This weekend I’ll be presenting this paper at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) meeting. You can download the paper here. I welcome your thoughts and feedback!
I’m a theologian. The study of the Bible and the nature of the Church lie at the very heart of everything that I do and hold dear. Yet, honestly, I sometimes don’t like going to church. I’d rather just stay at home, and here’s why.
First, for a theologian, attending church can be mentally exhausting. It’s my nature (and indeed the way God has wired me) to critically analyze most things. I used to feel terribly guilty about this, until one day a fellow theologian counseled me saying, “you just have to realize that this is the way its going to be for you for the rest of your life. It’s not a bad thing. It’s simply part of your calling and you just have to discover how to manage it with grace.” Since then I’ve tried to live by those words and it has helped tremendously. But still, sometimes I just don’t feel like being gracious and would rather just stay at home.
And then there’s the people.
Churchy people can be especially difficult to handle sometimes. For example, every church seems to have that one lady who lives on Planet Jesus and who believes that every one of life’s challenges can be overcome with a simple cliché and a clack of the tambourine. “You just gotta keep praisin’ brother!” Clack-ity-clack.
But when I think about these things in light of the Gospel, I’m reminded of the real reason I sometimes don’t like going to church. All of these things, the parts of the sermon or parts of the worship service which I wish were different, the people whom I wish I could change and make them someone other than who they are, all point to one thing. They all point to the reality of my own sinfulness. They declare with a load voice that I, the theologian who has made a career out of studying the Bible, have yet to fully abide by its most central precept. Namely, “you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).
In other words, everything I don’t like about church is in reality a reflection of my own self-centeredness. In fact, the word “like” itself suggests that I tend to see church as existing primarily to meet my needs. My lack of grace toward the tambourine lady flows from the fact that I’ve never really tried to get to know the tambourine lady and understand what makes her tick. To put it simply, I’ve never really loved her as I love myself. My dissatisfaction with the music or with the sermon, though sometimes might reflect real issues that need to be addressed, more often testify to the fact that I came to church not to serve, but to be served. Odd behavior, to say the least, for one who follows Him whose whole life was described in exactly opposite terms (Matt. 20:28).
In short, all the reasons that I sometimes don’t like going to church declare with a loud voice that I absolutely need to be there. They declare that I need to continue to grow in the grace of loving others and bearing with them in their struggles. I need to discover and rediscover and discover all over again that Christian community is not just about getting fed (thought it is about that). But there comes a time when we have to stop bellying up to the banquet table and instead find our way to the kitchen, and begin to labor for the nourishment and strengthening of others.
The more I do this, the more I find that church can be infinitely rewarding.