Why do Christians “go to church?” To prove something to God or someone else? Is it a lifestyle choice? When it comes down to it, what is worship for?
Justin Bieber made the headlines recently with a statement he made in an interview about Christianity and church-going, and tacos. Here’s what he said:
“You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell that doesn’t make you a taco.”
Leaving aside the somewhat jumbled analogy, Bieber’s statement highlights a very common way of thinking about what it means to “go to church.” Take out the Taco Bell sentence, and it sounds mainly true to most people. Because, after all, it’s not about religious performance, etc.
(By the way, Anna Nussbaum Keating wrote a great response titled “Go To Church, Justin Bieber.” In fact, her post is on the same topic as this one, so feel free to read hers alongside, or in place of mine.)
Worship is not reputation management
The problem with Bieber’s statement is that it assumes that “going to church” is essentially about “proving” you’re a Christian. That the only conceivable reason one would attend a worship gathering would be to be seen worshiping, and thus prove one’s Christianity. Or something.
I’m reminded of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus points out the misguided motivations of those he called “hypocrites” (a word that referred to stage-actors at the time). The problem with them, Jesus said, is that when they do their spiritual stuff (giving, praying, and fasting), they are doing it in order to be seen. They were simply managing their reputations, and Jesus calls them on it (Matthew 6:1-18).
But notice that Jesus doesn’t go on to say “You don’t need to do those things to be my disciple!” Instead, he says, “When you give… When you pray… When you fast…” steering his disciples’ imaginations away reputation management and toward communion with the God they were learning to call Father.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to abandon the practices, but to reorient them.
It’s the same way with worship. Just because some people “go to church” to manage their reputation doesn’t mean we must abandon gathering for worship. Quite the opposite, in fact! It means we need to reorient the practice of gathering for worship toward better ends.
Which means we need to rediscover why we gather for worship in the first place. What is worship for?
I offer 2 thoughts on this, not in an attempt to be theologically comprehensive, but just as a starting place for discussion:
- Worship is formation
- Worship is communion
Worship is formation
The claims of Christianity seem pretty far-fetched to people who have been trained as consumers. But the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims to us that God’s new world has already begun, and we can participate in it today.
The problem is God’s new world operates in a completely different way from the world most of us think is “real.” So there is a necessary process of learning to live in this new “dimension,” even as we inhabit the old one.
We have to be formed into a people who know how to stay in touch with new creation. So we gather together to hear a word (the gospel) from this dimension, and say “yes” to it again in the midst of contested space.
In worship we learn to pray, to listen to God and one another, to speak to God and one another. We are formed as the body of Christ as we submit to the practices he gave us (eating and drinking together, reconciliation and forgiveness, mutual submission, discernment, etc).
I kneel, not because I’m humble, but because I’m proud. I pray, not because I have all the answers, but because I’m seeking them. I exchange the Sign of Peace, not because I love my neighbor, but because Jesus tells me to.
Worship is communion
God’s ultimate goal in creating the universe was to establish and dwell in covenantal relationship with humankind. According to the New Testament, the church seems to be the beginning of the realization of this goal.
The Spirit mutually indwells the church and Christ, linking us together in mystical communion between Head and body.
Gathering with the church for worship, then, is where we embody and practice this communion intentionally, so we can begin to live it out more naturally at all other times. In worship, we cooperate with what the Spirit is doing in the church: forming it into the body of Christ.
In a very tangible way, then, we actually encounter and embody covenantal communion with Christ and one another when we gather for worship–to hear God’s word proclaimed and respond at the Eucharist table together.