Church is not merely an activity we do, it is a part of our identity as Christians. Additionally, we need to view our place in the Church as members of a spiritual and physical community, not merely outside critics. There are two more attitudes we need to consider.
Another factor that affects our attitude toward church is the matter of our expectations. We often approach our church experience as consumers: “What can I get out of church?” This spiritual avarice is deadly.
Drawing from the marriage analogy, when a bride and groom commit their lives to each other, the marriage vows are rooted in the desire to give to the other partner, and the vows have strength as long as they are rooted in a commitment that is outside the influence of circumstances or fluctuating emotion. If each party entered into the relationship vowing “I will be faithful to you as long as I get something out of it” the marriage would have no permanence.
The idea behind the word “liturgy” is a community of people offering themselves in collective worship. It requires an offering of self, just as the marriage relationship requires sacrificial service. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people” and it is in the participation in Scripture readings, responses, prayers and singing that believers both offer themselves and are fed.
The problem common to most of our reasons for going to church (even the ones that seem good) is egoism: a selfish obsession with our own well-being and interests. We go back for what we can get out of the experience. We’re selfish little children crying “gimme, gimme, gimme” to God. When we don’t get what we toss around pompous criticisms about how the church should change.
While complaining about the way things are may strike a chord with other people who feel the same way, it fails to bring about any positive transformation. Sometimes we may have valid criticisms to offer. There may be real error to correct or real sin to address. But this is best done in the church, directed toward the people who can make a change, framed in positive terms.
Church is best experienced on a personal level, and best strengthened in the universal sense, when we approach it seeking to give back to God. This, really, is worship: offering ourselves to God out of delirious gratitude for all he has done and expecting nothing in return for our adoration but the joy of His presence.
Trivializing the Supernatural
Why is church boring? Why does the Christian life seem bland and dead? Why do we tolerate boredom, emptiness and mindless duty? Why do millions of people make a passing attempt to be religious, without seriously engaging in their faith? I suggest it has to do with the trivialization of the supernatural.
Wonder is the child-like ability to be awed. A child delights in seeing animals, meeting new people, reading familiar books over and over, and a million other little pleasures that we adults take for granted. As we grow up we insulate ourselves with a cool sophistication—a practiced detachment from wonder. One of the ways we do this is in our habit of trivializing the supernatural. By this I mean that we refuse to acknowledge the parts of life that are miraculous: the realities that transcend the natural, physical laws of this world.
The Christian faith is rooted in supernatural reality. The virgin birth of Christ has no explanation in rational terms. The miracles Jesus performed on earth illustrate God’s joy in surprising us with the supernatural. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead defies our worldly sophistication. Our future hope in the resurrection of the body and the forgiveness of sin is scientifically foolish. Herein lies the power of the supernatural: We walk by faith and not by sight.
When we strip the Christian life of wonder, spiritual ideas become boring, worship is sterilized, and church becomes a dispassionate, casual ritual.
The pastor who stands before his congregation right before they take communion and reminds them that the Lord’s Supper is merely a physical act, devoid of any mystery, has just trivialized the supernatural. He has taken a sacred moment filled with worship and has drained it of any supernatural aspect. The Christian who hears of a healing and silently thinks there must be a rational, scientific explanation has just trivialized the supernatural. This is why taking the Lord’s name in vain is so serious: It involves invoking the sacred name of God and trivializing it to the level of a common filth word.
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings derive their power and appeal from the engagement of the supernatural. God, to borrow a phrase from Lewis, is no tame lion. When we refuse to acknowledge His mysterious, transcendental power in our personal and corporate worship, church becomes to a tedious drudgery. Boredom replaces wonder when wonder is suppressed.
We are frustrated with church because we deny, or at least trivialize, the power of the supernatural. If we want to overcome spiritual ennui, we need to permit God to surprise us. Acknowledge the mystical aspects of the Christian faith, and allow the supernatural to enter into your worship.
Why do we go back?
So, before we complain about the Church we need to understand exactly what church is and what we are trying to change. We need to engage in the community of believers and approach our place in the Church asking what we can offer. We need to regain a sense of awe regarding our faith. When we affect these areas, we will impact the Church far more positively than if we merely complain.
Why do we go back? Hopefully, we’re searching.
Ultimately, I think we keep returning to church because we are part of the body and there is an innate spiritual need for fellowship and worship that keeps bringing us back. God plants within us the desire to commune with other members of the Body of Christ. We return because we hope to have an encounter with God. We want to connect with Christ and drink of the abundant life. The Holy Spirit gives meaning to the mundane, breathes life into the lifeless, and transforms the common into the supernatural.
We just forget to look for it sometimes.
[Michael Reitz is a law school graduate seeking to grow in his faith and pass the bar exam. He lives with his wife in Virginia.]
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