At my old home church, there was a woman famous for her love of “TV preachers.”
Some of those “TV preachers” were pretty good, well-regarded men of faith like Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll. Others were local pastors who had their own public TV programs, and the rest were a grab bag of pastors from who-knows-where teaching who-knows-what. She loved all of them.
And so, occasionally, when she didn’t quite feel like getting up and going to church on a Sunday morning, she’d announce, “I won’t be there Sunday morning, but I’ll be watching the good Word on the TV.” Translation: here or there, preaching’s everywhere, and my house is a mite more comfortable than the pew.
The truth is, I suspect there are a lot of modern Christians who agree with her. When I was in high school and college, from time to time, I was one of them. Once one of my previous churches starting recording and posting its entire service online, beginning to end, I began to wonder: why not watch from comfort of my bed?
Because of fellowship, people will say. You get fellowship in church you can’t get anywhere else. Well, that was true for me…once. In most modern churches, fellowship actually happens primarily in small groups, not in Sunday morning services. The “fellowship” I receive on Sunday morning is a lot like the fellowship I imagine a lot of believers see everywhere: five to ten minutes of handshakes, hugs, introductions if necessary, and some quick how-are-you’s. I can’t say I would feel crushed giving that up.
Well, but the preaching– Is online.
But the tithing– Online.
The special music– Online. Or I can listen to my own in the comfort of my home.
The truth is, there’s not much about the foundational elements of a church service that can’t be reconstituted elsewhere. Your fellowship, your music, your preaching, your tithing: you can either put it together piecemeal from other sources, or you can experience it as a whole through another channel, or even digitally.
And yet these days I find that I have to go to church. I need it. I feel a little internal sigh of relief and calm when I settle down into the pew. Why? What is it that drives me to get up every Sunday and go when, fundamentally, I could watch the whole thing online and have no seeming net loss from the experience?
The answer is this: a mystery of God occurs in the church every Sunday morning.
This mystery does not reside in any one part of the service itself. It is not in the music, or the preaching, or the brief fellowship, or the tithing, or the greeting, or the prayers, or any other aspect of the service. It is part of all of these things, but not traceable to any of them individually. And we can call this the mystery: God shows up while we are there, and He is with us when we’re there, and we sense His relationship to His church.
God is with us all the time, of course, everywhere we go. But there is something remarkable that happens when his people gather as one body, in the flesh, to meet with Him. God’s presence with His church when His church is gathered together for the sole purpose of worshiping Him is special, is different. When we are there, gathered together, something happens – I can’t name the how or the why, only to say that it is not in the “externals” of a church service, and yet inhabits them – that resets perspective. That reminds me of my place in the great church of Christ, of the relationship of the church to Christ, and of Christ’s deep and redeeming love for His church that He has chosen.
That’s why, even on Sundays where the “externals” fail – the sound system dies, the preaching isn’t great, the sermon doesn’t apply – I still walk away from the service feeling like I’ve had a cup of tea and a long bath. I am comforted, soothed. I am set right in my understanding of God’s relationship to His people. I have inhabited briefly, with my very body, a brief place that is a little shadowing echo of the great relationship that one day will meet its entire fulfillment and glory in Christ.
It is an alchemy I cannot name or fully understand. But it exists. And that’s why I have to go to church – I need that resetting of perspective, the contextualization of my place before God and in His people, the saturation of my life with what it means to be in the great church of all God’s people, to be a part of this community from ancient ages to the modern day. I can’t get it from watching a sermon online or putting all the church “externals” into place and assuming I will have an equivalent experience.
To be honest, my house is a mite more comfortable than the pew. But I can’t get what I need there.
So I go to church. And I never regret it.