In most Christian circles church attendance seems to be the only litmus test for whether we are committed to Jesus and growing spiritually. After having to leave a church that both my husband and I served in, whenever I ran into former congregants the question was always the same: “So where ya goin’ now?” The question felt irritating and, at the same time, awkwardly shaming. It seemed people were far more concerned about where we were going to church, or if we were going, than how we were really doing.
Church attendance is a poor measure of the condition of our relationship with God. Implied in the question, “Where ya goin’?” is an assumption that if you’re attending a church service then all must be well with you and the Lord. And if you’re not going to church, well … then obviously you’ve lost your way. And a little more church would fix you right up.
Whether you’ve become disillusioned about church or simply struggle with the desire to engage in regular attendance, how often does a question like this provoke more hurt and shame than genuine interaction? As a single person, what do you wish you could say about your experience of “going to church” to the person asking you? Even here, I think the language we use is so important, and often we’re too careless. I use quotations around “going to church” because I believe it is a colloquial expression and a misnomer. We are the church; we gather as the church for a worship service.
There are obvious reasons why “going to church” is of great concern for many Christians. Scripture urges us to “not neglect to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25). Jesus modeled in the Gospels the regular rhythm of gathering on the Sabbath in the local synagogue. And Christian tradition indicates a long-standing practice of Christ-followers coming together to practice the liturgy of worship: elements like prayer, confession, teaching and Holy Communion. But at times church attendance feels more like an obligation rather than an act of worship.
The Case for Church Attendance
That’s certainly been true for me over my lifetime. I’ve struggled with or been motivated by an array of needs I hoped the church would meet, and many times I’ve felt sorely disappointed. Four years ago, I began to wrestle yet again with my involvement in church. This time, through a quiet process of contemplating how God wanted me to think about church, something subtle and significant shifted within me. I started to consider “going to church” and participating in the liturgy of worship as a spiritual practice. Rather than attend church as a customer in search of religious goods and services, I began to engage as a practitioner orienting my heart and life toward God.
This sounds like an innocuous shift in thinking and approach, but it’s actually been quite profound for me. Envisioning my actions of heading toward a worship gathering as a spiritual practice has turned some things around in me. The effect is similar to that of seeing a chiropractor for an alignment. The spine isn’t the only benefactor; my entire body and all its systems benefit because of their connection to the spine. Dedicating myself to attending our Sunday service has provided a new vision for why corporate worship is formative in my life. This vision has fueled my intention to participate more regularly, and the liturgy has provided the means for how my heart, mind and will are shaped as a worshiper of God.
Choosing to view church attendance as an act of spiritual practice actually resulted in some pretty stark attitudinal shifts as well:
1. From Spectator to Participant. The simple liturgy that shapes our worship has become a means to reaffirm and act out my faith in community with others. Liturgy literally means “the work or service of the people.” Coming together with fellow believers to pray together and sing hymns and spiritual songs to God is an active spiritual work. When I began to see things this way, each element of the liturgy became a conscious act of participation rather than a litany I watched and was led through.
You might be thinking, “But my church doesn’t have a liturgy.” If there is an intentional flow that includes some of the common elements of public worship—silence, singing, praying, confessing, Scripture reading and coming to the Lord’s Table—then that is a form of liturgy, albeit a non-traditional liturgy. Unfortunately, many churches today create a worship gathering akin to a theater, concert venue or sports arena. Those gathered are in the audience as spectators, not participants, but even in these situations it’s possible to posture your heart and mind toward doing the good work of worshiping and engaging with God together.
2. From Skeptical to Expectant. In the past, I would attend a worship service with a fair amount of skepticism because of how often I would leave feeling disappointed. Though not outwardly obvious, it’s as though my arms were folded across my chest as I observed the service with a closed heart and critical eye. In this passive and dubious state, I watched and waited for something to “fall from heaven” before I would open myself to receive it.
When I started to think of my participation in worship as a spiritual discipline, this attitude began to engage and strengthen my will. It awakened my intention to be present, which in turn opened my heart to the formational work of the liturgy and the sermon. I don’t come to church anymore with lofty expectations of getting something out of the worship experience, but I do come with an expectant belief that my heart will be strengthened and shaped toward greater love for and devotion to God.
3. From Customer to Cooperator. When we complain about church it’s usually because we aren’t getting what we hoped from the service itself or the people in our church. Our needs aren’t being met. We aren’t getting fed. There isn’t enough of this or there’s too much of that. All of these sentiments express the mentality of a customer or consumer. We come to church to get. And when we don’t get what we want, we leave and look for another church to meet our needs. Or we stop looking at all.
But shouldn’t church do something for us? Yes, of course. Yet our customer mentality is not unlike a “victim” mentality. We get stuck in the passive role of waiting to be given to or taken care of, and we fail to see or engage with our part in the process. No transforming work of God is ever accomplished without our involvement, cooperation and surrender. Practicing each element of the liturgy — prayer, singing, listening, confessing and Communion — is cooperating with the Spirit in the formation of our souls.
4. From Independent to One-Among-Many. As a single person, choosing to attend a worship service that is geared toward people who are married and have families (who may be insensitive to those who are unmarried), can be awkward, lonely and hard. We want, and rightly so, to find community in our churches. We hope for them to be a refuge from the isolated lives we often live. We long for church to be a place where we can find meaningful friendships.
While it is an incredible gift to find a safe and satisfying Christian community, that’s not always or often what we find. However, even in our disappointment, there’s something important and valuable about moving from independent to being one-among-many, standing, shoulder to shoulder, with others who are seeking Christ. Gathering with the people of God in worship and sharing the space and time together forges humility and inter-dependence in our otherwise autonomous existence.
Each of these attitudinal shifts describes how the spiritual practice of gathering in worship can train our hearts to desire God more. This conscious and intentional discipline of actively participating in the liturgy can shape and orient our hearts toward Christ — hearts that are so prone to wander. These actions help us do what in our nature we can’t or won’t do: to grow in love, adoration and worship of the God who loves and adores us.
Paul’s words to the church in Rome capture beautifully this intentional act of worship I’ve described: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Romans 12:1 NASB)
Perhaps the unprecedented decline in church attendance throughout our country is about more than what church is not offering us or how secular we’ve become; maybe it’s also due to our faulty approach to church. Luckily, it’s not too late. We can incorporate liturgy and engage each aspect of public worship with presence and intention toward the forming of our hearts for God. When you wrestle with whether to go to church, reframe your participation in worship as a spiritual practice and see how that changes your perspective on “Where you’re goin’.”
Copyright 2016 Beth Booram. All rights reserved.