I want to start a conversation and I would love to hear your thoughts. I hope we won’t argue, pout, yell or shout. I hope we hear educated insight, thoughtful opinion, real-life experience, deeply moving perspective and, perhaps, learn something from one another in the end.
I know it might be irreverent to ask this on a Sunday morning while so many people fill the pews and enjoy the worship but here’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately: Why church?
Unfortunately, I have yet to land on a good answer, despite growing up in the church, spending more than a dozen years in the pulpit and just as many helping plan worship services, children’s services, youth programs and special events.
I get the “party line” that we come to worship God and recharge for another week, but why like this? Why do we stand when we sing? Why do we listen to a single man (or woman, for you wacky liberals) talk for 30-40 minutes? Why do we show up in these buildings and isolate ourselves for one hour a week? Why hymns? Why choruses? Why church?
I get that the first New Testament Church was gathered in one place when it all began…But after that? What happened after that? Didn’t they meet from house to house? Sure they probably sang but did they have brass bands and keyboards? Did they have children’s church and coffee shops? Did they have arguments about the color of the carpet or the style of worship?
I’m not saying that what the early church did was the only way and I’m not suggesting that what some churches do now is all wrong.
I’ve experienced everything in worship short of Snake Handling. I’ve worshiped in a tiny Methodist Church that didn’t have indoor plumbing. The out house was located in the back of the cemetery. The Sears Catalog was still in place.
I’ve worshiped in mega churches with half-a-dozen projection units and enough lighting to land a plane. The band is rocking and the smoke machine is churning. And yet, people get up to leave early so they won’t miss the football game.
I’ve been in Charismatic Worship, heard prophesy, tongues and interpretation of tongues. I’ve seen people fall down in the spirit, wave their hankies and dance a little.
I’ve visited Catholic Mass and Baptist Hymn Sings. I’ve enjoyed Tent Revivals, Midnight Vespers and Wednesday Night Bible Studies. I’ve prayed with homeless men and played guitar for 100 hopped up youth.
I’ve been in worship. I’ve led worship. In fact, I calculate I’ve heard nearly 2,500 sermons in my life-time. Some of them were my own preaching and pretty darn good. Others were my own preaching and pretty darn bad. But in the end, what difference does it make? Despite this life-time of experience, nearly 5 decades of Sunday morning hoopla, today I’m asking one question: Why church?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I truly believe that we come to know God by being with fellow believers, serving, working, praying and studying together. For some, standing alone in the woods, enjoying God’s creation is a blessing to their soul, but it isn’t everything. In the past 40 years, many of my most meaningful experiences with God occurred in the setting of fellow followers who challenged me, grew with me, carried me when I was weak and loved me until I was strong. I’m not questioning Church (with a capital C) – as in the Body of Christ, the Hands and Feet of Jesus reaching out to the lost. I’m asking, Why church?
Is it a club that keeps our members happy and the uninitiated out in the cold? Is it a place where all our needs must be met – spiritual, mental and physical? Is church the instrument of God’s grace in this world or is it just another overpriced building used once a week for our special show? Is Sunday morning an opportunity to have the best singers perform special music and mediocre speakers to give us their anemic opinions in the form of 3 points and a poem or a real agent of change?
Perhaps you have the answer that will settle my weary soul. It’s possible you’ve been asking the same questions for as many years. But I’m finding myself asking a hard question with few easy answers.
Let me end with these three stories…
In one of the churches I served, an elderly woman who had attended for years made first-time visitors get up out of the pew and sit somewhere else because they were in “her seat”. She’d dedicated a hymnal to her dead husband and they were sitting in the spot where HER hymnal was placed. The visitors never returned.
In one congregation, the members requested that we sing hymn #92 each week because it was a former pastor’s favorite song. We ended every service honoring the dead pastor, rather than honoring God.
My favorite is the church where the women wanted to shut down the food pantry because “those dirty people who could work if they wanted to” were soiling the new carpet in the halls.
More recently, a congregation got bent out of shape because a drama prior to the sermon mentioned being Christ-like to a homosexual couple. An apology was later issued for offending anyone. Oddly enough, the sermon was about Jesus engaging and loving the marginalized. I guess the people Jesus calls us to love doesn’t include democrats and homosexuals.
In this season of Lent, as we prepare for Easter, the risen Lord and all that it stands for, I’m asking a heartfelt, soul-stirring question. Seriously. Why do we do all that we do for a Sunday morning show? I’m not just wanting to vent. I want answers. I need answers. And I think I’m looking forward to the conversation.