I once heard an old, retired Lutheran professor give in interview on a podcast. He was asked by the interviewer why people should bother going to church if they could just be saved through a personal relationship with Jesus? With so many young people opting out of church, and the potential of “church” at home through sermon videos and live-casts, why not just enjoy spiritual life at home? Its more convenient, fits with people’s schedules and the person still gets the Word.
The professor said that Church wasn’t about simply hearing the Word but about gathering. That’s what “church” means—“gathered ones”. God gathers his people together, as one body, around Word and Sacrament. Then he said something I thought was quite simple but profound, “When a person leaves church on Sunday they should always be able to say one thing, ‘You know what? You can’t hear that anywhere else.’”
That has stuck with me. We can get amazing entertainment anywhere else. We can get the best music anywhere else. We can get the best food, fellowship and fun anywhere else. We can be more comfortable anywhere else. The world can do all these things and do them better. But the one thing the world can’t do, won’t do, and that you will never hear is point to Christ. Oh sure, we might think they proclaim it when we read things like “thank you Jesus” from celebrities winning awards, but really, the only place you can hear the Gospel is through the gathered people of God, the Church.
So why is the Church so caught up in complaints about the music, on doing things this and that way? Why has consumerism been given space to define the gathering? Isn’t the idea that Church is supposed to be entertaining—an idea we hide behind with words like, “authentic,” “relevant,” and “engaging” a bit superficial? These are smokescreen words for “church my way” because if a church is preaching Christ, it’s always relevant because we are sinners. “relevance” is a PC term for “this is what I like.” Contextualization and culture certainly matter but they are not direct equivalents for the latest fashions. The Church should not be in competition with New York, London and Paris. So it’s a mistake to think that Church is “all about me.”
The other big mistake we make about Church is that it’s “all about God.” It’s not. Church is not all about God. And that is why we have been falsely lead to believe that we can substitute a podcast at home from an embodied gathering. Worship is directed towards God but with people. For example, how many people when they sing a song, close their eyes, shut out the community around them and “just worship?” I’m not saying there is something inherently wrong with this, but it might betray a view of music—namely that our music is sung and directed towards God alone, that isn’t very communally-minded. Church music is sung to God, and each other. Don’t believe me? Listen to Paul: “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord (Eph 5:19).” Or, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Sprit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts (Col 3:16).” Singing is both, “to each other” and “to the Lord.”
We are not gathered so that we can ignore the people around us in some meditative music moment where are focus is solely on God. Do that on your own time. Rather, friends, hear my desperation: I really, really need you. Me, The pastor, your brother, your neighbor, I need you to tell me and sing to me what I can’t hear anywhere else. God, on the other hand doesn’t need to hear, “Amazing Love” but I do. God accepts the song as an offering of praise, but I need to hear it. Friends, I can’t hear it anywhere else. The radio or sermon cast just won’t do. I need real presence. I need my family. We are not electronic creatures but bodily ones. The resurrection is a bodily resurrection. We are fleshly creatures and I need to see and hear you. I need you near me. I need you to sing to me.
Church is about us gathering together around Word and sacrament. And I come into church a mess. I’ve sinned all week. I’ve missed the mark. I’ve gotten stressed, angry and tired. I’ve thought things I shouldn’t, I’ve got worries about tomorrow and issues that need dealing with. No one wants church to be boring, but I don’t want a Church who’s main means of processing what to do is through the lens of entertainment. Give me what’s good for my soul and yours. I can get entertainment anywhere else but only in Church can I get the Gospel and you, my brothers and sisters. I don’t want to worship that makes me “feel” I want the message of the Cross. I want to see Jesus, hear about Jesus, reflect on Jesus and on you who Jesus died for and I love. And I see Jesus in you. I need that. You need that.
To get this, to really see Jesus. I need you to show me. I don’t want my Christian life to be restrained to the interior of my mind or heart. I don’t want to be a hermit with an “electronic community”. “Spirituality”—whatever that even is—shouldn’t be about me thinking nice thoughts about God in the comfort of my home, but loving God through my neighbor. I want to know I’m not alone. I want to know that I have a family. I want to hear with my God given ears that I am love and saved by God. I want you to sing to me the glories and riches of God’s love and mercy. And I want to sing to you. I want our songs and hymns and spiritual songs to be an offering to God in worship but an act of proclamation to you. Sing to me, let me sing to you, and let’s offer it all up to God. Lets sing together, listen together, and come to the Table of Grace together.
I know there is plenty to complain about in the Church. But I still want you to come and gather. I need you. And without presumption, I know you need me too. What it means to be a gathered people is to be a community. So friends, don’t just sing to God, sing to me. It’s not good for us to neglect gathering, as is the habit of some (Heb. 10:25). Rather, lets come together because we need each other:
"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body." -I Corinthians 12:12-19
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.