Sunday is just about my favorite day of the week (“just about”…because my day off each week, our family’s Sabbath Saturday, is a tie or really close second). I love getting up that morning, making my smoothie, sitting in my favorite chair in our fireplace room, and pulling my Bible onto my lap. I relish the time spent listening to my Father speak, and I delight in those moments spent talking with him about the morning’s ministry, the people in our gathering that I hope he will transform, as well as the eleven other pastors (and their congregations) on whom I pray his blessing every Sunday.
I then get ready, and head out to our church campus. I enter my study, and lay out the sermon manuscript. I walk into our office conference room at 8:30am, where I pray with a few other saints who have showed up to our Sunday morning prayer gathering. This is a treasured time of communal discussion with our Father, listening and joining in with others who are pouring their hearts out for our service and our people, as well as other churches in the area who will gather, bathe in the Good News, and praise Jesus. I’m not the only one who considers it a treasure: another pastor who is there each Sunday almost always shares, “This is one of my favorite parts of the week.”
Now it's time to move back to the study, and prayerfully pour over the manuscript, editing it and listening to what the Spirit would have me both remove and add. Next—its off to the green room in our sanctuary, where all those involved in the service are gathered to step through the liturgy, and then spend more time in a communal discussion with our Father, asking his blessing on our ministry, our gathering, and all who will come into the service that day.
And now I’m ready for what all of this has been headed to—attending the gathering of this little part of God’s family, this little outpost of his kingdom, which we call Calvary. Standing with hundreds of other followers and seekers, joining in the call to worship, passing the peace to fellow saints around us, expressing praise and adoration to God through music and singing, confessing our sins through prayer, receiving assurance of pardon through the good news, bathing in the preaching of God’s Holy Word, responding in a song of joy, leaving encouraged reminded of our mission to make more and maturing disciples, with the blessing of God upon us and the joy of Christ within us and the anointing of the Spirit empowering us.
As good as all of that sounds, sometimes even I don’t want to go to the Sunday gathering of the sons and daughters, and not-yet family members, of God. And I’m the preacher! But that makes me no less prone than you to be affected by a host of circumstances that will result in not wanting to attend the weekly gathering of your church.
So what do you do when that warm, soft, cozy bed holds you and convinces you it would be a poor decision to leave its satisfying embrace? “Just stay here with me. You’ve had a long week. You’re tired. You’ve rarely missed going to the service. What’s one Sunday?”
And you get up.
And you go, especially when you don’t feel like it.
That’s exactly what another pastor, David Gunderson from BridgePoint Bible Church in Houston, argues—the most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it. So I want to turn it over to him now, as he argues that the church gathering is about far more than a place, that it’s not about you, that it’s a vital means of grace, and how you should “ask for grace, then go.”
It is my prayer God will use this in your life when you don’t feel like going to church.
Which may be this Sunday.
And I hope to see you there anyway.
The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it.
I’ve talked with three Christians about this recently—two struggling with depression, and a third who just went through a tough break-up—who’ve stopped gathering with God’s people during a difficult season. Whether for weeks or months, all three have decided to stop going to church.
One said it would be unsatisfying, that there just isn’t a sense of connection. Another said it would be awkward, because they don’t want to see their ex. The last said it would be unhelpful, because they have no desire to be there anymore.
I’m not here to minimize their burdens or condemn them for feeling the way they do. I’m not writing to them or about them. I’m just writing to every Christian who feels the way they’re feeling, who feels (as I have before) like gathering with God’s people will be unsatisfying, unhelpful, or just plain awkward.
I’m writing to say something I said to all three of my friends at some point in our conversations: The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it.
Far More Than a Place
Yes, I know the church is a people, not a place. The church is a body, not a building. The church is something Christians are, not just somewhere Christians go. Yes, I also know the church is a family that should meet and study and eat and fellowship and pray and serve throughout the week, not just on Sunday. I know these things, and if you’ve walked with God for a while, you do too.
But I also know the church is marked, known, and enlivened by its regular, rhythmic, ordered gatherings (Heb. 10:24–25). A body that’s never together is more like a prosthetics warehouse, and a family that never has family dinners or outings or reunions won’t be a healthy family, if any family at all.
Sure, you could listen to some praise music and an online sermon, but there won’t be any personalized one-anothering, there won’t be any face-to-face fellowship, and there won’t be any bread and wine. Sure, you could read the Bible and pray on your own, but you won’t hear the studied voice of your own shepherd teaching and comforting and correcting you. Yes, you could just attend another church for a while because yours has grown unsatisfying, but that’s not treating your church like much of a covenant community.
