I’m excited to go to church. I’ve woken early, driven 45 minutes down the highway, and arrived at church with time to shake the greeters’ hands, make small talk in the foyer, and find a comfortable seat.
How very spiritual of me.
I listen to great worship music, engage with a thoughtful and informative speaker, and leave with the 500 other very spiritual people who have made the trek to church this morning. I walk across the street to a coffee shop, sit down in a huge comfy chair, and think:
“Why is this church stuff so important?”
Attending church has been a mixed blessing for me as a former youth pastor. It has been both a sanctuary of thoughtful challenge, healing, and creativity. as well as a battleground of intimidation, pressure, and mistrust. I have participated in church services where protectionism and tradition dominate. I’ve sat in services where the greeting from the front is about as authentic as the soap-water coffee in the back.
I’ve also had the joy of experiencing seasons of patient healing, where a body of people has surrounded me and loved me back to health. I’ve seen what church can look like when people drop the agenda and engage in relationship. I’ve experienced church where the overriding desire was to live life together, and to be real and authentic and it has all happened, surprisingly, within the walls of a church.
Big C and Little C
When talking about church, it’s important not to get confused between big "C" Church and small "c" church. So often, I hear that it’s important to attend church on Sunday morning, as if that’s as far as affiliation needs to go. And so many people approach Sunday as the day given to God, and walk out the doors having completed their duty of faith. They focus on the small "c" church, where programs and outreaches and Bible studies take place. It reduces faith to a to-do item in their calendars.
If that’s the apex of the Christian faith, then I’m not interested.
Church is more than just a meeting. Church is all about being a community where inspiration to do greater good takes place, where deeper love is explored, where enriching relationships occur, where authentic living is the goal. Church is supposed to be a community where individuals are cared for, where gifts are used effectively, where people are challenged to grow beyond themselves. This is the capital "C" Church that I so frequently yearn for.
I have heard the analogies that the church is like a campfire, where I need to return on a weekly basis to warm up my soul. Or that the church is a well of water, where I can drink and be refreshed and then reenter the weekly desert. The reality, however, is that church can become a bit mundane, and I struggle to keep it from becoming a religious duty. In my own years of youth ministry, there were many times when I found myself glancing at my watch, waiting for the end of the service. I was frequently more refreshed by the football game after church than by the service itself. And again, the question arose:
Why is church so important?
The small "c" church can be a time where we catch a glimpse of the capital "C" church, even amidst the programmed service.
"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” 1 Kings 19:11-12
A gentle whisper. I expect God to show himself using the grandest methods available. After all, he is God, isn’t he? So in my own life, I look for the powerful wind, the earthquake, the fire. In church services, I have defaulted to looking for God in the sermons, in the worship music, in the altar call. And that is good, and God can be found there, but sometimes, God is calling me to something quieter.
If you find yourself at church, looking for God in the big elements of the service and not finding him, consider that God may be there whispering. The problem with whispering is that it requires effort to hear. It involves an expectant perceptivity where you and I believe God will speak to us in any circumstance — even if it’s not in the schedule. Whether you feel your church is the best in the world or that it needs improvement, as long as it’s biblical, God is in that service. Remember Matthew 18:20: “When two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” One of the main reasons church is important is simply this — we go because God is there.
Hiding the Church in the Foyer
For me, hearing the whisper of God at church happened quite by accident. I was running in between the sound booth and the stage (ah, the life of a youth pastor) and was stopped by an elderly woman who wanted to talk. And as we talked, we talked about meaningful things. Amidst the rush and pressure of the church Sunday program, I was met with someone who wanted to engage meaningfully.
We missed the worship, and we very nearly missed the sermon (and I was preaching). Yet I went away from the service with a taste of God’s vision for the church. Through the moment with my elderly friend, God whispered truths of love, meaning, and hope into my life. I witnessed a miracle in the foyer, while the worshippers filled the sanctuary with music.
Since that time, I’ve learned to be more attentive to the capital "C" church. I watch for those moments when God’s vision for the Church comes alive. I anticipate moments when we get it right: when people who are hurting, who are thriving, who are living life surround me, and together we listen for the voice of God. If that happens on Sunday morning, in a Bible study, or while throwing a frisbee together with friends in the park, God is whispering. This is the lifeblood of the Church.
How do we become more aware of the voice of God through the Church? It’s less spiritual than you might think. Here are the things that I’ve found helpful:
Live Expectantly. Pray that God would allow you to hear from him today. As you walk through your day, don’t attempt to manufacture some deep spiritual experience. It will happen, and it may be something as simple as a two-minute conversation.
Watch Actively. This is key to the whole experience. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is instructed to go out and stand. Watch for the voice of God, but let his gentle Spirit be your guide. Too often I wait for the momentous movements of God, and I miss out on the small intimate moments.
Reflect Wholeheartedly. When those wonderful gentle whispers happen in my own life, I make sure to say thanks to God, because he speaks so much love into my life in those moments. These aren't long, forced prayers; they're often only a few words of quiet thanksgiving for God's goodness. These moments keep my own spirit gentle and tuned in to God’s voice.
I’m excited to go to Church this week. I’m looking forward to meaningfully engaging with those around me. But most of all, I’m excited to hear from the gentle whisper of God. After all, that’s the foundational essence of the Church.