Many of us in Word Made Flesh (WMF) have had a hard time going to church. Of course, we know that church is important and connected to mission. In fact, part of our vision is to see those in poverty find their home in church and for the church to be home for those suffering from poverty. Still, the challenge to attend church is real. Some struggle with significant cultural differences of a church, in which they don’t feel spiritually nourished. Others wrestle with theological differences, perhaps about understandings of the role of women church or about justice and care for those who are marginalized and in need.
The challenges of going to church are not only felt in cross-cultural missional contexts, but as we are increasingly aware, they are part of our larger cultural dissatisfaction with and exodus from the church – especially in the West. And there certainly are legitimate motives for not attending church. One may have experienced an abusive church culture. Many of us know someone who has suffered child abuse by priests or bullying and misogyny by evangelical pastors.
Some have been let down by the church’s lack of sensitivity towards friends of LGBTQ communities, of those of other faiths, and of those with disabilities or from other economic classes. Some are hindered by the history of segregation and ongoing racism, sexism, or hypocrisy of some churches. Others walk away from church as it has conflated Christian witness with culture wars, political parties or figures, or civil religion. Others are simply left unsatisfied by the therapeutic tone of sermons, the crafting of worship services as entertainment, or the superficiality of Christian relationships.
We should not take these reasons for not going to church lightly. In fact, I advise those in abusive and bad churches to leave them. Some may need a break from church or even a clean break. Leaving may helpfully cause some bad local churches to dissolve. Yet, in the context of a massive exodus from church, I still want to make a case to go to church.
A person celebrated in church history and who has greatly influenced WMF is Saint Francis of Assisi. He lived in a time when the church was in disrepair. The church was involved in sending crusades to “protect” the “Holy Land” from the Muslims. Christians were also waging territorial wars with other Christians. As trade increased in certain areas, inequality grew as did the desire for wealth, exacerbating corruption and poverty. Inside a church building that was literally crumbling, Francis prayed. He heard the voice of the Lord: “Go and repair My house, which is falling in ruins.” Francis began collecting bricks and selling his father’s fabrics so as to buy construction materials. And so commenced his task of rebuilding the church. In a short time, Francis realized that the church is not the building but rather the people, the Body of Christ.
In dramatic form, Francis renounced his father’s wealth and committed himself to poverty, obedience, and chastity. He attracted others around him who made the same commitments and then went out to preach good news and serve others. Francis’s life can inspire us and help us find a way to church – even if it means understanding church differently – and being a part of repairing it. As I have previously reflected on “What Do We Mean by ‘Church?’,” in this short article, I will address some of the ideas that inhibit us from attending the church and outline some fundamental reasons why going to church is essential for Christ-followers. Let’s begin with some aspects that hinder our going to church.
Keeping Us From Church
Not feeling spiritually nourished: Some WMF staff who serve in different countries find that they are not fed in local churches. Even in one’s own country, some find it difficult to worship in a church led by those of other ethnicities or social groups. In these situations, we realize that what we thought was spiritual nourishment is actually more cultural. A foreign church or your neighborhood church may not “feed” you, but the invitation to you is to discover how those in that church are being fed and to learn to drink from their wells. So, part of contextualizing the gospel is to see and experience how the gospel has been metabolized by the local culture. In time, you may discover a deeper nourishment for yourself or at least that your pallet has been cultivated.
Assuming that church is a choice: The culture of capitalism and consumerism tells us that when we have more options we are empowered and have a fuller sense of agency. Maybe we have understood repairing the church as our refusal to participate in local gatherings of Christ-followers. Some may want to renounce the church in order to follow Christ – sometimes formulated as being “spiritual” but not “religious.” But like St. Francis, we need to hear the deeper call: to renounce our culture of individualistic choices that reduces even religion and spirituality to an option, to renounce institutions that fail while cultivating institutions that sustain, and to deal with hurt and potential harms rather than isolating ourselves.This leads us to discuss some reasons why participating in church is essential.
The Importance of Gathering as Christians
Being Shaped by Church Practices: As with all human communities, the church is shaped by its practices. (That means that non-participation in church is also a practice, and opting out is not simply renouncing the gathering but also involves taking up other practices that will inevitably shape you. We need to ask: what are the practices of the communities in which we participate and how are they shaping us?). The practices of the church include the visible gathering, naming, confessing and repenting of sin, forgiving one another, bearing one another’s burdens, working out salvation by loving others and especially those who are most vulnerable, harmonizing voices and instruments for lament, protest, thanksgiving, and praise, and prayerfully discerning together how to faithfully hear and follow the person and words of Jesus.
The church is an alternative society that celebrates humility, service, and costly generosity. These practices hopefully become habits.These are outgrowths from our gathering. In our coming together, we practice at bearing the fruit of the Spirit and anticipate the New Creation of peace, joy, and communion. Encountering the Divine Presence: Although made up of followers of Christ, the church is not simply a human community. Jesus promises that he is present in the visible gathering of two or three in his name (Mt 18:20). When followers of Christ gather in faith and partake in the life of the Son through the Spirit, there is the real sacramental presence of Christ. This, in itself, is enough reason to go to church. I suspect that this might not be convincing because we really don’t really believe that Jesus is really present in and through others. Our notions of individual will and power and our materialist worldview keep us from understanding our existence as participating through Christ and with others in the world. Still, perhaps we can be moved by Jesus’ words.
When we go to church, we are promised an encounter with Christ that only occurs through the gathering in his name and in the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23–25). We experience Jesus together. This is a deep and mysterious communion for which we were created and to which we are called. The Spirit is manifested to others through you and to you through others. Without you, the communion is incomplete.
We don’t only participate in the church for the sake of ourselves. It may be a place of our healing and joy, but this is not the only reason we gather. Jesus gives his self for the life of the world and gives his body of believers for the life of the world. You are invited to participate in his life and to share the joy of sharing life with others. In the gathering, each person and their unique gifts are recognized and shared with others, especially the most vulnerable. Here too is a sacramental encounter with Christ who promises that he is present in the vulnerable and oppressed (Mt 25:31-46).
The church belongs and you are needed among the vulnerable. Perhaps it is the Spirit who is prompting great dissatisfaction with the forms and practices of the church today. May the Spirit act in us as God did in St. Francis. Francis sought the Lord and heard his voice from within a crumbling church. He made a tenacious commitment to the church, while reimagining alternative communities of monks, nuns, and laity that ventured on crusades of love instead of violence and abuse.
In fact, Francis, prepared for martyrdom, went behind enemy lines and, at the invitation of the Sultan, shared the gospel. As the church suffered disinterest and corruption, Francis led believers to authentic encounters with Jesus in their daily communal worship, in their awe of God’s creation, and in their interactions with those begging and those suffering from leprosy. In their radical following in the way of Jesus, they experienced Jesus together. I would not offer a prescription for where to go to church or what it needs to look like, but I pray that we, inspired by St. Francis, hear the revolutionary call to repair the church.