Too many people reject prospective churches saying, “I went there but I did not get anything out of it.”
Why do you attend the church you are attending? If you do not attend church right now, why did you reject the last two or three churches you visited? If you do attend church regularly, why did you choose this church?
I meet people from all over the country in my boat-based lifestyle. Because I have been blessed to belong to a great church, and because wherever I go, God has always had a great church waiting for me to visit, I feel quite fortunate. However, before you assume you know what I just said, I will tell you that I have never once said, “Wow! That is the church for me. I really got a lot out of that visit.”
In fact, if anyone were to ask me why I continue my membership in my present church, I would not answer, “Boy, I really get a lot out of that church.” Yet I have invited many people to church, only to have them tell me about the last time they went to church, saying, “I just gave up on them. I didn’t get anything out of it.”
What do you expect to get out of attending church? What led you to expect what you expect? How will you know if you get what you want?
I ask these questions, because it seems to me that biblically speaking, we don’t belong to a church in order to “get anything” out of the Sunday service.
A church certainly should embody the quality of encouraging people in the faith. That quality might be something a person could “get” from a church. A one-time visitor could probably discern something of that quality from the Scriptures read aloud, from comments during the sermon, by hearing prayer requests, or even by reading the announcements of the week’s activities. In my experience, the role of a church in encouragement is only apparent over some period of time, say six months or a year, during which a new member might build relationships, see some suffering, endure some suffering, face a challenge, or help someone else face a challenge. Yet through all of those experiences, one wonders if someone would characterize the growing perception that the church truly nurtured and encouraged the faith of the member by saying, “I really got a lot out of it.”
This comment seems even less appropriate when drawn from a worship service perhaps an hour long or a little more. Why? Because a worship service is not about what the congregation gets. A Christian worship service is about what the congregation gives to God.
We start giving to God the minute we enter the sanctuary. There are occasionally people in the room who are not quiet before the service, but most people are. I rarely look around after I am seated, but as I enter, or if I do look around for some reason, I see people just being quiet. Some heads are bowed, some eyes are closed, and some are looking at the bulletin. Many appear to be communing with God in some way, and even those who are not, show respect for those who might be. People give quiet respect to God as we all wait for the worship service to begin.
The first item on the bulletin is a hymn. The hymn always gives praise to God in some way. Sometimes it focuses on the word “Hallelujah!” the song the angels sing to give praise to God. Some of the opening hymns recite what God has done, or they describe God himself to the best of human ability. We give praise and thanks to him for who he is and what he has done and for the joy of being with him.
The experience is similar to my experience as a child when I visited my grandmother. I don’t know who was happier when I boiled out of the family car and ran joyfully into her arms. She always stood right by the cistern at her back door until the car door opened, and then she, too, hurried eagerly toward me. We smothered each other with hugs and kisses until she turned to greet my mom and dad and brother. I didn’t “get anything” out of that encounter. We just melted into each other, and that is the way things continued until time to go. That first hymn of each service at church is our time to run to God and hug him to us and let him wrap us up in his love. We give and we get, and it is hard to say who “gets” more out of that moment.
Then it is time to give God our shame.
The love and joy of the first hymn reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son’s welcome when he came home. The time of confession and forgiveness is that moment when he finally confesses, “Dad, I’m sorry. I messed up big time. I know it. Look what I did!” The psalms talk about that moment, too. In Psalm 32, David describes how it felt to try to keep his sin to himself.
3 When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.
4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.
Psalm 32:3-4 (The Message)
We all feel it, and that is one of the reasons we need to go to church and worship God. Sure, we can confess to God any time, any place. But when we all get together and admit what miserable sinners we are, it is actually comforting to let it go in a group and recognize that we are part of the human race.
Like David we feel relieved when we give all our sin and shame to God.
Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to GOD.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.
The pastor says, “Your sins are forgiven. The gates of heaven are open to you!” and a great load lifts off.
Then we are truly ready to do our work, the work of the people, the work of giving God the glory due to his name.
Worship proceeds. It isn’t about getting. It is about giving. We give our attention. We give our love. We give our faith. We give our ears and our minds and our hearts.
At some point, the pastor preaches a sermon. Ah, you may say. At last the place where I “get” something. That is not the point of the sermon at all. If you are not giving God his glory, submitting yourself to his sovereignty, worshiping him in the beauty of holiness, then you won’t “get” anything out of the sermon. If you are not constantly giving yourself to the Lord throughout the worship, do not expect him to salvage your inattention and introspection and then “give” you something from the sermon. The pastor speaks, the congregation listens, but if the congregation is not doing its work of worship, the sermon might as well be an advertisement for a phone. We, the congregation, must be in the Spirit along with the pastor, or the sermon will fall flat. The work of worship calls for all the people to be of one heart.
I have only touched the tip of the iceberg on the subject of worship. I do hope I have opened your eyes if you have been thinking that you need to find a church where you “get something out of it” during the worship.
The work of the congregation does not end with worship, although many people appear to think their duty is done if they make it to church on Sunday. Statisticians like the Barna Group have even found it necessary to revise their tag for people who attend “regularly.” A few decades back, “regular” attendance meant weekly attendance. In recent years, they have revised the definition, and now “regular” attendance is at least once a month. That being said, it should not be surprising to find that every aspect of involvement in church life has been similarly diminished. If you only attend in order to “get something,” and if your attendance is no more frequent than once each month, you will certainly not grow close to the other members.
“Getting something” from a church is like any other relationship. It requires that you give something. For example, if you want your church to mean anything to you, you need to be praying for it. Constantly. You need to be praying for the pastor, especially if his sermons are floundering. God did not bring you this pastor so he could flounder; God brought him here to work with you in the harvest that is so big there are never enough workers.
If you want to “get something,” therefore, you need to be working for the good of your church. If you help clean, if you help teach, if you help manage the budget, that is all necessary and good. But you also need to be building up your church in the eyes of the community. Be a light yourself, and recognize that you are only part of the light the church sheds in the community. Who you are and what you do and where you go and whom you serve are all important elements of the work you must do to build up your church.
Don’t choose a church because you “get something out of it.” Don’t expect your church to look the way you want or sound the way you want or give you pats on the back for doing what Christ asks you to do. Choose your church, because Christ himself brings you together and because there is godly service you need to do in this church. The church is not about doing anything for you; it is all about doing things for God.