Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
-Hebrews 10:23-25 (NIV)
The first time I can recall ever missing church just because something else sounded better, I was in college. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and what I missed was a Sunday night service. There was no one around to tell me to go, so I decided to watch the Super Bowl with some friends.
I know. My rebellion was shocking.
I grew up going to church. We were three-times-a-week people: Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. It wasn't a decision I made every week; there was no decision to be made. We went to church. I wasn’t always happy about it. There were times when I wouldn’t have said I got much out of it. None of that mattered, though. When it was time to get into the car, we got into the car. As a teenager I sometimes missed Sunday night for a job. Other than that, I was there.
When I left for college, it was to go to a “Christian university.” I was a Ministry major. Where most people in college probably are dealing with pressure not to go to church, the pressure I got was very definitely pro-church. It was less strength of character than it was going along with the crowd, which happened to be heading to church.
What I’m saying is that I don’t see going to church as something to be proud of, or something that makes me better than someone who didn’t. It was, as much as anything, a habit I picked up. I have some habits that work against me. My church habit, I think, works for me. But it is a habit.
Now, of course, it’s part of my job description. Folks would likely notice if I didn’t show up. I’d probably get a phone call. Still, if I changed jobs tomorrow I think the habit of church attendance would kick in again.
It seems like we disregard doing anything habitually, as though doing something out of habit doesn’t really mean anything. Of course, I know people who make going to the gym a habit. They don’t necessarily enjoy it, aren’t always motivated. But they go because they believe that it’s a habit that makes a difference in their lives.
I wonder if maybe we need to rediscover the habit of going to church.
Maybe you want to stop me right there, with my use of the phrase “going to church.” I do understand that the church is people, not a place. In that sense, of course, you can’t “go to church.” You’re a part of the church. Here’s the thing, though: the church does get together at a set time and place.
Only, I’m not sure that for a lot of believers it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll be there.
I get it. There are a lot of reasons not to be. We’re busy, busy people. (Where are those 30-hour work weeks folks used to predict were coming?) Our kids’ schedules are booked as tightly as our own. There are a lot of reasons to miss church.
Besides, what are we actually going to miss if we average, say, twice a month?
Let me just ask this question: Why should all the other things we have to do be the reason we miss church? Why shouldn’t church be the reason we miss everything else?
The answer to those questions says something about our priorities, what we consider important, or at least what’s most urgent to us. I know that things can get complicated. I know there are times when it’s inevitable that you’ll miss church. There are exceptions to every rule, but exceptions exist as exceptions because they are not the rule. And I’m afraid that the rule for some of us goes something like this: “I’ll be at church on Sunday morning if there isn’t something more pressing going on.”
If that, or something like that, is the rule for you, then I don’t think it’s because you’re a bad person. I don’t think it’s because you don’t love the Lord. I think it’s because you’ve convinced yourself, somewhere along the line, that church is one of several alternatives. It’s on the menu, but why would you order it every week? We have a tendency to see church with a consumer mindset. It’s an option, not an obligation.
Let me just quickly point out, if you’ll allow me, a few reasons why I’m convinced that church attendance is an obligation, a habit we should develop:
- Your attendance will be an encouragement to someone else, often in ways you don’t understand or can’t anticipate. Believe it or not, just seeing you there will help someone in their spiritual life.
- The gifts God has given you are not for you alone. They are to be used in ways that lift up the whole church. How will that happen if you choose not to be there when the church is together?
- The New Testament is full of instructions for how we are to treat “one another.” In those texts, the “one another”s in question seem most naturally to be the church. The church gathered together (as opposed to the hypothetical church) is the laboratory in which we live and experience what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God, both receiving and distributing God’s grace in all its forms.
- Paul pictures the church — the local church — as the “body of Christ.” In that body, he says that God has arranged the parts just as he wants them and that there are no unnecessary parts. (1 Corinthians 12) To functionally absent yourself from the church is to remove a part of the body of Christ.
- I have never known someone whose spiritual life and walk with the Lord were improved by casual church attendance.
- Why should we expect future generations of believers to take the church seriously if they see us treating church attendance as an option and not an obligation?
I know very well that not everything that happens at church is good, or uplifting, or helpful in our walk with the Lord. I know that not every sermon is a home run and not every song sounds great. I know that the church can even do great harm. Still, God has chosen the church to be about his work in our world, and he’s chosen us in all our diversity, disunity, and even brokenness to be imperfect vessels of his grace.
Darrell Hutchens, a former elder at my church and a guy I admired and loved for nearly 30 years, used to often pray publicly for those who were “careless” in their attendance. I think he was on to something. We can be careless in our commitment to being at church. We can develop some bad habits.
But we can also change our habits. Let’s develop the habit of church attendance. Let’s be willing to miss other things for the sake of that habit. Our churches will be stronger because of it. So will our spiritual lives.