I’ve been friends with her for years. She had stopped going to church when we met, but now she was thinking of going to “big” church again, this Sunday. Big church, it’s what we used to call the big ol’ service time where pastor and choir, offertory and hymn singing all loomed large. It was an adjective that belied more than I realized.
Out of the mouth of babes.
Big church is where the big stuff happens. It is where my husband and I often speak. It’s the place with the large numbers, the most powerful technologies, where stages help us notice what has been prayed over and planned for this special hour.
My friend hadn’t been to big church as a participant for four years. It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds.
She still goes to Bible studies, she still reads Christian books and haunts Christian book stores. She still raises her brood as Jesus followers.
She simply doesn’t attend church on the weekends. From her big church respite, she’s shared a few things with me.
The first is rather startling. She did not miss regular weekly gatherings. The weekend arrives and she, like me, has begun practicing Sabbath on Friday evening until Saturday eve. My husband often joins me as I don a cream scarf, light two candles, one for rest, the other for freedom (echoing the command to rest in Genesis and the command to go out and be free –to rest– in Exodus), pull the warmth into my body in a circular motion and recite,
Blessed are you O Lord our God who has set us apart and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights
With Jews, I kindle these lights. And then I wrestle to rest.
My friend does, too. She’s told me that the way she wrestles to avoid work, to struggle against checking email, cleaning, empaling have done more to settle and unsettle her soul than any big church service challenge.
The second, my friend does not appear to me to be stagnant or weaker in loving Jesus because of the break from formal weekly gatherings. She is just as fervent about prayer, reading Scripture, asking me and her other friends hard questions about Scripture and the hurdles of our faith. She talks to others about Jesus. Each Sabbath I know she reads Scripture and will talk to me about it later. As she puts it, “I don’t miss a weekly fill-up from a sermon. I know it’s weird, but life with church has been good for me.”
I know, deep down, that she’s in good company. Dallas Willard, probably the most humble disciple of Jesus I’ve met (past chair of the Philosophy department at USC, prolific writer of spiritual formation and nationally recognized mentor) writes, “Bible study, prayer and church attendance, among the most commonly prescribed activities in Christian circles, generally have little effect for soul transformation, as is obvious to any observer. If all the people doing them were transformed to health and righteousness by it, the world would be vastly changed” (bold mine).¹
The third, her missing church for a few years has made her ask some important questions that have, frankly, made me uncomfortable at times. What is the purpose of church? If you can fellowship and use your gifts in other ways and in other settings with the Church (believers) all over the town, why is Sunday morning attendance important? What is the heft of the warning “Not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25)?
So why attend?
As Willard says, “We must flatly say that one of the greatest contemporary barriers to meaningful spiritual formation in Christlikeness is overconfidence in the spiritual efficacy of ‘regular church services,‘ of whatever kind they may be. Though they are vital, they are not enough” (bold mine).²
Something about big church is vital? What is it?
I ask my friend if she knows what it is. Why are you going back?
“I want to identify and find the people who claim Jesus, to see them in action in a group. But my expectations are lower,” she says. “I’m not going to expect to be wow’d by the sermon or the music. But I’m in search of those who think they are faithful to Jesus. I want to look them in the eye, en masse, again.”
I don’t think she’ll seamlessly blend in, anymore. But I also don’t think she’ll care. She’s going to see, to find, to identify.
And I think God will honor that.
¹ “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation, and Restoration of the Soul” by Dallas Willard, Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 1998, Vol. 26, #1, pp. 101-109.
² Renovation of the Heart pg. 249-250).