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Church, Why Bother?
My Personal Pilgrimage
By Philip Yancey
ZONDERVANCopyright © 1998 Philip D. Yancey
All rights reserved.
WHY BOTHER WITH CHURCH?
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This is a big old ship, Bill. She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets where she's going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.
J. F. Powers, Wheat that Springeth Green
As I grew up in Georgia, church defined my life. I faithfully attended services every Sunday morning and evening and also on Wednesday nights, not to mention vacation Bible school, youth group activities, "revivals," missions conferences, and any other occasions when the doors might open. I looked at the world through stained-glass lenses: the church told me what to believe, who to trust or distrust, and how to behave.
During high school I attended church in a concrete-block building located on the grounds of a former pony farm. Several of the former stable buildings were still standing, littered with hay, and one Sunday morning the largest of these buildings burst into flames. Fire trucks noisily arrived, the deacons dashed about moving lumber and uncoiling hoses, and all of us church members stood and watched as orange flames climbed the sky and heat baked our faces. Then we solemnly filed back into the sanctuary, suffused with the scent of burnt straw and charred timbers, and listened to our pastor deliver an impromptu sermon on the fires of Hell which, he assured us, were seven times hotter than what we had just witnessed.
That image lived long in my mind because this was a "hellfire and brimstone" church. We saw ourselves as a huddled minority in a world fraught with danger. Any slight misstep might lead us away from safety toward the raging fires of Hell. Like the walls of a castle, church offered protection against that scary world outside.
My ventures into that outside world, especially in public high school, brought about some awkward moments. I remember the hot shame of standing before a high school speech class giving the pious reasons why I could not accompany them to view a Hollywood version of Othello. And even now I can quote the sarcastic words used by a biology teacher explaining to the class why my 20-page term paper had failed to demolish Charles Darwin's 592-page Origin of Species.
Yet I also recall the satisfying feeling that came from belonging to a persecuted minority. We congratulated ourselves for living "in the world" without being "of it." I felt like a spy, clutching some precious secret that few others knew about. "This world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through," we used to sing. During childhood and early adolescence, I rarely resented church: it was the lifeboat that carried me through the ocean swells of a turbulent world.
My church frowned on such activities as roller-skating (too much like dancing), bowling (some alleys serve liquor), going to movies, and reading the Sunday newspaper. The church erected this thick wall of external rules to protect us from the sinful world outside, and in a way it succeeded. Today I could do any of those activities with an unsullied conscience, yet I am also aware that the very strictness of fundamentalism kept me from deeper trouble. Strict legalism pulls in the boundaries of deviance: for example, we might sneak off to a bowling alley, but would never think of touching liquor or drugs.
Later, though, I came to view some of their rules as wholly arbitrary, and some as flat-out wrong. In the Deep South, racism was an integral part of the church subculture. I regularly heard from the pulpit that blacks — and that was not the word we used for them — were subhuman, ineducable, and cursed by God to be a "servant" race. Almost everyone in my church believed that Martin Luther King Jr. was "a card-carrying Communist"; we cheered every time a Southern sheriff hit him with a nightstick or locked him in jail.
A religion based on externals is easy to cast aside, and that is what I did for a period of time. When I moved out to taste the broader world for myself, I rejected the legalistic environment of my childhood. The words they used suddenly seemed deceptive, like Orwellian Newspeak. They talked about Grace but lived by Law; they spoke of love but showed signs of hate. Unfortunately, when I emerged from Southern fundamentalism, I cast off not just the shell of hypocrisy but also the body of belief.
Circling the Buttresses
I now see that the Deep South fundamentalism of my childhood represented far more than a place of worship or a spiritual community. It was a controlled environment, a subculture. I now recognize that a harsh church, full of fierce condemnation and empty of humility and any sense of mystery, stunted my faith for many years. In short, Christianity kept me from Christ. I have spent the rest of my life climbing back toward faith and climbing back toward church. My journey of return to faith is a long story that I dare not begin here. Rather, this small book centers on the blunt and simple question: Why bother with church?
