Years ago while still in the pastoral leadership role I wrote
The Tribute of an Old Lover of the Local Church, a Clear-eyed Assessment of Its Pretense and Reality
Years ago while still in the pastoral leadership role, I wrote, with tongue slightly in cheek, that devoted worshipers, especially those who could be described as habitual, should now and then take a Sunday off. That it would be good for their souls.
I proposed this occasional lapse in piety from the perspective of a functionary whose livelihood depended on those loyal people whose favorite pew in the nave I can to this day locate with my mind's eye. My advice about absenteeism from sacred duty derived less from magnanimity than from an attempt to excuse my own church-less Sundays of summer vacation.
But in these thirteen years since I was cashiered as pastor, laying down my ordination and finding a seat beneath and not behind the pulpit, that flippant remark, about not going to church every now and then, begins to sound wiser than first imagined.
At this point, dear friends, you may want to go elsewhere on the internet, and discount this essay as the sour grapes of one who can't get used to the idea he is no longer important on Sunday mornings. You may have a point. I'll grant you that, but I'd also like you to read on.
As I address and temper the reasons I, for fifty years (!), advanced as arguments for regular Sunday worship.
First and foremost is the observation that Christians need one another to be Christian. Solo pilots rarely fly in Jesus' orbit. We need the correction and enthusiasm of like-devoted others. The world can be a hostile place, sometimes reserving its bitterest vitriol for those trying to counter it with compassion. When battered in such forays of kindness (and when bruised incidentally by hard circumstance), we need to return to an understanding nest to regroup and heal.
But the distinction between the church and the world is never easily drawn. The saints may celebrate their infiltration of the world for God's sake; but the sober truth is that the world is equally adept at infiltrating the church. Witness the small-mindedness currently abroad in the name of Jesus among those hell-bent (literally!) on vetoing inclusion for those tradition has previously denied citizenship in the kingdom of God. They choose righteousness over compassion and, to my way of thinking, lose Jesus along the way. Pope Francis, God bless him (He has), obviously seeks to restore the primacy of compassion... which is a whole 'nuther essay.
Secondly, the church for better or worse is the institution charged with keeping alive the memory and the presence of the world's savior. The cross of Calvary, with its many explanations, needs now as always those who approach and promote it with reverence and wisdom. The Sermon on the Mount, with its commands ever at odds with worldly wisdom, needs sympathetic elucidation by those whose faith and experience witness to its eternal truth. There's a sermonic cliché true if hackneyed that we are always just one generation away from forgetting Jesus. The church exists to make sure that does not happen.
But we do get diverted from this mission. Paul reminds us that we have eternal treasures in earthen vessels. The church is surely earthen. And I don't mostly mean made of bricks and mortar. I mean the tendency to elevate priorities other than, among the most important things, preparing the next generation. I have been sickened ad nauseam with pulpits that measure their success and endlessly pronounce themselves "great" as if institutional supremacy in numbers and finances pleased Jesus... who famously brought a Sunday School child into the midst of the gathered disciples and told his friends in so many words to do anything and everything to clear the little one's way to the kingdom of heaven. He almost seems to be telling us, "Do right by children, or get out of the way." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about whom you have heard in other contexts, including the plot to assassinate Hitler, wrote from prison where he awaited his death by hanging, that the faithful Christian is one who conducts his life as in the best interests of those who come after him. The church can make no better bequest than a lively and faithful presentation of Jesus and his Way to those who follow.
There are other ancillary uses for the church which have little direct connection to Jesus. My first full-time assignment as pastor was to an ethnic congregation (Norwegian-American) which served to acculturate two generations in the patterns and expectations of the New World. In my home church I learned more about conducting and participating in meetings, practical democracy, than in schools' social studies classes. I acted in plays and preached my first sermon. I became adept at three point set shots on the church's basketball court, through the gaps in the wooden rafters in that tower room in the parish house. I learned at endless ham dinners in the social hall how to operate a commercial dishwasher. I perfected my ping pong game in the rec room. I made pocket money setting up pins for the Men's Club in the church's bowling alleys, before the floods of October 1955 ruined the lanes. And, best of all, I found a life's partner there one Sunday morning, the prettiest Methodist I had ever seen.
The church for me, then, and throughout the next fifty years of my work as a pastor, was my primary community. Those ancillary uses cannot claim Biblical mandate, but they certainly made life with other Christians a whole lot easier, more enjoyable, and with the inevitable coffee klatches with which ecclesiastical meetings end and sometimes begin, life was made a lot tastier.
A non-canonical verse attributed to Jesus has him adding another Beatitude: "Blessed are you if you know what you are doing." Which I take as advice to approach the church, if as a holy institution, then one entirely human, susceptible to seven deadly sins while purveying the seven heavenly virtues. That ambivalence ought never to be forgotten.