By Jake Randolph
I’ve been going to church since I was a kid. I was brought up in a traditionally Christian household with believing parents who taught us the Bible and guided us toward faith in Christ. Every Sunday, we would pile into the minivan, or the conversion van, or the Suburban (our family went through cars like we were building up a used-car inventory) and down the road we would go to the big building with the cross on top. I went to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and youth camp. I was baptized at the age of six. I grew up learning about Jesus and his love for me. So it should come as no surprise when I tell you that I have held a very particular concept of what it means to “go to church” or to be a part of a Christian “fellowship.” I had and still have certain expectations for what my Sunday morning church experience will look, sound, and feel like.
Lately though, I’ve been reconsidering what it means that a bunch of folks get together early on Sunday mornings to talk about Jesus. I guess it stems from a profound discontent that I’ve sensed in my own heart. More than once I have found myself looking around at these people, most of whom I’ve met and like, but few who I truly know on a deeper level, and thought to myself, “Is this really it?” Why does God seem so concerned with Christians being together, and should I expect something different than the four songs, thirty minutes of preaching, and a few prayers and readings scattered here and there? If I’m feeling dissatisfied, is it the church or is it me?
Frankly, it’s both. It’s both because I am broken, my heart is often wayward and distracted. But it’s also both because the church is made up of people just like me. Now, we all have different experiences, backgrounds, hopes, dreams, fears, but I think generally speaking, the churches I have been a part of have a tendency to misjudge what, or rather Who, we are looking for when we enter the doors of a Sunday gathering. I have spent the majority of my life thinking that church is where I go to learn about God, sing to God, and wait for God to show up. And I have thought that he will show up on a special Sunday when my heart is perfectly attuned, the preaching is particularly good, and the songs are my songs, the songs that touch my heart (when the lights are dimmed just right). But let me tell you something that has changed the way I look at Sunday morning worship, and has reoriented my perspective on the significance of church: God is here, whether I feel him or not. That may seem obvious to some, but let me tell you, the more I let that truth sink into my broken life, the more profound comfort I receive when I get together with other local Christians. God is present, and I don’t have to beg him to stay or plead with him to come into my presence. He has already done that, he is doing that, and he has promised that he’s not going anywhere. Jesus says that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Mt. 18:20). Jesus is not just present in some abstract, sentimental remembrance, as if we were talking fondly about a loved one who is away from us (“it’s almost as if he’s in the room”). No, he is actively present through his Spirit, working on us and with us and through us, even if we don’t feel him. So this leads me to ask you, when you gather with the church for worship, what are you expecting?
Jesus is present with us when we sing, and he even sings over us! The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus declares the words of the Psalms in the midst of his church: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb. 12:2). Imagine that, that the Lord of creation, the Son of God, is singing the praises of the Father with us! Can you believe it? St. Paul says to the church at Colossae that his preaching about Christ was the very word and work of Christ through him: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28-29, emphasis added). When we hear the words of Scripture read and we hear the gospel preached, it is God who is speaking to us through his Spirit, calling us to faith.
Jesus is also present with us when we share the communion meal together. Once again, it is not a meal to remember a loved one who is long gone. It is rather a celebration and a gospel declaration in which the Lord himself promises to commune with us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). When we eat the bread and drink the cup together we do so as the church who has heard the welcoming voice of Christ. We eat together and recognize that he alone is the sustenance we need, the food we long for.
When the church gathers on Sunday, it’s not primarily to study about God as a subject to be mastered, or to learn the Bible as a curriculum, but it is rather to allow God to study us, to shape our hearts. It is for God to speak to us, and for us to hang on his every word. It is for the Spirit to encourage us as we serve one another, for God is serving his church through our hands.
Don’t be concerned that you have to convince God to show up on Sunday morning. He is there among us. There are certainly times when God will move your heart in a profound way, touching your emotions, revealing himself in a special instance to grow your faith. But if we know anything from looking at Jesus, it’s that God is pleased to reveal himself to us in the normal, everyday things as well. Jesus wasn’t a superstar or an earthly ruler or a powerful Roman commander. He was a woodworker in the countryside. He didn’t hang out with the who’s who of Palestine or dazzle paying spectators with flashy showmanship. He hung out with fishermen and one time he healed a blind guy with mud and spit. He told his disciples to commemorate his sacrifice with a loaf of bread and a glass of wine. Trust me when I say, God is pleased to use the normal, everyday events of your life (and your worship!) to remind you of his presence and to bring you closer to him.
So when you come to the same old service on the same day of the week and see the same people, when the sermon is subpar and the songs don’t sing great, listen. Listen closely not only to learn about God and about how to live a better life, but listen to hear God speak and to have him renew your life as your relationship with him grows day by day. On the Sunday when the pale excuse for a crumb of bread and a small swig of grape juice seem lackluster, stop and taste. Taste and see that God is good, that the Christ is in our midst, sharing this time with us Taste and know that he gives us everything we need.
No matter what we do or how we feel on any given morning, Christ is with us, and he has promised to fill us with his love and to show us the Father, and you can bet he will do it. After all, when the one you are worshiping was raised to life, lives forever, and gives you his Spirit, what more could you expect?
Jake Randolph is the Director of Worship at Renewal Church