Is church really necessary for a believing Christian? Winston Churchill once said that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress: he supported it from the outside. I tried that strategy for a while, after I had come to believe the doctrine sincerely and had committed myself to God. I am not alone. Far fewer people attend church on Sunday than claim to follow Christ. Some of them have stories similar to mine: they feel burned or even betrayed by a former church experience. Others simply "get nothing out of church." Following Jesus is one thing; following other Christians into a sanctuary on Sunday morning is quite another. Why bother? As the poet Anne Sexton put it,
They pounded nails into his hands. After that, well, after that everyone wore hats ...
As I reflect on my pilgrimage, I can see that several barriers kept me away from church. First was hypocrisy. The atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was once asked what made him so negative toward Christians. He replied, "I would believe in their salvation if they looked a little more like people who have been saved."
Scarred by the absolutist fundamentalism of my childhood, I too approached church warily. On Sunday mornings Christians dressed up in fine clothes and smiled at each other, but I knew from personal experience that such a façade could cloak a meaner spirit. I had a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacked of hypocrisy until one day the question occurred to me, "What would church look like if every member were just like me?" Properly humbled, I began concentrating on my own spirituality, not everyone else's.
God is the ultimate judge of hypocrisy in the church, I decided; I would leave such judgment in God's capable hands. I began to relax and grow softer, more forgiving of others. After all, who has a perfect spouse, or perfect parents or children? We do not give up on the institution of family because of its imperfections — why give up on the church?
My next hurdle to overcome was cultural in nature. "Seeker churches" not yet having been invented, I discovered that the eleven o'clock hour on Sunday morning was oddly unlike any other hour in the week. At no other time did I sit for thirty or forty minutes in a straight-backed chair and listen to someone lecture me. At no other time did I sing songs written one or two centuries ago. I identified with one of Flannery O'Connor's in-laws, who started attending church because the service was "so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come."
O'Connor also said that she took care to be at her writing desk each morning so that, if an idea came, she would be there to receive it. A lapsed Catholic named Nancy Mairs writes in her memoirs Ordinary Time that she returned to church in somewhat the same way. Even while uncertain about belief in God, she began attending Mass again to prepare "a space into which belief could flood." She learned that one does not always go to church with belief in hand. Rather, one goes with open hands, and sometimes church fills them.
For me, the very structure of church got in the way of getting my hands filled. I enjoyed small groups where people talked about their lives, discussed matters of faith, and prayed together. A formal church service, though, with its unvarying routine, its repetitiveness, its crowds and bulletins and announcements, its conventions of standing up and sitting down, annoyed me. The longer you stay away from church the stranger it seems, and clearly I had got out of the habit.
It helped me to read accounts by C. S. Lewis and other notable Christians who wished to worship God but experienced church as a hindrance rather than a help. For instance, the Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard once described her church this way,
Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible singing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week, we went through with it.
Even as I write these words, I must pause and shake my head in wonder. As I recollect my frame of mind from more than twenty years ago, it surprises me to recall how passionately I felt about such matters in my twenties. I have picked up the habit again, you see, and for years the church routine, this very routine that once so irked me, has seemed as comfortable as slipping on a pair of old shoes. I now like the hymns, I know when to stand and when to sit, I listen to the announcements because they involve activities I care about. Yet I force myself to remember what I felt back then because I know that for many people church still poses a cultural barrier difficult to overcome.
What changed my attitude toward church? A skeptic might say that I lowered my expectations somewhere along the way, or perhaps I "got used to" church just as, after numerous false starts, I got used to opera. Yet I sense something else at work: church has filled in me a need that could not be met in any other way. Saint John of the Cross wrote, "The virtuous soul that is alone ... is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter." I believe he is right.
Christianity is not a purely intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community. Perhaps for this reason, I have never entirely given up on church. At a deep level I sense that church contains something I desperately need. Whenever I abandon church for a time, I find that I am the one who suffers. My faith fades, and the crusty shell of lovelessness grows over me again. I grow colder rather than hotter. And so my journeys away from church have always circled back inside.
Nowadays, despite my checkered churchgoing past, I could hardly imagine life without church. When my wife and I moved to another state, finding a church was one of our most urgent priorities. If we missed a Sunday, we felt a void.
