You might say I grew up in church. Literally. I was there every Sunday morning (where I went to Sunday School for the first hour, and sat through the hymns and preaching of the second hour. There was no such thing as children’s church. Somehow I survived). I was back for Sunday evening service. Wednesday evening prayer meeting, too. Again, no children’s program. But there was choir practice after prayer meeting, which left us kids free to roam the building and the grounds, playing hide and seek and generally tearing around. It was a blast.
The building had gone up sometime in the 1920’s. It had the oddity of not one central aisle in the sanctuary, but two aisles, dividing the pews into thirds. This was a problem for weddings because it made for lopsided processionals. Not planned well. But the basement was genius. It had moveable partitions that formed classrooms for Sunday School classes, but easily came down for large gatherings like wedding and funeral receptions, banquets, and church potlucks.
I have fond memories of potlucks in the basement, the likes of which are not seen anymore. Real food cooked at home and carried to church, the casserole dishes tied up in towels to stay warm until after the service. Even now, when I smell coffee perking (and I don’t even like coffee), I’m transported to those wonderful after-church gatherings with everyone eating together, the adults laughing and talking, everybody keeping an eye on everybody’s kids, who were, as usual, tearing around. We were a family.
My large store of hymns, and the Bible stories that form much of the furniture in my mind, were all learned in the four walls and the basement of that little church. Not to mention Vacation Bible School, when my tribe of Baptists joined forces with the EUBs (Evangelical United Brethren. My husband confesses to calling them Elephants Under the Bench in his youth), and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). During the annual week of VBS we older kids got to have our classes in one of the other church basements. We got to pack our lunches and eat them outside under the trees, followed by seriously competitive games of kickball. I was terrible at kickball, as I am at all other sports, and so I was always the last one chosen for the team. But aside from my failure at kickball, the whole VBS thing was thrilling to me. I loved church, and everything that happened there.
Now I’m old and jaded, and have thirty-five years as a pastor’s wife under my belt. You might say that church has been our job, which is a high privilege, but frankly church can be exhausting and discouraging. When I was a kid, I experienced all the benefits of a church family and none of the work, but now I have the whole picture. When you put a group of people together, who are all saved by the blood of the Lamb, but still have different temperaments and opinions and backgrounds and blind spots and character flaws, things can get messy. Church history is littered with fights and splits between the saints.
So I get it when Christians decide to throw in the towel and be their own church. How relaxing to lounge in your recliner on Sunday morning, listen to a good TV sermon, hear the kind of music you love the most, and then go out to lunch. Or just sit by yourself on your deck, listening to birdsong and thinking pleasant thoughts. Skip the hassle of interrupting the baby’s nap schedule or adding one more thing to your already packed weekend. Church. Who needs it?
I get it, but I can’t condone it. Church was never meant to be a stress-free experience, and we don’t have the option to drop out. The purpose of church isn’t to make you happy, it’s to make you holy. The Church is Christ’s body. The body, as the Apostle Paul so clearly points out, is made of many parts that can’t exist without each other. You will never see a single leg hopping along by itself, or a lone eyeball rolling around without being in a head, attached to a body. All the parts need each other in order to do their job. The Bible gives us no examples of Lone Ranger Christians.
The Church, the body of Christ, is not a museum for perfection, but a rehab for sinners. Whether we gather in a church building or in a home, church is where we learn to love each other, be challenged by one another, and come face to face with our sins and failures so that we can be supported, prayed for, and loved in spite of them. It’s where we join forces with our various gifts to do the work of God’s people in the world. It’s often uncomfortable and maddening, but church is a family, and we ought not to abandon our family. Of course, there may come a time when you need to find a different branch of the family to associate with, but you’re not allowed to leave the family altogether. The things that bug us about our family members recede in the light of being cared for by them and doing God’s work alongside them.
John Calvin said, “No man may have God as his father who does not have the church for his mother.” This wasn’t Calvin’s idea; it’s God’s idea. Be encouraged to keep on keeping on with God’s people.
Church. Who needs it? We all do.