(Newsletter article to start summer.)
“I don’t have to go to church.”
My uncle Paul, a pastor, has told me about his Confirmation students and families asserting that worship is optional.
His reply? “Show me where in the Bible it says that.”
Still, we ELCA Lutherans have to hem-and-haw with this. If the question is “Do I have to go to church in order to get to heaven?” we might lean toward “No.” Salvation is from Jesus, not based on perfect attendance (or bi-monthly or semi-annual attendance). Disabling threats of eternal damnation in hellfire eliminates a fierce motivator. Neither is there a scale, that God will bless you more. We just can’t say Jesus plays favorites or won’t love you if you’re not here. Grace is not conditional or contingent.
Neither do we rank ourselves higher for being here, that the godless sinners are out in the world while the righteous folks are in church. We can’t prove we’re holier or more moral or really actually better in any way. Instead, we might even say we go to church exactly because we’re sinners and hypocrites and doubters and in need of help.
Our need also reminds us that God doesn’t require any assistance from us. The recent lectionary reading from Acts 17 said God “does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything.” Is it good to give God praise and thanks? Sure. Does God need it from us? Not really.
And God doesn’t live at church. Nobody has actually used on me the cliché about worshiping on the golf course. (Maybe you share that comment with Pastor Tim?) But if God is out there, and if that view of worship means giving thanks for a beautiful day or praying you do something right, then what happens at church that we can’t get elsewhere?
Perhaps the answer starts with assurances of love, forgiveness, and life. Other places can be more fun. I can feel more useful in other places. But to receive the promise of God’s unconditional love, you need church.
With that, church is the only place to learn about who our God is—as one who says the greatest is a servant, one who dies for you and shares life with you, who enters the darkness with compassion. Those aren’t signs you pick up in the world. You can only know it through the proclamation of this story, through the revelation of God in Christ. To quote Bethlehem pastor Mitri Raheb, this is training to “spot God where nobody else can spot God”—in weakness and suffering and sorrow and through death. Knowing and discovering that God is a vital resource.
That also matters for who God wants you to be, which is known only in community. Psalm 133 nicely begins, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Our Christian faith cannot really be understood individually. Nobody is saved alone. This is always corporate, always as the body of Christ.
Church community can be different than any other. Families can become estranged. Teams end the season or co-workers finish a project. Even support groups don’t accept faults and brokenness the way we do (or should). We strive to practice love and sharing peace. It’s not only that we can accomplish more together (like ending malaria!). More centrally, our very identity is in that we all have fallen short in countless ongoing ways, but still get to strive together, to breathe and sing together, to live into the promise together.
Finally, you are very truly missed when you’re not here. Even going a week without seeing you is hard. In the spirit of Philippians, I yearn for you and long for you. It’s true!
We can’t force you to be here or tell you you’re wrong if you’re not. But we will continue to invite and encourage and beg you. It’s better for us all. (And amid busy summer travels, if you can’t be here then please find other Christian community as you go.)
See you in church!