For the past several months, if not years, I have been musing over the question, "Why do we go to church?" It seems like a straightforward answer and many would affirm that one goes to church to learn about and worship God. But if that is all church is about, then if one reads from the Bible, says their prayers, reads books on the subject, and has access to any number of resources online, why do we still get together in buildings? What is the point of gathering for worship?
My first inclination was to say that it is for the sacraments. Indeed, I do not think I would be half the person I am if I didn't get some extra Jesus in my life through the Eucharist. It slowly but surely helps me to become a little more like Jesus, week after week, wafer after wafer. Jesus physically enters into the body and nourishes it. He transforms the physical body as well as the soul. There is nothing more awe inspiring to me than that. Surely the sacraments must be why we go to church.
But then I look at the vast majority of protestant churches, with a variety of beliefs about the sacraments and a variety of time tables for when they receive them. How can I say going to church is all about the sacraments when there are so many churches don't receive the Eucharist on a weekly basis or have different theologies about it? And what about the Quakers? They do not take physical sacraments at all, but rather experience spiritual baptism and communion. What is the reason that all these groups continue to gather every week?
So I went back to the drawing board and I decided that it must be about community. This is why the church gathers, to be a community that can shape each other as everyone works to better understand who God is and how God is working in their lives. It is all about learning from one another and growing with each other. Indeed, if an individual tries to understand God on their own, there is a great likelihood that the god they worship will end up being their own ideas and interpretations. How do they know if their ideas are valid unless they are challenged and molded by the others around them? But then what is to stop an entire church community from making their own false idols? How easily do some churches become cults of a pastor's personality? Indeed, a church community is always in some way shaped by the personality of the person in charge. There is no getting around that fact. So how does being a part of a congregation help a person with their faith if their faith could potentially be led astray by the person in charge?
So I mulled about this for a while, knowing that what I felt about the sacraments was true and what I felt about community was true, but having trouble connecting the dots.
I also began to muse about why I went to chapel services at my seminary. To be honest, the mish-mash of traditions drives me a little batty. So do I go for my own spiritual edification? Yes and no. Whether or not the preacher interests me or whether I think the service will be good hardly factors into why my butt is in the pew. Is it some sense of duty? Kind of. I left for a while and came back because I felt that it was important as the president of a student organization to be there. But if that were the only thing, I wouldn't feel a deeper need to be there. There was something else driving me besides my own sense of student leadership. And I could easily not go. A lot of people don't. That's not a judgment on anyone, I understand many of the reasons why people don't go and I don't go all the time. But more often than not, my butt is in that pew.
And that is where I found a piece of the answer that I was looking for. I show up not because I think chapel will be terrific. I show up because you never know when Christ is going to come and say something important. Sometimes there's nothing of note that happens. I come, I do the worship routine, I leave. But sometimes something really unexpected happens. A song grabs me, a scripture startles me, or a sermon really gets me. Christ comes when I'm not really expecting Him. Christ can come at any moment. And sometimes it's not even anything in the service order itself that strikes me. Sometimes it's the people around me. It's amazing to me how putting my butt in a pew has allowed me to meet more of my fellow students than I could have ever met in the halls. As we share together before services, we are able to connect in sometimes unexpected ways.
Finally I was able to piece together what it meant to go to church. A church service often contains all we need to better hear the call of Christ for our days and our lives. Sometimes Christ is felt in songs or scripture or sermon. Sometimes Christ is felt most in fellowship and feast. But Christ is always there. Indeed God is present in every element in our lives. And it's not that we have to gather communally to worship, but when we do, when we come as God's People to hear God's Word, we can be changed. There is transformation power in community. There is resurrection power in the Word. Sometimes the community doesn't always align perfectly with the Word. It is resistant to where God is calling it, its doctrines don't always mesh up, but still it seeks. And when the Body of Christ sinks into the People of God and claims it as its own, things happen. Communities change. People are not the same. The Kingdom enters our kingdoms.
So why do we gather together? Why do we go to church? Because we believe that the Word of God can change lives. We believe that Christ can come into hearts at any given moment, and this isn't just a one time thing, but a continual thing, shaping people into the Body of Christ. And when the Body of Christ comes together and seeks God together, the Kingdom of God can enter the world. It may be only glimpses or foretastes, but those moments energize us and revitalize us for the work that will lead to the Kingdom truly inhabiting our planet. We come because we believe Christ can and does change the world.