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.
We Are Calvary
To say that we live in times of rapid change may be the very height of understatement. Our culture, and its norms, is changing at an unprecedented rate, making it increasingly challenging for the church to remain relevant—and faithful—in proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, in a way that will bring about the expansion of that kingdom.
This past Sunday we (finally) made it out of the weighty, dark, somber, and serious writings of the Prophets of the Exile, and stepped into the Return from Exile of the people of God. Our first look into this aspect of the redemptive drama comes via three courageous servants of Yahweh—Zerrubabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. There story is found in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah (although our English Bibles separate them, through the centuries the Jewish people have always treated them as one book; so we will too.)
This past Sunday we completed our journey through the weighty, dark, somber, and serious writings of the Prophets of the Exile, focusing our study on Ezekiel. We discovered in Ezekiel a book filled with dark visions and confrontational language. And one of the visions (probably the central, controlling metaphor of the book) Ezekiel presents is Israel as a beautiful bride who turns against her bridegroom, God, and breaks all the stipulations of her covenant.
Day Thirty: Vistas of Wisdom
I am very near the end of this little writing experiment called “31 Proverbs.” While I’m unsure how helpful it has been to how ever many have read it, I know that the process of sitting down six days each week to read, ponder, and then ponder some more by plunking on a keyboard has helped me grow in my understanding of wisdom.
Day Thirty-Two: A Mother's Wisdom (part two)
Yesterday, we heard from what was likely King Solomon’s mother imparting worthy words of wisdom in the area of leadership. For the sayings of wisdom we find here are those “which his mother taught him” (Proverbs 31:1). And she now turns her attention to the search for a woman of virtue and noble character, suitable to be a wife and mother.
Day Twenty-Nine: Please—Quietly Hold Your Tongue
Anger. noun. “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) As I entered day twenty-nine of Proverbs this morning, and came to 29:11, it struck me that this book has quite a bit to say about anger, strife, wrath, quarreling, fights, and rage. It is a theme that Solomon keeps coming back to, probably because he knows that it is a theme woven through humanity and history. Sometimes the best way to see a theme is to pull on that string so all the wisdom he has offered comes together for our observation. The accumulation helps us feel the weight of it.
Day Twenty-Six: A Morning Conversation With King Solomon
A conversation that happened this morning as I came upon a visitor in our fireplace room….
Day Nineteen: God Chose Her, Not You
The doctrine of God’s rule and reign in and over all things comes crashing into the human conception of the self-made man. We are tempted to think we have so much to do with our happinesses. But the wisdom found from James speaks a wakefulness into the pondering of our circumstances—the good gifts we have come not from our own hands, but by the grace and providence of our heavenly Father. And the wisdom of Solomon makes clear—one of man’s greatest gifts is something only God can give, an understanding wife.