This article is courtesy of Missio Alliance, an organization dedicated to equipping the church for fuller and more faithful participation in God’s mission. For more resources, including articles, videos, podcasts and more, go to MissioAlliance.org.
Going to church is one of the spiritual disciplines that forms us into Christlike people. As we meet with others, pray, engage in hospitality, encourage one another and read God’s Word together, we are shaped into the people of God.
James K.A. Smith, in his article “Alternative Liturgy: Social Media as Ritual,” says that these kinds of rituals or liturgies shape our imaginations:
Liturgies are covert incubators of the imagination, because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts. Liturgies traffic in the dynamics of metaphor and narrative and drama; they are performed pictures of the good life that capture our imagination and thus orient our love and longing. By an aesthetic alchemy, liturgies implant in us a vision for a world and way of life that attracts us so that, on some unconscious level, we say to ourselves: ‘I want to go there.’ And we act accordingly.
As we practice the discipline of gathering as a church, our imaginations are meant to be fashioned and fueled. We begin to long for a certain kind of world as we engage in worship. Hopefully we long for the alternate reality we call the rule of God, expressive of shalom, which is about peace, justice, wholeness, reconciliation, mercy and truth. Then, as we envision it, we begin to practice living a life in that reality.
However, this ideal does not always manifest itself. In fact, I think “going to church” can sometimes run counter to this purpose of transforming God’s church into a people who embody shalom.
I often wonder whether the practice of “going to church” is shaping Christians into people who flesh out the practices and posture of shalom in our world, or whether the practice of going to church inhibits that purpose. I know this sounds like a contentious statement. We know the benefits of church attendance, but could there be pitfalls and temptations in the practice of “going to church” that can draw us away from the mission of God?
Here are four ways church attendance can be a stumbling block for mission.
1. We can feel as though “going to church” makes us good Christians.
Christians have been taught to think that if we attend church regularly, we are obeying a well-established rule set out for us so that we might become good Christians. This is potentially legalistic and can take the place of a meaningful relationship with God.
The temptation can be to think that if we go to church, we are then doing enough to be followers of Jesus. The focus here is primarily on attending church rather than engaging with God’s mission. Of course, the two things should not necessarily cancel each other out.
2. Church participation can keep us busy and therefore satisfied.
Churches have many programs, events and weekly meetings that Christians are expected to attend. Our culture places a high value on busyness, so sometimes it can seem that if we are busy, it means we are living meaningful lives. This attitude has infiltrated the church. We believe that if we are busy, then we are hard at work for God at ministry.
Sometimes, however, church programs are more about keeping the internal machinery of the church going—that is, survival. When this happens, and Christians get caught up in this busyness for the survival of the church, it hinders God’s mission. We might feel satisfied that we are doing “God’s work,” but it can in fact be shaping us to be inward-oriented rather than missionally focused.
3. Church can foster a sense of dualism.
We are very good at discerning the Spirit of God in our churches, but we are more ambivalent about what it looks like to discern God’s Spirit in the world. How is God active in our neighborhoods? Where is God in our workplace? Is church ministry elevated above the call God has placed on the lives of doctors, cleaners, architects and technology consultants, for example?
Going to church can sometimes foster a sense that we are moving into, and then out of, God’s presence when we enter and leave the gatherings. This stops us from participating in God’s mission in our neighborhoods and society.
4. Going to church can make us feel safe.
Church can make us feel comfortable. On one hand, this is for meeting together as Christians. We gather to practice the habits of an alternate world, and we get a glimpse into the coming kingdom. That ought to fill us with hope, longing and comfort.
However, if we are not prepared to interact with a world that is broken and sinful, if we fail to see brokenness and sin in the church, if we stop lamenting and crying out to God for a new universe, then we are being shaped into safe, comfortable Christians who will avoid the radical call to join with God in his mission.
5. We can turn into hearers, not doers.
When we attend church, it can be a consumerist experience in which we listen and receive doctrine. This fosters a passive stance. We evangelicals love our theology, worship songs and doctrines. But what produces transformation is taking action and putting into practice what we hear on the platforms of our churches.
We become witnesses to the gospel as we embody the gospel, not merely talk about it. In this way, a watching world will point to us and say, “There is the gospel among those people. There is shalom. There is the reality of another kind of world.” An embodied apologetic is important in a world that is highly suspicious of the church today.
Am I saying that we should stop going to church? No. But I do believe that we can rethink what gathering as the people of God looks like, and the structure of our gatherings can reflect this.
The practice and structure of church gatherings must not disable our mission. The church is God’s light in the world, and it exists for the purpose of God’s mission, not for the sake of itself. When going to church becomes an end in itself, it frustrates mission.
We need to gather as the church to worship God together—but worship is always about being formed by the Holy Spirit, who sends us out on mission when we leave where we meet. That’s what makes the heartbeat of the church quicken, when it is motivated by self-sacrificing love, so that our world sees the attractive face of Christ in the people of God. As we practice the values of the reign of God, we are transformed into those who truly see and hear.
As Sarah Bessey says, “We’ll practice the ways of Jesus, over and over, until the scales fall from our eyes and our ears begin to hear.”
As God’s people, this must be the purpose of our gatherings.
Karina Kreminski is lecturer in missional studies at Morling College Sydney in Australia. Before that, she led and pastored a church for 13 years. This article was originally published on MissioAlliance.org.