took the time to experience something I rarely experience, which is what life feels like for the millions of people who do not worship regularly or at all. There have been dozens of books written in the last decade about the rise of the “nones” in our society, the people who profess no belief in God or religion and live accordingly. So for two weeks this summer, I went incognito and moved among the “nones.” I went for a walk, read the Sunday paper, and even spent one Sunday morning buying school supplies at Target. While I did, I observed.
The Sunday at Target was particularly interesting. It seemed to me that half of my neighborhood was there, searching for the best prices on school supplies. There were families with young children, grandparents and singles. The diversity of races visible around me was enough to fill me with envy—if only my church were so diverse! No one looked like they were missing anything not being in worship. They looked relaxed, busy, and content. In that moment I was struck by how easy it was not to go to church. You have more time to get things done. You have no one telling you that you should be doing more of some things and less of others. It wouldn’t take long, I thought, even for a churchgoer to forget about church and embrace a fully secular life because it is so easy to do.
But as much as I enjoyed a couple of Sundays off preaching, and the chance to get some more items on my to-do list checked off, for me those Sunday mornings felt lacking. So that got me thinking about what having a Church-centered, God-centered life offers that the rest of the world does not. Jesus told his disciples that in order to follow him they had to be willing to choose the “narrow way.” He knew full well that the way of the world was wider and easier. Most people today know it too, which is one reason why the Church universal is in decline. But Jesus also knew that his narrow way, despite being harder and more limiting in many respects, was also better, easier and more freeing in many respects. Maybe one reason the Church is in decline is that we have lost our ability to articulate and demonstrate the blessings of choosing the narrow way?
People think the major benefit is to get into Heaven or to avoid going to Hell. But since God ultimately decides who is saved, not us, if we really want people to experience the grace of Jesus Christ, perhaps we should be spending more time articulating what a difference following Christ and being a part of a Christian community means in this life, than trying to get people to worry about what God will do with them in the next. Why is going to Church better than going to Sunday morning soccer? Why is spending my money taking care of the needy through the Church more rewarding than spending it on more stuff for myself? Why is devoting one’s life to a God we cannot see, more meaningful than devoting one’s life to something or someone we can?
If you have built your life around Church, why have you done that? Here are my initial thought on the benefits of the narrow way. (It is by no means an exhaustive list or even one in order of priority.) I encourage you to share your own with others.
- Choosing to begin each week in Church enables me to begin each week focusing on God’s grace, not my needs and desires, not my anxieties and disappointments. I find this is both freeing and encouraging. I begin each week with hope instead of fear, with purpose instead of despair or apathy.
- Building my life around the community of faith helps me to find God not just in the words of Scripture, which I can read on my own, but in others. Christian discipleship requires following Christ in community; it’s not an individualistic faith. I could love my next door neighbors as Christ commanded whether or not they love me back. But being in the Church helps me to practice how to love others around others who are also trying to do it. That is helps me understand better what to do and inspires me to do better.
- Building my life around the community of faith ensures that I have loving neighbors to support me. It’s great having lots of Facebook friends. But if you hurt yourself or lose a loved one, or are searching, those friends can’t always bring you soup, run your errands, or sit with you in the darkness of grief. The Church is a community unlike the communities you’ll find at the gym, the office or the soccer field sidelines. It is a community which makes your joys feel even more joyful and your crises far more endurable. The Church sees the best in you and helps you through the worst in very tangible ways.
- Although the Gospel asks a lot of me because it is counter-cultural, it gives my life meaning to a degree that nothing else can. It helps me to prioritize my life, to practice gratitude, and to become the person God made me to be. It is fulfilling even as it is challenging.
- The Gospel teaches me that I am valuable as I am instead of telling me, as the world does, that something about me is not good enough. That is so liberating! The Gospel also teaches me how to make the world a better place instead of teaching me that nothing will ever change.
- The Church provides me with a way to use my gifts to help others. Sure I could volunteer for Habitat or at a soup kitchen without being involved in a church. But being in the Church gives me a chance to help out in a whole host of different ways. One week I can feed the hungry, another week I can show hospitality to new residents, another week by enabling small children to discover the joy of climbing on trucks. I don’t have to research different organizations and always be the stranger showing up to join an existing group. I love the variety of ways to serve, and the way the Church enables you to do these things with others.
I worship and serve Jesus Christ because I recognize that he is my Lord and my Savior. But I do not go to church because I think I will get in trouble with him if I do not. I believe God loves all people, in and outside the Church. I am involved in the Church because I can be close with God there in a way I cannot be in other places. The worship services enable me to feel the presence of God and fill me with gratitude for God’s blessings. The Bible studies help me to discover the best way to navigate the challenges of life. The mission opportunities enable me to help others as God would have me do.
Think of it this way. When we grow up, we all learn how to live as adults without the help of our parents so that when our parents die we can cope. But if you are blessed with loving parents, then when they die, even while you are coping, the loss of them is profound. You miss their voice, their wisdom, their love. What you would only give for one more conversation, one more hug! Well the Church has helped me develop a close relationship with God, my divine Parent. No one loves me more; no one can teach me more or support me better than God. So although I can imagine going through life without God and coping all right, I have no desire to do so. Why would I cut myself off from someone so wonderful? In Church I get to be with the one who made and saved me and even now is sustaining me. I get to have an infinite source of wisdom and an incomparable source of strength in my life. Having that is better than getting to read the paper in the morning, sleep late, or check things off my to-do list. God may have been present with me in Target, but I will never get to know God when I’m at Target in the way I do in the Church. I want to know God and dwell with God forever, and I want my son to too. So for us, apart from the occasional rest days in the year, you’ll find us choosing the narrow way without regret or difficulty. We don’t feel like we are missing out on something else. We feel like we have found a source of peace, love, help and home unlike any other. Have you?