Covenants are made for the hard times, not the good times. In the good times, we don’t need covenants, because we can get by and stick together on feelings alone. But covenant communities hold us up when we’re faltering and pick us up when we’ve fallen. They encourage us when we’re weary and wake us when we’re slumbering. They draw us out of ourselves and call us to our commitments and responsibilities. They invite us back to the garden of Christian community, where we grow.
It’s Not About You
I get it. The worship team didn’t pull their song selections from your Spotify playlist; the pastor didn’t have the time and resources to craft a mesmerizing sermon with a team of presidential speechwriters; the membership may not have the perfect combination of older saints to mentor you, younger saints to energize you, mature saints to counsel you, hospitable saints to host you, and outgoing saints to pursue you.
But I know another thing: If your church believes the Bible and preaches the gospel and practices the ordinances and serves one another, then your church has saints, and those saints are your brothers and sisters, your fathers and mothers, your weary fellow pilgrims walking the same wilderness you are—away from Egypt, surrounded by pillars of cloud and fire, with eyes set on the promised land.
Which is to say, this isn’t really about you.
And those people you wish would pursue you and care for you and reach out to you need you to do the same (Gal. 6:9–10). That pastor you wish were a better preacher is probably praying this morning that you’d be a good listener (Mark 4:3–8, 14–20; James 1:22–25). Those people whose spiritual gifts you desperately need also desperately need your spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:15–16). Those people whose fellowship you find dissatisfying or unhelpful or just plain awkward don’t need your criticism but your gospel partnership (Phil. 4:2–3).
And you can’t do any of these things if you’re not present.
Vital Means of Grace
At all times and in all places, the gathering of the saints is a means of grace established by God for edifying his people. Christians gather to worship not because it might be helpful if all the stars align, or if our leaders plan the service just right, or if everyone smiles at us with the perfect degree of sincerity and handles the small talk seamlessly and engages us with just the right depth of conversation that’s neither too personal nor too shallow.
We gather because the God we’re worshiping has instituted our gathering as a main way he matures and strengthens and comforts us. It’s not just when the songs or prayers or sermons or Sunday school classes touch our souls right where we need to be touched. We meet because God builds up his people through our meeting every time, in every place, without fail, no matter how we feel. Like rain in the fields, it’s how our gatherings work.
Ask for Grace. Then Go.
So I know you may not feel like it on Sunday morning. You may not feel like it for a while. But I’m asking you to trust God, ask for grace, and go.
Go, because the church gathers every Sunday to remember the death of Jesus for our sins and the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and that’s precisely what we all need to remember and celebrate, regardless of what else is going on in our lives.
Go, because the stone trapping you in the cave of depression can be rolled away in a night, and once God does it, no Roman soldier or Jewish priest can stop him. Go, because you’re gathering to anticipate a greater marriage than the one you hoped would happen later this year. Go, not because your trials aren’t real, but because that tabled bread and wine represents the crucifixion of the worst sins you could ever commit and the worst realities you’ve ever experienced.
Go, and in your going, grow. Go, and in your going, serve. Go, and in your going, let God pick up the pieces of your heart and stitch together the kind of mosaic that only gets fully crafted when saints stay committed to God’s long-term building project, when they speak the truth to one another in love (Eph. 4:15–16).
The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it. So please, brothers and sisters: Go.
Just a brief reminder that a great way to prepare for the service this coming Sunday is to read the text we will be studying together.
One of the dangers of reading the stories of those followers of Jesus that we find in the Bible is we can treat them as if they are almost super-human.
Preparing For Sunday May 12, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
This last Sunday, I preached the first of two sermons on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Here was the sentence I began unpacking, which is my summary of both letters:
Martin Luther warned that the people of the church are always in danger of their hearts straying from the truth of the good news of the kingdom of God found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
First, it is Palm Sunday. Which means it is the beginning of a week of remembering the most important events in the history of the world: the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, his last meal with his disciples, his death at the hands of sinful men as the result of a sham sentence in a kangaroo court, his burial by those who loved him, and his resurrection from the dead just three days later. All of it for the salvation and rescue of the world.
The Whole Story: Ephesians-Week Two
I attempted to show in the sermon this past Sunday that Paul offers us two anchor points for our lives, and upon which our lives depend.
Preparing For Sunday 19 May 2019
What do you think of when you see these two words together?...