When “skipping church” isn’t skipping church (and when it is)

I love the meme that accompanies this post because it points to several mistakes about what it means to be the church while intending neither.

1. The first mistake is equating being in a building with church.

Endless numbers of people have pointed out that we don’t “go” to church, we “are” the church. And yet, that phrase “go to church” remains stuck in our vocabulary. Reinforcing this further, churches put pictures of their buildings on the covers of their bulletins and on their websites.

Far too many of us who claim to follow Jesus and be the people of God are more attached to our church buildings than we realize. I know of numerous congregations who have deep theological concerns with their denomination — issues they would call institutionally sanctioned heresy — but refuse to separate from the denomination because they would lose their buildings in the process. Think on that for a moment. They are more attached to their buildings than to following Jesus.

Didn’t Jesus call us to give up all kinds of things to follow him? I think that includes buildings.

And far too many of us locate too much of our faith inside of the walls of our church buildings. They’re just too convenient. But we are to be the outward-moving, sent people of God who move into the lives of those around us. But because of our buildings, we move inward, gathering together to do our things in our way while wondering why no one else will join us.

Most Americans will not willingly cross the threshold of a church building and yet we continue to expect them to come. Those days are past. The time has come for us to think of our buildings as gyms or dojos, places where we gather to be trained for the real work that is outside in the real world.

2. Beyond being building-centric, the meme points to a second mistake: we are too worship-centric.

Worship is great. It’s essential, even. As humans created in the image of God, our chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). We will have all of eternity to worship our great God. But we only have now to engage in mission.

There are times when the Scriptures fault God’s people for false worship of false gods, but there seems to be no lack of worshiping. What there is a lack of is mission.

God’s people seem to like to hunker down and do the worship thing while ignoring the mission thing.

Micah 6:6-8 points out the discrepancy between worship and mission, poking fun at the extreme lengths we’ll go to for worship while calling us to simple missional acts of justice and mercy:

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Isaiah 58 says that the passionate worship of fast days would be better off replaced with missional days of justice:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Isaiah 58:6-9)

When we make worship our highest priority, we not only aren’t biblical, but we reinforce that untruth that the most important thing we do takes place inside of our buildings.

It would be to our profit to “skip church” and get outside with other people — the people we’re supposed to be loving in mission — instead of spending yet another Sunday morning separated from them as we do our worship thing in our worship space.

This is the reason why we at The Table don’t worship on Sunday morning, preferring Sunday evening. We don’t want to be shut up in the box on Sunday mornings. We want to be out with our friends, enjoying the creation God has so wonderfully made and engaging in both the light and deep conversations that friends engage in when spending time together. These are the conversations from which mission flows.

3. Another mistake in the meme is that it denigrates creation by mocking the connection people have with God when out in nature.

Christians aren’t pantheists; we don’t worship nature. We’re not panentheists, either; we don’t believe that God is in everything. The Bible is clear that our God is our Maker and therefore outside of his creation and that he is actively and intimately involved with his creation to the point of fully entering into it in Jesus.

Because this world is God-made, God-loved, and God-involved, it is no wonder that we humans who were made from its dust find such a deep spiritual connection to it.

I live near the Cascades mountain range. On one hand, it’s just a geological deformation caused by tectonic plates pushing against each other. On the other hand, each mountain has its own name and the trails that wind up them feel like they are ushering me into the heavens. The splashing Deschutes River sounds like laughter. And the tall pines point to God over all.

Is it any wonder that Abraham worship beneath the great tree at Mamre? That Moses climbed to the peak of Sinai to meet with the Lord? That Elijah heard our God in the hush in a cave? That John the baptizer frequented the desert? That Jesus abandoned the synagogues and preached on a mountain and from a boat in a lake and on the green grass beside a lake?

We may worship false gods, but creation doesn’t. The natural world knows its supernatural Maker and honors him by being what he made it to be.

If people reject closed-in buildings as venues for worship, why are we surprised?

4. The fourth mistake the meme points to is how individualized our spiritualities are.

There is a time to be alone. There is a time to leave the hubbub and bustle of modern life and to create some quiet time for personal reflection and prayer. We all need that.

But the privatizing of spirituality in the Western world is deadly. There’s a touch of narcissism to it and there’s a degree of theft to it.

When I hold my spirituality to myself, I’ve stolen it from you. I’ve enriched myself and, by not sharing it, have impoverished you.

1 John 4:20 tells us, “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

In other words, there is no spirituality that is just God-and-me. For it to be true, it must include others. Love by itself is just a feeling and not real love. Love only has substance when it is done, lived out, in community.

When it all comes down, we can’t follow Jesus and skip church. We may skip worship gatherings for various reasons, but we simply can’t skip the community of God’s people who are the church and who engage in worship and mission together.