Children voice the questions their parents have learned to silence. They ask why the sky is blue, and they ask why they can’t see God. They ask why they can’t wear pants with holes in the knee to school or church, and they ask why they have to go to school and church at all. I have answers to each of these questions—partial answers, mind you. But perhaps my pat answers are less effective than I’ve imagined. Certainly the question of why we go to church reappears with weekly precision. It has even begun to echo, unprompted, in my own mind.
I may not hear it on a glorious Easter morning, but it will begin to whisper on that bitter gray Sunday when I wake with a headache. I ask it outright on the first truly warm weekend in spring when all I want to do is tend my garden. And I voice it, though perhaps rhetorically, every time I struggle to convince my four-year-old that Minnie Mouse pajamas are simply not appropriate dress for Sunday school.
Somehow I had absorbed the idea that God gave everything on the cross, and a good, Christian, church-attending life was the very least I could give in return.
I was raised in a churchgoing family. Our routine included the traditional Sunday morning schedule of an education hour followed by a service in what my siblings and I called “big church.” Hardly a Sunday passed when we did not beg our parents to skip “big church” and take us to the donut shop. My parents loved our church, but they loved donuts, too. The newspaper comics and a cream-filled chocolate donut still say “Sunday morning bliss” to me.
We can have good and necessary conversations about the relevance of our church services. We might even serve donuts during coffee hour. Yet I think we all know that church must be about so much more than having a good time. Why do we go to church? I have told my kids on many occasions: We go to church to worship.
When I was a girl, and later as a young woman in the church, I believed that worship was what I gave. It was the hymn I sang with meaning and gusto. It was the prayer I composed and offered with faith. It was my attentive listening to the sermon. Taking notes in the little space provided on our church bulletin was like doing extra credit work in school. While I don’t think anyone ever said this to me, somehow I had absorbed the idea that God gave everything on the cross, and a good, Christian, church-attending life was the very least I could give in return (though, deep down, I knew this was a debt one could never pay back).
I might have long ago collapsed beneath the weight of that indebtedness and given up church attendance altogether, if I had not somehow picked up the notion that belonging to a local church was more privilege than duty. As a young girl, I had a vague idea that my Sunday was the spiritual descendant of the Sabbath first instituted by God. One day each week, my fellow churchgoers and I rested as God had on that seventh day. The problem was, for an introvert like me, church never did feel as restful as that quiet corner of the donut shop.
Now a mother of four young ones, I find this remains true. Nagging my children out of their pajamas, keeping an eye on the clock, checking them in and out of their various Sunday school classrooms, and monitoring behavior as we pass the peace with our pew neighbors—churchgoing rarely feels restful.
But true rest is more than a feeling. It is much richer than a state of relaxation. For the wandering Israelites, rest was something they could see with their eyes and feel like solid ground beneath their feet. Rest was a place prepared for them by God (Deut. 12:9). An entire generation was not allowed to enter that land of rest. And the writer of Hebrews warns us that we also might fail to, just like our desert forbears. If we “harden” our hearts, if we disobey, if we fail to believe and step forward in faith, we too might “come short” of God’s rest (Heb. 4:1-16). But what does it mean to move forward and enter the rest God has promised us?
Like the Israelites of old, we enter as a community of worshippers.
That same chapter of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 95—the song of David in which we find the promise of rest and the warning against hard hearts imbedded within a rousing call to worship: “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving” (Psalm 95:1-2).
Church displaces the idol I make of my own competence and productivity, and even my recreation. It interrupts my illusion of being in control.
I have always assumed that rest is something I achieve best when I am alone, but the repetitive plural of this joyous invitation challenges that assumption: Let us sing, let us shout, let us come before His presence.
This vision of worship is neither solitary nor onerous. It does indeed appear as a privilege rather than a duty. We do not enter the presence of God as one checking an item on a list of to-dos. We come as “the people of His pasture” (Psalm 95:7)—as those called and gathered by a shepherd—for worship is always an encounter.
Is worship our song, or is it a God who listens? Is worship our step forward, or is it a God who draws near? Is worship our voices, or is it His? As one of a community of worshippers, I encounter God, and that encounter is transformative. I participate, but surely worship is His gift.
No wonder my children resist. The gift of a holy encounter isn’t an easy one to receive. I do not always want transformation. Or if I do, I want it on my terms. I want it alone and undisturbed in my garden. I want it when I make time to open my Bible early on a weekday morning. And while I have received the gift of a transformative encounter in those ways, it’s a gift I partake of most consistently in the gathering of Christ’s church. For God gives the gift of worship lavishly to His bride. Why would I absent myself from a place of such abundance?
Not only did God once give His Son on a cross; He also continues to give Himself to us. I am more in His debt than I ever knew, but the joy of encounter has replaced the shame of indebtedness.
Church is an inconvenience. My children are right about that. Every Sunday it forces me to abandon my comfortable isolation. It displaces the idol I make of my own competence and productivity, and even my recreation. It interrupts my illusion of being in control. At church, my voice blends with the voices of so many others until only one voice becomes audible. It isn’t mine. It isn’t even ours.
It is His.
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip