I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years wrestling with this question, or the slightly more precise “why should we gather together at this thing we call a church service?” I think it’s a really important question, and I’m going to do some regular writing about it in the months ahead. I want to focus in on the church gathering – not that “being” the church outside of Sunday services isn’t incredibly important (it is!), but I think the way in which we think about and practice our gatherings really matters for our life together following Jesus.
At Compass Point (the church I’m a part of), we talk about our gathered experience of church as Encountering God Together. Each of those words was chosen intentionally with the hope that it would point us to the purpose of church, so I thought it’d be good to start by unpacking some of the reason and thinking behind each word.
Encountering – not simply learning, thinking, knowing, doing, or feeling, encountering something implies that we should be paying attention and drawn into something that is relational. While we can use the word encounter to describe an inanimate object, most often it describes something that’s alive and not fully known (if you’re a sci-fi fan, you know how often alien life is encountered, not simply studied or known) . An encounter is something that can’t be entirely controlled or managed, and that’s what’s so good about it. To put it in theological and church terms, God has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus and the story of the Bible, but we’ve been given the Spirit to lead and guide us – and we are called to learn, know, feel, and grow as we encounter the living God.
God – The object of worship at our gathering as a church is not us, it’s God. This seems really obvious, but I’ve been amazed how often I bring the focus back to myself. “I’m not really sure church resonated with me this morning…. I really liked that story in the sermon… It was great to chat with that couple I haven’t seen in a while…” All of these things are valid and a part of the experience of church, but I think it’s a helpful to be asking “How did I see God today?” While active worship shapes me through the working of the Spirit as I listen, learn, respond, and sing, there will be seasons where it doesn’t fill my tank or feel like I want it to. Can I still encounter God in those times? I think so. He is the object of worship, not me.
Together – This is another thing that may seem obvious, but is counter to the individualistic, consumer culture that we find ourselves in. When I go shopping, things are designed so that our experience is as me-focused as possible. Self-checkout may be the best example of this – my time is so valuable that this wonderful company has removed the (slower and more challenging) work of interacting with another human and lets me get on my way faster. Yay me! Gathering for “church” (gathering as the church to worship through scripture, song, and prayer) should be different because we’re called to be participating in it together – to be a community shaped by the gospel, practicing the ways in which God is redeeming the broken relationships between God and people, people and people, and people and creation. There are so many reasons why this doesn’t come easily to us, and it’s easy to default to Encountering God Alone. The church is an amazing gathering because we’re doing it with a group of people who may have nothing in common to start with beyond our need for God. We don’t need to agree on a style, have similar interests, be of a certain age or race or gender – all we have is our common need. This means that sometimes we may not agree, or get into trouble (see: New Testament epistles as proof that this problem has been around for a while). But there isn’t an option to do church alone. The teaching of faith being a personal relationship with Jesus may be playing too much into our idol of autonomy and individualism, and we need to be doing church with others.
There’s a lot more to get into here, and I’m going to be doing just that in the weeks and months ahead. I want to wrestle with how technology and this digital age plays into our experience of church, when we should and shouldn’t let church get replaced in our calendars with other (often good!) things, how technology impacts our view of church, what we do when we have other good things in our schedules that bump church out, and lots of other things. I’m going to use this space to work these ideas out – not necessarily presenting them as complete and final, but trying to uncover some of why I’ve grown in my conviction that coming to church – Encountering God Together – is really important, and really good.
I’d love to hear from you as I explore more here in the season ahead. What are the biggest barriers for you to engage with church? Which of these three parts of Encountering God Togethers takes the most work or comes the most naturally? Feel free to comment below or reach out with any questions or thoughts!