I’ll admit it – church attendance is hard for me sometimes. Even on Sabbaths when I have not had a tiring week, or haven’t stayed up late the night before, or have prepared properly, I still wake up and feel the desire to not attend church. Sometimes I just can’t make myself go. In those moments when I feel that way I always end up asking the same question – why do we go to church anyway?
As an aside let me say this – if church feels like a chore, you probably shouldn’t go. I don’t think anyone (except children who have no control over their lives) should go to church solely out of obligation. Whenever someone describes their struggle to attend church as “making themselves go” (as I just did in the previous paragraph) that seems to be reason #1 why they shouldn’t go.
Now there are many people who would disagree with what I just said in the last paragraph. In fact, I don’t always agree with what I just said either. There have been tons of times I’ve made myself go to church and didn’t regret it. I have occasionally worked from the theory that the days when you don’t want to go to church are the very days when you need to make yourself go. It is true that on some days when I made myself go, someone did something or someone said something that I needed right at that moment. But I think we say things about church attendance that aren’t quite accurate. I often hear people say, “You have to come to God’s House because that’s where you’ll meet Jesus!” I don’t disagree with that, but church isn’t the only place I meet Jesus. I meet Jesus when I pray. I meet Jesus when I read His word. I meet Jesus when I extend myself in love to those less fortunate. So yes, I can meet Jesus at church, but there are plenty of other places to meet Jesus. Adventists will often say that there is a special blessing in being in God’s House on the Sabbath day. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I would say that the Sabbath day itself is the special blessing. The opportunity to rest from the cares of this world is the special blessing of Sabbath, regardless of how the day is spent. Now that isn’t to advocate that you spend every Sabbath day in bed, but you also don’t want to be a friend of mine who, in advocating that we go back to church after lunch yelled, “This is the Sabbath there’s no time for rest!”
Here’s the thing I think we don’t want to admit – the main reason we’re supposed to go to church is each other. That’s the reason the writer of Hebrews said,
Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised; And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Heb 10: 23-25)
The primary goal of church attendance is to encourage one another. To grow in love towards one another, with God, and with others. If a church is not doing this, then there is no good reason for them to be around. I wonder why we make church attendance about everything but this. I have a suspicion it’s because we still want people to show up even when we’re determined to not act in love towards one another. I recently attended a seminar where the speaker advocated for a theology of church attendance, that would in essence make it somehow wrong (read: a sin) for you to not be attending a church. The one problem I had with the theory was that it seemed he was arguing that you should have to come to church even when the church is determined to mistreat you and harm you. That if you find the church unwelcoming, you have to keep coming, and it’s your fault if you stop coming. The responsibility was turned outward on the aggrieved as opposed to an examination of those of us who are already there.
When it comes to church attendance, or becoming part of a church family, I think there are 3 things that should be considered. In no particular order those things are: what you get, what you give, and who you’re with. I think a relationship with a church can be sustained if you enjoy any 2 of those things, but not if you enjoy only one. Of course, the question of what you give is dependent, because most often if you don’t enjoy what you’re getting or who you’re with, you most likely will not have a strong desire to invest (give) in the life of the community. In my own experience of the past few years, my wife and I decided to invest in the life of the church despite the fact that we did not like what we were getting on most days, and despite the fact even after a year or so we still felt like we didn’t know who the other people in the church were. Although it was incredibly difficult at times, I believe God honored our efforts and we’ve seen the other two factors improve. I don’t feel comfortable giving advice here, I think you should follow what you believe God is saying to you, but I don’t think you should languish in a church community that is not welcoming, or where you feel like your participation is unwelcome, or a place where you feel you don’t get anything out of going.
Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.