Faith & Spirituality

From the Girl Who Didn’t Go to Church

This post was originally published on July 31, 2018. I’m rerunning this one today in memory of the days before COVID-19, when actually going to church was an option!

One morning last weekend, I was shopping at Bi-Lo for ice and Gatorade. I asked the man refilling the ice machine if I could step around him to retrieve a couple bags of ice.

“Shore thang, sweetheart,” he replied. (This is one aspect of southern culture that still gives me pause on a regular basis: being called sweetheart and darling and baby by people I don’t know.) He watched as I lugged the bags of ice into my grocery cart, and then remarked: “Gaw nah bo?”

“Er… sorry, what was that?”

He repeated: “Gaw nah bo?”

This was embarrassing. “I’m sorry, sir, I still don’t think I caught what you said.”

Again, louder this time: “GAW NAH BO?”

Then he nodded at the ice in the cart, and by some combination of context, intuition, and sheer luck I divined that he was inquiring: Are you going on a boat? Then he added: “Beautiful day.”

It was Sunday, and I wasn’t in church, and he figured it must be because I was going sailing, and I must be buying ice for the drinks I’d be having while sailing. Because that’s what you do in a waterfront community in South Carolina on a Sunday morning — if you’re not in church, then you’re out on the water.

I shook my head regretfully. “I wish! Actually, I’m ripping out the insulation from under my house today.” I needed ice and drinks for everyone who was helping, because it was hot as blazes under there, and we were on a tight deadline before selling the house, so we were working as fast as we could. Fun times, yeah.

He threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, GAWSH! That is AWFUL! I am SO sorry for you, sweetheart!”

“Me too,” I assured him, before making a hasty exit.

A vague sense of uneasiness followed me all the way home. This was because

(1.) It was Sunday, and I was skipping church, but

(2.) for various reasons — none of which may be disclosed here — I knew my presence at church would be of no benefit to myself or anyone else, and besides,

(3.) I no longer believed I was obligated to just show up at church and fill a seat anyway. But old habits die hard. “Sunday = church” is deeply, deeply ingrained in most of us.

I’ve presented my reasons for thinking this way many times. Right about now is when someone breaks out Hebrews 10:25: “Do not neglect meeting together.” I wholeheartedly agree. And yet… personal difficulties in present circumstances aside, I don’t believe our modern church service bears much resemblance to the “meeting together” Hebrews 10:25 calls us to. I don’t believe most of us are truly fulfilling that command even if we’re in attendance at our local church every week without fail.

It’s why, deep down, I didn’t feel like I truly was missing out on church that Sunday morning. I didn’t believe that any of what was going on in the big building with a cross on top that everyone called church, actually was church in any true sense of the word.

I believe that being the church (which is what Scripture actually teaches, as opposed to merely going to church) requires us to live in real, everyday community with one another. It’s much more relational, much less program-driven. In some ways, it actually requires more commitment than our current way of doing things. It’s up close and personal and doesn’t fit neatly into a schedule with established start and end times. It’s not obsessed with who’s in charge and who must submit to whom. It has no room for fake smiles and facades and sweeping the real issues of life under the rug. It’s usually not endorsed by church leadership. It’s not what we’re accustomed to.

And so it’s out of the question for most of us.

I shared all of this with a friend once. He got very upset with me. “But we have to go to church. Church is where we worship the Lord!”

Of course we’re able to worship the Lord anywhere, anytime. But for the sake of argument, let’s run with this idea: Church is where we worship the Lord, so it’s our duty to be there.

Well, in that case, it seems we had better know what worship actually is if we’re going to prioritize it. We need to know if there’s more to the whole idea than just following along with the printed order of service… don’t we?

“Our English word means worthship,’ denoting the worthiness of an individual to receive special honor in accordance with that worth… Worship is pure adoration, the lifting up of the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection.”

(That’s from Baker’s Dictionary of Theology.)

I look at what goes on during the average Sunday service and I can’t help but wonder: When are we worshiping, really? I’m not even thinking of the huge, rock-n-roll concert megachurches or the prosperity gospel churches, who are obvious candidates for critique. I’m talking about our very average, ordinary, evangelical churches. The ones we dutifully show up at every Sunday and never bother to question what we’re actually doing, and why.

I say it’s time we start asking those questions.

What part of this church service is for the Lord? What, exactly, is He getting out of it?

I am dead serious. Think through this with me.

Are we worshiping during the singing time? It seems pretty common these days to equate “worship” with “music.” This is no doubt why we have a worship leader, who in reality is more of a song leader. As helpful as a song leader’s role can be, I don’t believe he or she leads “the lifting up the of the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection.” I believe the Holy Spirit is the only one who can do that.

On a less lofty note, I personally run into problems trying to worship during the singing time anyway. I just can’t get all the questions off my mind: Why are we looking at a screen? Can’t anybody in this church read music? Wouldn’t this sound better if everyone knew their part and could sing in harmony? Why are we repeating this line for the 26th time? Is anyone else realizing that some of these lyrics are creepy and the rest just plain don’t make sense?

How much longer until this is over?

(I know I’m not the only one thinking some of these things.)

Are we worshiping during the 17.8 seconds of “turn around and greet your neighbor” time? Call me a cynic, but I highly doubt that anything other than “Let’s get this over with” is on the mind of either you or the stranger you just swapped germs with via brotherly handshake. (Thank goodness we don’t give holy kisses anymore.)

Are we worshiping during the sermon? If we were to think of the Sunday morning service like a multi-course meal, the sermon would, without a doubt, be the main entree. It’s pretty much the reason we’re there. If you’re present for every other event of the morning, but you miss the sermon, then you’ve “missed church.”

So, seeing as how the sermon occupies the place of supreme importance in terms of time and emphasis, I’d ask how much worship does God get then? Well, probably not much. That block of time, you see, is for us. It’s when we’re getting spiritually fed learning about how to be better Christians. In a best-case scenario, we get some helpful, Biblically-based points to mull over and try to apply during the week. In a worst-case scenario, we get berated for our failure to measure up to a standard that even Jesus Himself likely wouldn’t hold us to.

It’s a mixed bag of pros and cons. But, is it worship? Well… probably not.

Are we worshiping during the maybe-ten-minute Communion service that (sometimes) gets tacked on to the end of the sermon? We probably come closer here than anywhere else. But most of the time, we stop short. If you’ll notice, we have very little to say during this time about Christ Himself, or even about what He’s done. We don’t have time for that. We have a formula. We read 1 Corinthians 11:28: “Let a man examine himself”, and we talk about the tragedy of our sin, and how it separates us from God, and how if we have anything between us and the Lord, we had better confess it now, or else.

And it’s not that sin isn’t horrible and doesn’t need to be confessed; it’s that we give so little attention to God’s goodness compared with how much we give to our own badness. Especially when you consider that Jesus didn’t say, “Do this in remembrance of your sin.” He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Are we worshiping during the offertory? If the answer is yes, and the worth of your wor$hip, I mean worship, is determined by how much you put in the plate, then does that mean that worship is a privileged reserved for the economically advantaged? Or, to put it another way, are we not worshiping if we take a pass on donating to the church’s new sound system because our car needs new brakes, or because we won’t be able to afford to see a doctor if we get sick? Is it possible Jesus just might come in and tip over our tables? I wonder.

Are we worshiping during the plug for getting involved in more ministries and programs and outreaches and service projects? Or are we just getting more over-scheduled, more obligated, more guilt-ridden, and more burnt out? “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you…” Wait, wait, that sounds familiar. Who said that again? I could swear I’ve heard this somewhere before. I just can’t remember where. Or why. Man, I’m tired.

I pose these questions facetiously, perhaps, though not flippantly. These are earnest ponderings — all of them — and I am open to earnest answers. In all our traditions, what’s worth keeping, and what’s worth getting rid of?

Me personally? I vote in favor of tossing the “turn and greet your neighbor” bit. Eliminate awkward small talk and slow the spread of common colds and flu, all in one shot. What’s not to love?!

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