I have taken to greeting and parting with people by using liturgical phrases I remember from going to Catholic church as a kid (some of them took refreshing as I didn’t fully remember them all). Why I do this is pretty much beyond me. When I do this my wife frequently looks at me with that look only a wife can give, the one when she seemingly says to herself, “I love a very strange man.” I rightfully deserve that look a lot. I will throw out a, “we lift up our hearts…” or a, “let us give thanks…” most people have no idea how to respond and likely think a simple hello or goodbye would have sufficed. My friend Tommy has taken to sarcastically create long theological prose in response, most of which is long enough that he eventually trails off, none of which makes any sense.
The whole idea of church, not only the liturgy, the call and response, or the standing and sitting, but then entire purpose long confused me as I think it did and does many people. What is the purpose of our weekly or for some, biweekly for others, or semiannually for others still?
Growing up our family frequently attended a Catholic Mass, the same one which I remember the liturgical call and response. I remember hating it. I don’t know why exactly, I am sure the call of my Legos or video games at home had something to do with it. But my aversion to church did not subside with maturity. I remember in middle school after we transitioned to a compelling non-denominational church with an outstanding youth program, I would still ask my dad weekly if I could stay home. Even still through high school and into college, I knew church was important, but I didn’t know why. A bit ago I was forced to recon with this question. Ironically I now work at a church and am there daily. I teach sermons weekly and have led in worship. Why on earth should I spend my life doing this if I am not even sure why people should come?
Many of us of us find ourselves with this sentiment. Whether it is a graduating highschooler who is among the 7 out of 10 young people to leave the church as the enter the college years or a family that is simply tired of the weekly monotony, we should ask: is church all that important? Why do we go? What purpose does it serve?
It’s interesting how the terminology of church has evolved over the centuries. The Biblical word “church” (ecclesia GK.) doesn’t refer to a place but a people. When Church is discussed in the New Testament it is used not only to reference a static group of haphazardly assembled people, but a identifiable group that did something. This “church” was something other than a building. And yet now we ask questions like, “where do you go to church?” or, “are they building a new church?” when perhaps a more appropriate question would be, “where do you participate in church?” (Yeah I get it, that would be an awkward question, but the point is that we need to reevaluate how much we let how we talk about church define what we think it is)
My senior year of college I encountered the work of a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas; his work has radically shaped my perspective and yet finally seemed to clarify clarified the “why” question. Hauerwas suggests that the Church is what exists to remind humanity what we are called to be. Everything we do when we gather together from singing songs to reciting prayers, from shaking hands to listening to sermons, everything that takes place is to be an enactment of who and what we are to be as those who follow Christ. These practices also serve as an invitation to those who have not yet made a decision to follow him; they introduce the context our faith is to be lived in.
When I speak of Church in this way I have to admit that I am speaking somewhat from a perspective of what the Church should be and not necessarily what it always is. However, I like to think that it is often closer to the mark than miles away. I also am not speaking of one specific church nor denomination but as for now the term “church” is really meant to address the where and when this “enactment” need is met. That could be in a cathedral or a basement, a field, or even online. The focus is primarily on overcoming the confusion over what church is as well as why it is. In the next couple weeks I want to explore this further but perhaps a good question for now is, what do you consider church and why is it important to participate in it?” Is it how you grew up? Are we called to go somehow? Why should we go? What purpose does it serve? Is it for instruction because then can’t I just read a book? Is it for community because can’t I find that on a soccer team or at the bar? Either the church should serve an easy to articulate fundamental purpose in our faith or we should stop doing it all together.