I don’t want to talk about Donald Miller. This is in part because in 2006, when I was working on my first book, my publisher kept bringing up Donald Miller’s name in every email or phone conversation we had, wondering why I couldn’t write more like him. (Ha!) It is also because I don’t know Donald Miller, or the nuances of his meaning. But mostly I don’t want to talk about Donald Miller because I what I really want to talk about is church, specifically, going to church.

Why do we go to church?

This is the question at the bottom of all this musing, right? Miller speaks for many who see the hollow-ness of what the gathered church has become. I see it. You see it. So we ask, “Why go to church?” Immediately, someone is going to say, “We don’t go to church; we are the church!” There is, of course, something true about this statement. But it misses a very crucial point…and we’ll start with that point:

1. We go to church because being and place belong together.
Those of my readers who are more philosophically inclined will be able to cite various French and German philosophers and social theorists who talk about the necessity of human beings being grounded in place. We are not free-floating entites unconnected to particular points in space and time. We find our identity and memory and sense of being by being in a place.

There is, I think, a simple illustration for this: a family and a home. A group of people living together in a house doesn’t make them a family (See: house, fraternity). And a family will always be family even when the kids grow older and move out of the home. But what is a family that has no place, no house to make a home? Arguably, it is the memory of living together in a home that shapes the sense of identity as a family— long after the kids leave home. (This might be why children who grew up without one of their parents might say, “I don’t really think of him as my dad.” Why? Because he didn’t live with them in their home.)

To force the disctintion between “being the church” and “going to church” is to deal in abstracts. Life doesn’t divided being from place. We are formed as the famliy of God by gathering together, with those we know and love and with those we do not yet know or love.

2. We go to church because we belong to the human race.
Since the Enlightenment, Western cultures have tended to view humans as free-standing, autonomous agents (a sweeping generalization, I know!). But Christianity, having grown out of the East, has a more communal identity at its core. Paul wrote that in Adam “all sinned”. And all who are in Christ are part of a “new creation”. Going to church, then, is not really an individual act. It is part of how we “take our place“– there’s that word place again– in the great drama of the cosmos.

Ben Myers wrote about this beautifully last year:

I go to church and take bread and wine not necessarily because I feel hungry but because the common human condition is, at bottom, hunger and thirst and nothing more. It is the hunger of my mothers and fathers that I am feeding when I take the consecrated bread. When I take the cup it is the burning thirst of Adam that I slake. It is for the whole huge accumulated mass of human arrogance and stupidity and meanness that I hang my head in shame and say (embarrassed to be asking yet again), Lord have mercy.

I do not go to church because it is enjoyable (usually it’s not), or because it is never dull (usually it is). I do not go to church because it satisfies my private needs and wishes (it seldom does). I do not go to church for myself. I go because of Adam.

Yes, religion is a crutch. But it’s not my own personal crutch. It is Adam’s crutch. It’s the human race that walks (if it walks at all) with a limp.

3. We go to church because it is where faith is found, and where faith finds us.
Yesterday I had lunch with a successful businessman in his late 50’s and coffee with a young writer in his 20’s. Both told me the same thing: we need something larger than ourselves, something to carry us when we cannot walk, something to belong to, to be committed to, something within which we can be located and identified.

To not go to church is to make me the arbiter of truth; it is to place myself as the final judge over what humanity needs, or what a person should believe. But to go to church is to surrender. Going to church is a confession at its core that I cannot make sense of the world on my own, that I cannot connect the dots, that I need the wisdom of the ages to be passed on to me. Not going to church can be, in a sense, the ultimate arrogance; going to church can be the ultimate humility. (Though, admittedly, this is often reversed; such is the mystery of pride and humility!)

Medi Ann Volpe, a Catholic lecturer at Durham University whom I admire, wrote about her own struggle with faith and doubt and the Church in this way:

 “I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I had done to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn’t ‘mine’ to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don’t possess it.

——————–

You may think all this too flowery, that I am living in a fairy tale, or trying to “weave a spell”. But to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, remember that in fairy tales, a spell is often just what is needed to wake us from an enchantment. “You and I,” Lewis wrote, “have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us.”

