I am probably the last person who should write this E-pistle! Why?
1) I spend so much time on and at church that sometimes I worry and wonder if I can find enough time to live (which is, of course, the ultimate point of our Christian faith), and
2) I fully admit that one of my motivations for going into ministry in the first place was to create a safeguard that would keep me in church; otherwise, I doubted, I could expect myself to get to church as much as I wanted.
With that confession off my chest, let me try with this essay nonetheless.
There is someone (who will remain nameless — and really, you won’t guess, so don’t try!) who has been meaning to get to church since I returned from sabbatical. I am sure this person is sincere and being honest about the desire. In fact, we have spoken at some length about the hopes that brought this individual to church, and that the experience of coming has been more than expected.
I understand that this individual has work and relational commitments that often fall on Sunday mornings. One of the changes in North American culture that makes church participation more challenging is all the other activities that are now regularly schedule in the weekly slot that in an earlier era was sacrosanct and set aside for worship. And I fully comprehend that after a long week, sometimes, one just wants or needs to sleep in.
Still, not one Sunday has this person been able to join us. It could just be something personal for this individual. But it’s not a problem peculiar to one person; it’s not an uncommon ecclesial experience — people intending to come, telling someone they will come, even for a specific holiday, event or Sunday, but not ever making it. Even adjusting for the obvious reasons people might promise attendance to me as a pastor more than they really mean it, it seems like somewhat of a mini cultural phenomenon!
Of course procrastination and putting off what we don’t have to do are common problems for many of us. There was a time mid-century when North Americans felt some pressure to participate in church. There were some social benefits to being recognized as a church member, and it brought with it public, communal approval. Maybe it was easier to get to church back then? But in our time when church attendance has become a minority pursuit rather than a norm, there’s not much external push to follow through.
I also think, like most habits, coming to church gets easier once you get doing it. Like going to the gym, it becomes a routine; set aside in one’s schedule; and one can get ready, get going and follow through because the steps are as if rehearsed and can be done without thinking. The more we come to church, perhaps, the easier each time gets. That certainly would seem to be so vis-à-vis the people you meet at church: the more you come, the more you know, the more you want to see people and appreciate being seen. It’s sort of like a boulder picking up steam as it rolls downhill.
Sometimes I think that part of the difficulty is “our product.” What I mean is that church delivers a service so to speak, but not something so tangible or immediate. It’s sort of a delayed reward product. You can come to church, and find the experience pleasant, hear themes and songs and prayers that you feel are pleasant and positive. But at the end of the time, if you ask yourself, you might not be so sure what you really “got” from the investment of time. I don’t think that’s any fault of our church or its service. It’s just rather the nature of religious experience in our tradition. Rather than some radical “change everything” transformation or conversion experience, it’s more of an addition to the conversation that is your life, and its effects become apparent gradually and over time. Here the gym analogy works well again. If you really want to get in shape or lose weight, one visit to the gym is not going to make much difference. After the first time, you might be proud of yourself for having made it, but there’s not yet much change in your physical well-being. That’s going to take time, repetition, consistency and commitment. That same is true for church. But at least with the gym, the day after a first visit, you’ll probably feel the sore muscles and know that there was some effect. I’d worry if someone told me after a first visit to church, one was experiencing a sore soul!
I’m incredibly thankful for the way that church has enriched and redirected my life, given me assurances that are hard to shake and taught me to live more gracefully with what is mysterious or confounding. But none of that happened over night! Rather it’s a slow process of hearing and reflecting and trying again, and reinforcement and others examples and practicing that has taken the 36+ years that I’ve been in church almost every Sunday. Imagine what shape I’d be in if my run at the gym was as long and consistent!
So here’s some suggestions if you need some help getting to church:
~ get a church buddy: going with someone or knowing that you aren’t going alone or that someone will be there expecting you, makes it easier and more likely you will follow through.
~ set yourself some personal goal, whatever works for you — that you will make it once a month or every Sunday for Lent or for communion.
~ even when you can’t make it to church, keep up with what’s going on through the E-pistle. You can also pray and read the bible, even sing hymns even if you aren’t in church.
~ push yourself to be a bit more social or outgoing at church — the more people you know, not only the richer your experience will be, it also turns out easier to make room in your life for a community where you know a lot of people than an institution that leaves you feeling a stranger.
~ reward yourself for coming to church! Because you made it, offer yourself some treat. It’s a little Pavlovian, but it works for me at the gym!
~ start a spiritual journal so that you might become more aware of your progress. I marvel at the people at the gym who walk around with notebooks and note every exercise, the weight, the repetitions. What they are doing is making sure they can recognize their progress. You will see it in the little things quicker than the ultimate results (or pounds lost). You might notice you think quicker of the other person, or forgive more easily, or have a longer list of people you want to remember in prayer… long before you actually become beatified!
In the 12-step programs, they often end meetings with a mantra of sorts: “Keep coming back; it works if you work it, and work it ‘cause you’re worth it.” Amen. Even if it takes time.
See you in church,