I’ve never not enjoyed church.
But there have been times, particularly in my childhood, where I found it (especially the “adult” parts) pretty unremarkable. I liked seeing all the church members and I enjoyed the sermons and learning about God, but there were days where the Sunday services had all the draw of going to the grocery store or to school.
With all that said, I found this past Sunday to be fairly remarkable, and all the more so because it wasn’t remarkable at all.
First, it’s probably worthwhile to explain my headspace lately. I started a new job a week and a half ago, and while the job is a blessing and I very much like my new university and the people there, the position is rife with all the stress and anxiety that a job and career transition entails. I am learning 900 different things at once; I have been on endless phone calls to IT trying to get access to all the software and material I need; my leisurely country drive has turned into a jam-packed major city interstate commute.
So it’s probably an understatement to say that I feel a little rough around the edges. And yet somehow at church on Sunday, all of that melted away.
What fascinated me is that nothing about that particular Sunday was unusually different or moving. The sermon was fine, the music was fine, and the service was fine. People were friendly, as always, and everything was fairly ordinary. Nothing happened, in other words, that would have inspired the profound peacefulness and contentment I felt sitting there in my little pew. In that moment, I felt as profoundly content as I have in ages.
In his book Smells and Bells,Mark Galli notes that Jacob’s encounter with God takes place “as all encounters with God take place—on a certain piece of real estate. [Jacob] does not pretend that where he lives and where he travels, let alone where he meets God, doesn’t matter.” Later Galli continues: “Sanctuaries are Bethel places, places where God meets and blesses his people. They are pieces of real estate where God leaves his mark on his people and on a place.”
Galli acknowledges that the willing believer can meet God absolutely anywhere, of course. But something about the church, he points out—the physical site of the church, marked in space and time—is important and special. It is a physical place where many believers gather together with the express purpose of meeting and worshiping God, and that sets it apart.
I think what I experienced this past Sunday was something a little like that. It is deeply soothing to be in a place where the express purpose of that place is to meet God. It is comforting to be surrounded by many other people whose general purpose is shared together with me. In my church, we speak a common language, we share a meaningful foundation, and we prioritize what matters most.
And that is precisely why the being-there is so comforting. To come together with other believers and to meet God with them is a life-fueling, peace-inducing sort of thing. As I got back into the car at the beginning of this week and felt the “work frazzle” starting, I made an effort to travel back in my mind to my pew, to the church, to the feeling of profound assurance, blessedness, and contentment that I felt there. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was trying, in some small way, to bring a part of church along with me: to make a church in the moment where I was.
I understand as well as anyone that church life can be vexing. I have run afoul of church politics; I’ve been disappointed by the people I worship with; I have cringed when the pastor said something remarkably tone-deaf or inappropriate from the pulpit. I know that some people have suffered and struggled during their time in the church. And yet in all our critiques and commentaries and bullet-point lists of necessary improvements, it’s worthwhile now and again to pause and recognize how meaningful the meeting of the body of Christ can be.
That’s why, regardless of my own frustrations or irritations, I can never jump on board with the “church is whatever you make it, so why bother with anything organized” crowd. I would miss it too much, the marvel of gathering together with believers in my community (not all of whom I agree with! Or even enjoy!) and meeting God alongside them. I would miss what it means for all of us to willingly set our lives aside to make this a shared moment in our day. And I would miss most of all the peace and assurance that comes when God comes to meet a group of His gathered people who are there simply for His sake.
It can change the whole week, if you let it.