 

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5 thoughts on “ON GOING TO CHURCH

  1. I agree with Jack. Great post!
    As you know, I’ve been in a place where I’ve become more & more frustrated/bored with the contemporary popular expression of “church” & “worship”. But I have also become more excited & passionate about re-emerging expressions as well.
    A few years ago, I was in a place where I was questioning what the point of “going to church” was… at the same time, my passion for “sacred spaces” was increasing.
    Seems like a paradox.
    I love community & sacred space… I love beautiful art & liturgy that illuminates our souls.
    & I have experienced a richer taste of the Bread & Wine that makes everything else I’ve eaten taste like over-fried fast food.
    I’m SO incredibly lucky to be a part of a community that expresses & gathers as “church” in a way that nourishes my soul. Not that we have it all figured out, but all I know is that they breathe life into this jaded weary soul that has seen too much.
    But then I go to the conferences. And I read Twitter & blogs. I live in one of the main cities that has given birth to the business of christian entertainment. And I see how much it has influenced & shaped contemporary worship. There’s a lot of good… and a lot of bad, too.
    It’s not about style or preferences… it’s just that many of the beautiful things that make for a strong community & strong liturgy are simply lacking in the ever-so popular expression these days. It’s a very limited offering… a narrow bandwidth of formation… a very unbalanced diet.
    Popular praise songs limited to 13 minutes for “worship”.
    Incredibly long “sermons” that seem less about Word & more about words. Slick, catchy, funny, entertaining, feel-good, practical, etc.
    Very little prayer.
    Even less sacrament.
    Horribly loud mixes so you can’t hear yourself sing (so that you’ll sing louder, as if that makes you “worship” more).
    And incredibly cheesy motion backgrounds that fill the eyes with visual cavities.
    Yes, Jesus is there… He’s in the middle of it all. But to me, a forest screams louder of the glory of God than most worship services these days.
    Very simply, I’ve grown sick of eating fast food liturgy all the time. I love me some fries & a coke, but not all the time. And it seems like a lot of people are becoming sick, fat & tired, too.
    They’d rather grow clean organic food in their own gardens & enjoy the slow process of cooking with their friends… to share an unhurried meal around the Table… instead of going through the well-branded fast food drive-thru of contemporary worship.
    I guess my question becomes “Can healthy, formational liturgy that centers the community around Word & Sacrament take place outside of a typical church building on a Sunday morning?” I think so. I would HOPE so. But what can that look like for others who are tired of a church that is more about programmatic songs & practical sermons instead of true community & sacrament?
    I’m not saying it’s all wrong & bad. But good Lord it is unhealthy & shallow.
    Im all about different expressions… churches of different shapes & sizes & flavors… even giving in to stylistic preferences are fine, to a degree.
    My response to all of this is to dive deeper into my own community & to strengthen our liturgy as best as I can… to become even more centered around Word & Sacrament.
    But for those who simply cannot find a church expression that is formational in a healthy way, I can understand & sympathize with them…i can see why they’re giving up on going to shallow Sunday morning services week after week & try to find sacred space, community & Communion in non-traditional places. In a way that does not forsake BEING & PLACE.

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  2. Stephen,
    Thank you. Honest, real, and hopeful. I agree that Christ-centered, Gospel-shaped community around the Table can happen anywhere..and that it might need to be outside some arena-rock seeker churches if for no other reason than to detox and cleanse. I get it. I hear you…and the others you are speaking on behalf of.
    My suggestion is that maybe the move to Orthodox Christianity or Catholicism or Anglicanism might be safer than “wandering up the mountain without a trail or a map”…Donald and his friends are probably not the type to get lost in living out community. But a less mature (read: skeptic/cynic) believer might. It’s the whole rope to the barn thing…It’s not that it can’t happen in house church settings…it’s that the rope is often thread-bare…and snaps in one generation. We must think of this subject not simply in what “I” need…but in what my children and their children need…hence the beauty of the transcendent institution.
    shalom.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more.
    I know if it weren’t for my own community, I would run to the closest Anglican parish & would frequent a Catholic church once in a while, because curiosity. =)
    At least I imagine it that way.
    and I agree that we have to think beyond ME & think about a longer lasting legacy to leave behind.
    grace & peace.
    p.s. let’s go back to the Shake’s soon. haha

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  4. If liturgy is meant to be formative, its purpose, at least in some ways, is to radiate from that Cross, that Altar, that Table, through the Gospel-shaped community and Communion, to the anywhere and outside of the world–for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

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