OK, l’ll acknowledge from the start: I go to church every Sunday because it’s my job. I’m paid to be there!
But I also go to church when I’m not working. Why? Because attending church regularly makes a difference for me. Like a weekly family reunion, it keeps me in touch, close to people who are important to me. It also calls me to reflect. Helps make sense of my life. Adds comfort and inspiration to my days.
I often joke that church involvement forces one to learn to be forgiving. It demands cooperation and teaches patience. Refines one’s skills at finding God amidst all the distractions and dissonance.
Church participation is clearly an imperfect means, not the eternal source. But attending almost every week for the last 30 years, I’ve witnessed my spiritual life growing exponentially. Not that I’m any giant in the faith, but when I think how my believing has become ingrained, my bedrock, I’m sort of amazed.
I once heard Diana Butler Bass, the church revitalization guru, say something to the effect: “It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.” That’s almost 5 years of work… 5 years if you could work on your goal constantly, nothing else, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course you can’t… But, Bass concluded, “you can go get yourself baptized and get started.”
A congregation, if you think about it, is a pool of shared hours dedicated to growing in faith. It multiplies your experience and living out of Christianity. I doubt there’s really anything such as being an expert Christian, but we can become “habituated” in the faith. Faithfulness can become our spiritual involuntary reflex. For me, Sundays are on-going conversation, and I don’t want to miss one. Their themes circle back, inspiration echos, and lessons reinforce themselves over time and in different voices. When I miss one installment in that conversation, my experience of the interactions thereafter is inevitably poorer.
One of you confided to me recently, “Michael, I’ve noticed that gay people don’t come to church as often as others.” I laughed, “But I’m gay, and I’m there every week.” While I don’t agree with my source’s conclusion, different people do come to church with different frequencies, on their own schedules. If we did a big enough study, maybe we could recognize different rates among various demographic groups. For example, people who go out on Saturday nights may make it to church less often! Another one of you suggested to me that our newer members attend church less frequently than those who have been members longer. That might be a statistic one could substantiate– I’m not sure– but maybe the newcomers are building up their new habit.
Beloved, we welcome people to Old First however they feel called to participate. But I do hope we challenge ourselves and one another to become more involved. The “Easter crowd effect” enriches each worshiper and the whole community. And participating in church has much to add to your life.
European churches see even lower attendance rates than North American congregations. My German colleagues get defensive: people listed on the rolls, financially supporting the church, showing up at Christmas and Easter is enough. I ask, “Would not church offer twice as much if those same people also joined you for worship on World Communion Sunday and Pentecost? Or any two additional Sundays?” Do we really have so little confidence in what happens in our sanctuaries week by week, and what it can mean for our lives?
I don’t believe anyone is condemned for not being in church. But I know how I have been blessed by getting there on Sunday mornings. I cannot help but believe that’s a blessing that others could enjoy and benefit from too.
P.S. My professional New Year’s resolutions:
~Help Old First figure out how to help participants recognize, develop and utilize their gifts (starting this Sunday!)
~Begin a weekly bible study to help Old Firsters read, interpret, draw from the riches of Scripture
~Invite leaders to guest-author E-pistles as another way of diversifying and multiplying the voices and perspectives in our conversations. .
(If you know anyone who wants to receive our E-pistles or if you no longer want to receive them, please let me know.)