Last month marked fifty years since I enrolled in a theological school to prepare for a life in ministry. I can honestly say, after all these years “I still love the church”At the callow age of 22, I made two decisions. First, I would pitch my tent in the church, the most obvious human expression of Christian faith. Second, that church would be Baptist, my childhood family of faith.
A half-century later here I am, still an active, pledge-paying member of a Baptist church.
I still love the church. Moreover, I remain a convictional Baptist, though with less enthusiasm. But that’s another essay.
There are fewer of us these days, “us” being those “I-go-to-church-every-Sunday” kind of people. Statistics about church attendance and participation reveal a decline for decades, but a precipitous drop during the past decade. We don’t need sociological analysis to tease out this trend. Just drive into the church parking lot and ease yourself into your posture-perfect pew. All around us are the people we don’t see anymore—the “nones” and “dones” and “never-weres” and now the Covid dropouts who discovered Sunday brunch at the local bistro.
So why haven’t I joined the new wave? Why haven’t I given up on church?
Because I still love it. Let me count the ways.
First, because I cannot shake the habit. My church habit goes way back. I cut my teeth on the Cradle Roll, sang my way through Sunbeams, and bluffed my way through Training Union. Sunday morning and Wednesday evening at church are my lifestyle choice. Covid played havoc with the symmetry of my week and my spiritual equilibrium. Routine plays an important part in the maintenance of our spiritual trajectory, and the church keeps mine moving in a positive direction.
On the hierarchy of reasons for loving church, habit is not very high, any more than brushing one’s teeth and wearing clean socks raise a person to the level of nobility. What habit does is nudge us in the direction of Christian formation, the development of healthy disciplines of Christian practice, and modes of behavior.
It is not lost on me that on the Sabbath Jesus went to the local synagogue “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). One of the reasons I still love the church is that it enables me to participate in customary actions, not simply for the sake of repetition, but because those customs are infused with meaning.
Second, I love the church because it has precedent and tradition. In one form or another church has been around for 2,000 years. By now it is fair to say that church is an essential part of being Christian.
Early adopters of Jesus discovered the value of gathering together for the purpose of teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers (Acts 2:42). Two millennia have passed and the church is still the time and place where Christians do the things Christians once did and still do—worship, encourage, learn, pray. No other institution is entrusted with all these functions, and unless we are faithful to these tasks no one else will be.
The obvious critique is that churches have 2,000 years of setting bad precedents. Racism, misogyny, persecution, and enslavement have been practiced and condoned by church people. Still are, in fact. Jesus entrusted the treasure of the Gospel to “earthen vessels.”
It is reasonable to debate whether the track record of churches has been more harmful or helpful, but on balance, I love the connection church gives me with something that has endured longer than the most recent conspiracy theory.
Third, I love that the church provides me with something to believe in. Anyone past 70 who believes everything he believed in his 20s is probably naïve. But anyone past 70 who believes nothing he believed in his 20s is to be pitied.
Church is a conservator of beliefs about God, Jesus, and more. I love the church because it offers me a set of beliefs that I hold as true and others that point me to the truth. Moreover, this set of beliefs includes a set of behaviors that, if followed with regularity, direct people in a way of a faithful life. Faith is, after all, believing in obedience.
Fourth, I love how the church is a continuing source of inspiration. Over and over the church has elevated me in surprising ways. As a pastor, I had the weighty privilege of seeing life up close. It can be discouraging, even heartrending, to witness the intense human struggles that exist within a congregation. We’ve all seen people grapple with addiction, rail against unfair treatment in a job, and fight a losing battle to rescue a relationship.
Yet these unbidden circumstances become, at times, the stage upon which courage, patience, compassion, forgiveness, and faith are acted out. I have been a witness to people, bolstered by their reliance upon prayer and the support of fellow church members, moving through hardships that would have left me quivering and self-absorbed. Can such inspiration exist apart from the church? Of course. But I continue to discover that clustered among a congregation are examples of faith and fidelity that stretch me. Simply put, I am a better Christian and a better person when I am in proximity with fellow Christians from whose examples I draw inspiration.
Finally, I love how the church makes me hopeful. If church futures were available to purchase like stocks no one would buy them. Churches have experienced very little rebound following Covid. The mood among many congregations is pessimistic.
Much to my delight, I have observed that churches are resilient. Many churches will close their doors in the next decade or so, and some won’t probably. But many other congregations will rediscover a fresh vision, call on hidden and untapped qualities in young leaders, and rustle up different ways for funding their ministries. The church will go on. In old and new locations and forms, it will survive and thrive.
Why? Because the Spirit of God is a living and enlivening presence always looking for people and places available to the Spirit’s work. I love that church, at its best, is more fellowship than an institution, more organism than mechanism, more attuned to the Spirit than to structure. There is a lot to love about a healthy congregation that believes and lives its way in the spirit of the Resurrection.