Feb 15 2010
I am not an especially social person. I do not like meeting new people. I am shy and awkward when I am in groups that do not consist exclusively of people I’ve known for years. I am not good at making small talk. I blush constantly, and I say tactless things. New situations with new people terrify me, and I can rarely be compelled to go to new places alone. I also tend to find groups of people loud, obnoxious, lacking in manners and courtesy, and annoying. I also know that these problems and prejudices are not exclusive to me. Many of my friends and family members feel the same way – given our choice, we would rather huddle together in a familiar place, and keep the new and strange at bay, especially new and strange people.
So why does someone like me voluntarily leave her house most Sundays and go among people I do not know well, people who after over a year are still mostly “strangers” to me? Why do I go to church?
I go to church for many reasons – some of them are selfish. I like the ceremony and pageantry that the Episcopal Church provides. I’ve always been one for a good show, and the Episcopal Church provides a good show. I like the singing, the chanting, the routine of prayers. However, there are other reasons I go to church, and those reasons not so easily expressed.
Darren, my priest at St. John’s, likes to preach about the difficulty of following Christ in your life. A common theme of his sermons is the turning away from your old life, your selfish life, and turning towards the life that Christ calls us to live – a life that is, in many ways, harder, full of greater demands, and somewhat unpopular practices. Darren talks about how each of us has something (or many things) that is personally difficult for us to overcome, or to continue to turn from. Something that is compatible with our old life, but if we are to follow Christ, something we must work at overcoming. For me, that “something” is my tendency to hide myself away, to avoid interaction with people, to limit my circle to the familiar.
Christians are called into fellowship with each other. Christ himself was constantly going among new people and new places, spreading the Good News as far as he could in the short time that he had. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Jesus the man might have been shy, if he was ever nervous about leaving his home and family to go among strangers. It doesn’t tell us if his mortal heart pounded when he came to another new place and confronted yet another group of strangers. It just tells us that he did these things, and he commanded us to do these things as well. The Bible, it seems, doesn’t have time for excuses. There is a mission to fulfill, and everyone is called to do his or her part. (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20a)
The early church was persecuted, and its followers were sometimes forced to worship in secret. However, these early Christians did not isolate themselves from their fellow believers. Community was paramount in their lives – to such an extent that today, we would label them as Communists. Their money was pooled, they lived together, they ate together, they worshiped together. (“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and their goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 2:44-45) Christ himself commanded us to love our neighbor – he said this was one of the great commandments. So, the question is asked, can you love your neighbor when you do not know him? Can you be a Christian in isolation?
To me, the answer is plain – Christians should not isolate themselves from each other, or from the greater world. It was not easy for me to start going to a new place, among new people, and to learn a new way of doing things. However, it is an important step onto that new path that I am called to follow. I don’t always feel like going to church on Sunday morning. I might be tired, or cranky, or not really feel like singing and praising God for whatever reason. Sometimes, the social anxiety rears its head and I don’t want to go to church simply because I don’t want to be around other people. But part of walking on the path of Christ means doing things that the old me does not want to do, to make myself part of a community, to be in communion with my fellow believers, to hear inspiration and instruction from the pulpit, to worship God as part of a group, to pray as a congregation, as Christ wanted me to do. (“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:19-20)
Invariably, I do force myself to attend church, and once I get there, and see my fellow worshipers, and fall into the rhythm of the service, my mood improves. It might be from hearing a message in the sermon that fits my own situation, it might be from getting a smile and handshake during the Peace, it might be because we are singing my favorite hymn or because the choir is singing a particularly beautiful song. It might just be because I am once again celebrating Holy Eucharist with a group of people who I know share my belief in Christ and are themselves trying their best to do what is right and who are encountering their own struggles.
Many people have said to me that they don’t go to church because they don’t feel they need to. They read their Bible, they pray, they try to live their lives as they believe Christ wants them to. They don’t see a benefit to attending services. They don’t like church, and they don’t like being around the people who attend church. There are, of course, very good Scriptural reasons to attend church:
- We are commanded to worship God, and the main focus of any church service is worship. (Psalm 100)
- We are commanded into fellowship with other Christians, and church provides that fellowship. (Heb. 10:24-26)
- We are commanded to honor and keep sacred the Lord’s Day, and church services set that day aside as something special and sacred (Exodus 20:8-11)
However, I think Christians should also go to church quite simply because they NEED to. We need that contact with God and with our fellow Christians, because it helps us evaluate our own lives and makes us think about the things we need to do differently. It gives us a space to reflect on our successes and failures. It is a time to acknowledge wrongs and receive forgiveness. It offers us a way to pray for those who we didn’t even know needed our prayers, to worship God in a manner that is both public and personal. It is a moment in the week where we sit back, and rest in the presence of God, and get ready to try, always try again to live our lives in the way that we should.
To say that church is unnecessary or a burden to is say that God’s commands, your fellow Christians, and perhaps even God himself is unnecessary and a burden. If you are not finding joy and peace from your church life, you might have the wrong church or the wrong denomination. Not every church is a good fit for every Christian – there are Episcopal churches that are too contemporary for me and where I would not feel at home. However, if you keep looking, I think you’ll find a place where you feel comfortable worshipping, learning, and praying as part of a group.