Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Church -- Why Bother?

Alberta Sunrise (Photo: C Imes)
It's Sunday morning. I sit by the gas fireplace snuggled up in a warm blanket, relishing the quiet. Before long, the rest of the family will stir. The sleepy house will bustle with activity as we get ready to go to church. But why bother? Why not enjoy a leisurely morning at home, letting the kids sleep as long as they will? Why shatter the peace of the weekend by entering a crowded building, exchanging shallow greetings, singing muffled songs, and being told what to think and what to do? Why clutter the rest of the week with small groups and committee meetings and rehearsals?

No doubt you've seen the classic Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays the lead character, George Bailey, a decent guy who leads an average life and tries to be a good neighbor to those in his small town of Bedford Falls and prevent the greedy Mr. Potter from gobbling up their land. On one particularly dark day, George faces the loss of everything he's worked to achieve. He wishes he had never been born. That's when the magic happens: an angel appears and accompanies George on a virtual tour of Bedford-Falls-without-George-Bailey. He has the chance to see what life would be like if he did not exist. It's a sobering picture. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville; its main street lined with clubs, its neighborhoods crowded with cheap rental houses, its residents suspicious and snarky.

What if the church, like George Bailey in his suicidal funk, did not exist? What if we could have a George-Bailey-style personal tour of a churchless world? What would we see? What if faith was purely a personal matter and we ceased gathering weekly for worship?

We need to look no further than a recent sociological study for such a tour. In groundbreaking research at the University of North Carolina, Robert Woodberry made the following discovery, under the direction of his doctoral supervisor, Christian Smith:
"Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations." (For the full article in Christianity Today, click here.)
It is one of the great mysteries of the faith how a rag-tag gathering of individuals can have such a transformative effect on the world. But according to Robert Woodberry and his team of researchers, the results are quantifiable.

But what about me? Why not let the church do its thing and opt out myself? My fireplace is warm and cozy. I'm a well-educated, theologically grounded individual. It's unlikely that I'll learn anything new at church this morning. I could crank up the worship tunes at home and sing solo. Sure the church makes a difference for others but that doesn't obligate me to go, right?

Here's the deal: I am not my own, but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 1). I belong not only to him, but to his means of grace in the world, the church. My absence diminishes what Christ can accomplish in and through the church, while my presence is a tangible means of participation in the kingdom. Ultimately, it's not about "what I get out of it." It's an act of surrender.

St. Barnabas Anglican Church at Sunrise (Photo: C Imes)
According to James K. A. Smith in his recent book, You Are What You Love (Brazos, 2016), this act of surrender has consequences that may be imperceptible now, but add up to something significant. Our habitual acts shape our loves and therefore who we become. Smith says that in order to cultivate virtue we must immerse ourselves in practices that inscribe them in our heart over time. He insists, "counterformative Christian worship doesn't just dispense information; rather, it is a Christ-centered imagination station where we regularly undergo a ritual cleansing of the symbolic universes we absorb elsewhere. Christian worship doesn't just teach us how to think; it teaches us how to love, and it does so by inviting us into the biblical story and implanting that story in our bones" (You Are What You Love, 85).

With this in mind, here are four reasons I choose to keep going to church:

1. Weekly fellowship in a church body orients my loves.

Of course, if I'm not vigilant, it can breed bitterness as well. No church is perfect, and there will always be things that merit complaint. In rare cases, the damage inflicted by a particular local church may even outweigh its benefit. But when I invest weekly in corporate worship with a relatively healthy community, I join with others in declaring where ultimate truth and value lie. Each week my heart is re-calibrated in tiny ways that keep me facing Jesus rather than drifting in another direction.

2. Weekly fellowship in a church body recognizes that following Jesus means joining God's family.

When I signed on as a Christian, it was not a transaction designed primarily to secure my eternal destiny. Becoming a Christian means becoming part of God's family and changing how I live here and now. Spending week after week with these people, sharing this experience, eventually adds up to a network of caring relationships. It doesn't happen overnight, but as we do life together, we lend support to each other on our faith journeys.

3. Weekly fellowship in a church body enables me to participate in God's work of grace in others.

The fact that I show up affirms the value of corporate worship for all those in attendance. It upholds the ministry of my church leaders. My smile and my handshake and my voice lifted in praise manifest the Spirit's presence to others who have come. I am not my own. I am a member of something bigger than myself -- Christ's body on earth.

4. Weekly fellowship in a church body is a means of declaring allegiance to the kingdom of God.

On the outside, the church may not seem like the "going thing." It may seem weak. But the truth is that the church is a visible witness to the unseen reality of God's kingdom. Being present each week testifies to this. It acknowledges that God's invisible kingdom is more substantial and more lasting than the other concrete institutions in my community. It will outlast the postal service, local businesses, schools, and politicians and their offices. My participation ensures this. It testifies to that greater and lasting kingdom.

So, for these and other reasons, I keep going. Whether I feel excited about it or not (and usually I do!), the church is my family, and I cannot be who I am meant to be without it