How did I move from being a skeptic of the church to an advocate, from a spectator to a participant? Can I identify what rehabilitated my attitude toward church? I would respond by saying that over the years I have learned what to look for in a church. In childhood I had no more choice over church than I had over what school I attended. Later, I exercised much choice over church, trying first this one and then that one. The process taught me that the key to finding the right church lay inside me. It involved my way of seeing. Once I learned how to look, issues such as what denomination a church belonged to mattered far less.
When I go to church, I have learned to look up, look around, look outward, and look inward. This new way of seeing has helped me to stop merely tolerating the church and instead learn to love it.
I present these observations in full knowledge that some people — those who live in small towns, for instance — have few options of churches to attend. Yet I believe that for all of us, a way of seeing can transform our understanding of what church was meant to be. Once we have a vision of the church, as participants we can help it become the kind of place God intended.
I used to approach church with the spirit of a discriminating consumer. I viewed the worship service as a performance. Give me something I like. Entertain me.
Speaking of folks like me, Søren Kierkegaard said that we tend to think of church as a kind of theater: we sit in the audience, attentively watching the actor on-stage, who draws every eye to himself. If sufficiently entertained, we show our gratitude with applause and cheers. Church, though, should be the opposite of the theater. In church God is the audience for our worship. Far from playing the role of the leading actor, the minister should function as something like a prompter, the inconspicuous helper who sits beside the stage and prompts by whispering.
What matters most takes place within the hearts of the congregation, not among the actors onstage. We should leave a worship service asking ourselves not "What did I get out of it?" but rather "Was God pleased with what happened?" Now I try to look up in a worship service, to direct my gaze beyond the platform, toward God.
Such a change in viewpoint has helped me to cope with the talent deficit I encounter in various churches. To direct the spotlight away from the minister, some churches seek to involve many lay people in worship. They compose songs or poetry, act out mini-dramas, sing in trios, make banners, express themselves through sacred dance. I confess that, judged by objective standards of esthetics and even by the subjective standards of "worship promptings," many of these attempts do little to enhance my own worship. Gradually, though, the truth has sunk in that God, not the congregation, is the audience who matters most.
I am trying to learn a lesson from C. S. Lewis, who wrote this about his church:
I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. ... I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
Church exists primarily not to provide entertainment or to encourage vulnerability or to build self-esteem or to facilitate friendships but to worship God; if it fails in that, it fails. I have learned that the ministers, the music, the sacraments, and the other "trappings" of worship are mere promptings to support the ultimate goal of getting worshipers in touch with God. If ever I doubt this fact, I go back and read the Old Testament, which devotes nearly as much space to specifications for worship in the tabernacle and the temple as the New Testament devotes to the life of Christ. Taken as a whole, the Bible clearly puts the emphasis on what pleases God — the point of worship, after all. To worship, says Walter Wink, is to remember Who owns the house.
In church I can look toward the platform, as a spectator, or I can look up, toward God. The same God who took pains to specify details of animal sacrifice for the ancient Israelites later told them, "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pen, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills." By focusing on the externals of worship, they had missed the point entirely: he was interested in a sacrifice of the heart, an internal attitude of submission and thanksgiving. Now, when I attend church, I try to focus on that internal spirit rather than sitting back in my pew, like a theater critic, making esthetic judgments.
I have visited Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox worship services that utterly defy the consumer mentality prevalent in America. Most Catholic services de-emphasize the sermon, or "homily," and few priests I have heard would score well in a preaching contest. When I ask about this weakness, they shrug it off. For them the sacrament of communion, or Mass, is the center of worship; they serve as prompters.
In Russian Orthodox churches, priests do not even speak the language of the people, since few congregants can understand the Old Slavonic specified for worship. Choirs chant out the message of the gospel, and many services dispense with the sermon altogether. What matters is worship: again, the priest, the icons, the church architecture, the incense, and the choir serve as prompters.
For many reasons I continue to worship in the Protestant tradition, which places a greater emphasis on the Word spoken from the pulpit. Yet I no longer worry so much about the style of music, the order of worship, the "trappings" of church, as I once did in my days of church-shopping. By focusing on the trappings and not the goal of worship — to meet God — I had missed the most important message of all.
Excerpted from Church, Why Bother? by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 1998 Philip D. Yancey. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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