Going to church is becoming less and less of a basic Christian practice, making our discipleship anemic.
For years, I have heard people say, “We don’t go to church; we are the church.” In one way, that’s true: Church is not a building to go to, it’s a people we’re a part of. But in many important ways, it’s simply not true. Something unique takes place that shapes our discipleship when we go to church. Here are three things essential to our discipleship that happen when we go to church.
1. We remember who we are as the Scriptures are proclaimed.
I forget who I am on a regular basis. I don’t forget my name, but I forget my identity. I get caught up in the moment and in what everyone else around me is talking about with their frantic or enthusiastic voices. And when I get caught up, I forget myself.
We see this during sports seasons, when fans lose their identities, having them taken over by their sports teams. We see this with politics, when citizens get so caught up with the strident voices of the moment. We see this at work, when we are reduced to sales goals or the other tasks we perform. We see this at school, when we are reduced to our grades. We see this in so many other ways, when we are reduced to a number or a target market.
When we gather for worship, we are reminded of who we are because we are reminded of who God is. We reorient our lives back to God and rediscover our identities within the community of God in the process.
We are the children of God, dearly loved. We aren’t our sports teams, our sexual orientations, our bank accounts, our political leanings, our consumption, our age, our gender, our ethnicity. Those may have some importance in our daily lives, but they aren’t who we are.
By speaking the word “God” into our lives in the context of a community who is hearing the same Word, we each remember who we are and support one another in this remembering. Reading the Scriptures on our own is a good and healthy practice, but it doesn’t replace the need for the Scriptures to restore our basic identities within the context of communal prayer and song and proclamation.
2. We are re-membered as the Body of Christ.
I am not myself when I’m by myself. “I think, therefore I am” is wrong. To be truly human is to be in community, not in our heads. It’s in our relationships that we discover who we are, not by looking in the mirror.
This makes sense, since we are created in the image of God, who is himself a community of Father, Son, Spirit. This makes sense, since the first “not good” thing in the Scriptures after the good, good, good, good, good, good, very good salvo of Genesis 1 is being alone — “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). This makes sense, because I know who I am in my relationships as a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend, a citizen, a colleague, a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ.
Going to church is a reassembling of the broken apart pieces of the body of Jesus. The church is his body, with each person being a unique member/organ/part of that body.
When I do not assemble with the rest of the body of Christ, I dismember Jesus. I maim the body of Christ when I cut myself off from the rest. I disfigure Jesus when I’m cavalier in my church attendance.
And who am I to cut apart my Lord?
No. I owe it to every other member and to Jesus himself to make sure that I am connected to the rest of the living Body of Jesus, the local congregation God has knit me together with in community. And I do this by committing to being with them on a regular basis.
3. We remember Jesus in the Lord’s Table.
When I started pastoring the little Presbyterian church I was ordained to serve, we had communion on the first Sunday of each month. I was told by several people, “We don’t want to do it any more often than that or it’d be too much of a good thing and we’d get bored with it.”
And I kept thinking, “Like making love with my wife more than once a month would be too much of a good thing, causing me to get bored with sex?” Right!
After a few years of putting up with this argument, I suggested we celebrate the Eucharist for each of the seven Sundays during Lent. I laid out my reasons why I wanted this immersion in the Lord’s Supper leading up to Easter and so I received a grudging assent. And when the penitential season was done, I asked, “So, was that too much of a good thing? Or did you discover that you’d been starving for it?” And the overwhelming response was, “We had no idea how much we were missing! Let’s keep doing this weekly.” And so we did.
Most pastors and worship leaders don’t do communion weekly because of logistics. There’s the bread and wine/juice to deal with. There’s the time taken up by having to come forward to receive the elements or to wait in the pews to have them passed around. It’s clumsy. There are silences. What do people do while waiting for everyone else? And it cuts into preaching and singing and announcement time. We certainly can’t have that!
But the awkwardness and the silence and the lack of preaching/singing/programming during it are all essential to it. We need open time and space in our worship.
Communion is where I learned how to pray. Its silences encouraged me to speak to the God who had spoken to me in the proclamation of the Word. He had spoken and now it was my turn.
Communion is also where I eat and drink Jesus. In his Institutes, John Calvin writes that the symbolic elements of bread and wine are not empty symbols, but full symbols. As all good symbols do, they point to a reality. And that reality is that we are hungry and need to eat and drink of Jesus. He alone is food and drink potent enough to enliven our souls and even if the bread and wine don’t magically turn into his body and blood, we are somehow actually taking him in when we participate in this meal.
Going to church is essential, because it’s where I bring my starving soul to eat and drink the only meal that can truly sustain me.
If I’m not partaking in communion on a very regular basis, I am spiritually malnourished. And because communion is not a purely private act but is done in community — for both the bread and the community are the Body of Christ — I need to go to church to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Going to church is about remembering. Remembering who we are as we remember who God is. Re-membering the broken apart Body of Christ. And remembering Jesus in communion. We can approximate each of these in other setting, but none of them ever replaces our need to do them regularly and in community with a ragtag bunch of Jesus followers whom we find difficult to love but stick with anyone. Anything that pulls us away from going to church makes gaping holes in our discipleship.