Rushing Back to Church

Our congregation will be gathering for worship this coming Sunday for the first time in about 10 weeks. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without worshiping, either as a parishioner or a pastor. I can safely say the say for the majority of my members. Though some remember living through polio quarantines earlier in their lives, those were of a far more limited scale. For most all of my folks this is the longest they’ve had to go without Church in their lives.

But for those for whom weekly worship isn’t part of their routine, it might seem as though the push to reopen churches is a curious thing. Hence an article like this one, characterizing the push for a return to worship as a rush.

I thought it was interesting the article drew a distinction between Christian activism on this issue and comparative silence from Jewish and Muslim Americans. I can’t verify whether that’s true or not, since I’m not in the communication chains for those groups. If it is true, perhaps the issue is different definitions of what worship is.

I’ll hypothesize here – for lack of better certainty – that in Jewish and Muslim circles weekly worship is seen primarily as social and educational. A time to be with friends and family and a time to grow in their understanding of the faith. That might be in very loose terms or very traditional and religious terms. Weekly gatherings are, in that sense, somewhat optional. They aren’t receiving something in weekly worship they couldn’t receive in other forms on their own, in private, through the Internet or Zoom meetings. Of course they miss the in-person fellowship, but maybe they aren’t missing anything else.

For Christians, the historic understanding is that worship is more than just educational and more than just fellowship. We love to gather with our church family, to be certain. We look forward to catching up with one another, planning brunch afterwards, hobnobbing over coffee in the fellowship hall.

But the most important thing about Christian worship is we claim things happen there that don’t happen in other places – at least not in the same way. Which makes Christian worship – at least for those who understand the historic practice and theological underpinnings – essential and necessary, not simply a pleasantry we can do without as the mood strikes us. Granted, a lot of Christians have exactly that latter opinion of worship. Tragically even Lutherans – and even some of my parishioners – have that perspective.

Traditional worship understands worship as a time when God gives to us. This is the proper emphasis – what God gives to us. We respond in thanksgiving and worship, but the initiative is on God’s part, not ours. He gathers us in order to give us his gifts. Those gifts come in two forms – Word and Sacrament. We hear his Word and receive his grace in the Sacraments, and this happens only in worship as He gathers us together.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is always with us. Yes, we can read the Bible at home and have his Word. Yes, we live in his grace and forgiveness at all times, and so, strictly speaking, don’t need to receive the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution. We don’t have to have Holy Communion as another means of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can exist in the faith without them. But it is neither safe nor healthy to do so for extended periods of time. Actually engaging in corporate confession is much more powerful than whether I remember to confess my sins before I fall asleep at night. Hearing the declaration of a Called pastor/priest that my sins are forgiven is much stronger than just reminding myself of that reality.

And of course Holy Communion is a corporate event – unless overriding other issues prevent someone from receiving it as such. Jesus instituted it as a corporate event and the Church has understood it should be celebrated as such. Am I forgiven and in the grace of God whether I receive the Eucharist or not? Of course. But to taste forgiveness, to smell it, to gather around the Lord’s table with my brothers and sisters in Christ? That’s a worship thing.

For Christians – at least those who understand worship as it has been designed and practiced for centuries – worship is essential. We come together to be strengthened, to receive the gifts of God before heading back out to our homes and neighborhoods and classrooms and workplaces. It grounds us in our identity in a way watching online or on the television can’t and doesn’t. We can pretend it does, but we’re wrong – and there’s certainly no shortage of psychological studies to back that up. Being together in person is different than being together virtually. It’s how we were designed and made, and while we might like to think our iPhones replace that, they haven’t. If anything, they’ve highlighted just how badly we need it!

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