So Why Bother Going to Church?

Many have written about Donald Miller’s admission that he doesn’t attend local churches much. He doesn’t “learn” anything relevant when he goes to church, and he doesn’t feel intimate with God through music. He doesn’t like the lecture-style of so many evangelical sermons. So he just doesn’t go most of the time.

Miller casts his struggle as one of learning, and of the various styles of learning (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, etc.), but his conflict is much more fundamental–and pernicious–than just a learning style issue. His struggle to participate in a worshiping community (aka a local church) is baked into the (evangelical) Protestant cake. It’s nearly impossible for contemporary American evangelical Christians (and even garden-variety Protestants) to speak about worship in terms other than “what we get out of it.” Learning, edification, inspiration, intimacy with God, and ahem, even entertainment: it all seems to orbit around the Almighty I.

So kudos to Stephen Damick at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy for his insightful response to Donald Miller.

So why bother going to church?

That’s a big question that I think is getting asked more and more by the unchurched, ex-churched, de-churched, the post-Evangelical, etc. If you don’t happen to get into the “style” of what’s going on at your church, why bother going? Certainly there are attempts to reinvent church, to make it more visual or kinesthetic, but what if you don’t connect there, either?

Damick gets to the heart of things. There is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what worship is, and our role in it, in Protestantism. Besides giving a commercial for Eastern Orthodoxy, Damick advocates for a sacramental view of life and a liturgical approach to worship.

At the most fundamental level, though, worship isn’t about learning or feeling anything at all—not according to the Bible or Church history, anyway. Rather, worship is about mystical union with God in the sacrificial unifying power of the liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist. There is both beauty and truth, the place where beauty and truth are authentically the same one thing. And that access to physical/spiritual communion with God is simply not available outside of the liturgical life.

Miller has hit on something that is at the very core Evangelical worship, and that is that it only really appeals to a certain piece of humanity, and not just in terms of “demographics” (as he identifies it) but in terms of the human person himself. Contemporary Evangelical worship is not only addressed to certain kinds of people, but it is also addressed only to certain parts of people.

So why bother going to church? If it’s about “what I get out of it,” then there really isn’t a compelling reason to–or at least no reason to remain faithful to a particular church, rather than jumping around attempting to suit my own desires. And if we understand “worship” as something we can do anywhere, like in nature or on the golf course, then there isn’t a compelling reason to darken the door of a church building. But if we understand worship as union with God (in community), then it is something we cannot experience apart from the gathered community.

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About That Revision Blind Spot…

While I’m clearing the decks of my Weblog backlog, I thought I’d comment on Michael Brooks’ article at The Christian Post–which is oddly familiar to my last post about revisionists.

Brooks, who I assume is an evangelical Protestant (in line with CP’s general character), takes on revisionists who are trying re-package the gospel message to make it more relevant.  His basic message, contra those who want to modify the Christian gospel, is that “simplicity is at the heart of the Gospel, not innovation.”  To which I respond, “Hear, hear!”  The church’s job has always been to conserve and transmit its simple message to the next generation and to an unbelieving world.

I hope Brooks wasn’t just aiming his fire at liberal revisionists in liberal denominations, though, because there are many church leaders in Brooks’ own evangelical camp who have modified the Christian message in their ultimate quest to be “relevant” to the culture.  I could name names, but I will protect the guilty.  Just think of all the feel-good, prosperity-gospel-loving, personal-fulfillment life coaches preachers on TV.  The liberal revisionists are an easy target, of course, but there are scores of evangelicals who could take Brooks’ message to heart.

It also struck me as odd that Brooks referred to evangelical Christianity–what some used to call “biblical Christianity”–as small-o “orthodox Christianity.”  I have also noticed this trend in Christianity Today, one of the few paper magazines I read: substituting “orthodox” for “evangelical” or “biblical.”  (Albert Mohler uses this word frequently, too.)  This is a curious word choice, since we Protestants, while being ostensibly centered on the basic gospel message, are not “orthodox” per se.  Or maybe I should say we’re not capital-O “Orthodox.”  (Here’s a good question: Is it possible to be little-o without being capital-O?)

I have to say this delicately, but we Protestants are on thin ice when we accuse others of modifying or innovating Christianity.  (We’re also on thinner ice when we accuse others of dividing the church or engaging in schism.)  Yes, the basic Protestant narrative says that our reformers reclaimed the simple gospel message and returned to the New Testament church.  But there are plenty of innovations we have made to Christianity since then: liturgical, theological, ecclesiological, missional.  Sola scriptura, the sinners’ prayer, the evangelistic meeting, inerrancy, dispensationalism, having a printed Bible are all innovations.  There are lots of terms we use that don’t correspond to the earliest church, either: “getting saved,” “accept Jesus into my heart,” “surrender,” “washed in the blood,” and “make a decision for Christ,” to name a few.

So an exhortation and a question:

Let’s be careful when we accuse others of being revisionists when we are often blind to our own revisions.

And what would it look like if we (Protestants) truly conformed our message to the basic, nascent, apostolic gospel, propagated in the second half of the first century, before we had Bibles or inerrancy or TV preachers?  (Or is that even possible?  Oh wait, that’s two questions.)  Discuss.