Skipping the Party
Every Sunday, God prepares a feast for his people. The water, the word, the bread, the wine... the Spirit hovers and broods, ready to breathe life anew into weary souls. "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Every week, pastors set the table. They diligently pour over the Spirit-inspired text, delving into lexicons and commentaries, carefully crafting a message that comes from the throne of God into the ears and hearts of his people. They press their palms against their foreheads, groaning and sighing, "Come Holy Spirit," praying over the harvest like a farmer has concern for the crops.
And every Sunday... many choose to leave an empty seat at the table. Many of the invited are sadly absent. Why?
One of my habits after church is to go to the grocery store. Bacon and eggs go well with Sunday afternoon. This is the weirdest thing, but like clockwork I know that I will see someone in the aisles of the grocery store that I did not see walk the aisle to holy communion in the past hour. If you are reading this and you've seen me at the grocery store on a day you skipped church - you're one of many, so don't feel as if I'm singling you out! I probably approached you with a smile, and after all the small talk, I probably told you what you already knew - that I missed you at worship.
When I say that I miss someone at worship, what I really mean is that we - the body of Christ - we missed you. Our voices were not as full without you singing with us. Our table was missing a vital member as we communed. The message of the cross was heard by one less ear.
The practice of skipping worship has various reasons behind it. I'm familiar with some of these because in the past I kept them in my back pocket for a Sunday I had other priorities, or frankly, just didn't feel like going.
I've also gotten familiar with some of reasons as I've met brothers and sisters in the grocery store on Sunday afternoons. But the more I've looked at these reasons, whether they be my own or others, I've come to the conclusions that none of these reasons add up. Whatever reason we give (with some exceptions), they almost always reveal misplaced affections.
Let me preface my assessment of these excuses for missing worship with this disclaimer - I am not talking about those who would be in worship, but cannot for reasons of health, transportation, or work in professions that call for odd hours (police officers, nurses, etc.). In these cases, pastors do visitation. We bring to God's people what they desire (the Word and Sacrament) but could not participate in with the whole community. Rather, I am talking about missing worship for the following reasons:
- I'm too busy. Right. We're all busy. But can't we spare an hour and a half? I'm sure there's a TV show or two we could cut for what really matters. Also, if we're busy, we need rest. Rest in worship reorients us for the demands of the week. Our idols work us hard. But only Jesus gives us rest.
- Sports - either on the field or in the crowd. I get it. No one wants to miss a game. But when we're faced with a schedule conflict that involves choosing sports or worship with God's people, we're faced with a very real battle for our affections. How we choose reveals what we value most. Think of it this way - when we choose sports over worship, we're saying that scoring a goal on the soccer field is more valuable than receiving the body and blood of Christ. I think that one of the reasons sports have occupied their unwelcome place on Sunday mornings is that Christians did not have enough intestinal fortitude to collectively say "NO! This is sacred time!" We gave in. And now it's more difficult to say "no." But why should sports win? Why not our affection for Christ? Christians in other parts of the world meet on the Lord's Day at the risk of losing their lives. I think we can risk being second string on the team.
- "I'm going to miss that fun thing!" (Birthday party, food truck festival, beer tasting event, farmers market, half marathon, etc., etc, etc.). There's six other days in the week with fun stuff to do. But on that day when the culture's schedule conflicts with our Lord's standing appointment, let's take joy in being counter cultural. Once again, our choices reveal our deepest held affections.
- Vacation! Vacations are great. I hope you take all of your vacation time. Enjoy your family and friends. Enjoy God's creation. But don't take a vacation from church. There's a good chance that the place you vacation also has a church. Go to "locate a church" on the lcms.org website (or whatever denomination you belong to). Visiting another congregation can be a great experience. In fact, if you vacation regularly in the same spot, you may develop a relationship with that body of believers.
- "I don't feel like it." Just because I don't feel like doing something doesn't mean I shouldn't do it. That's our American individualism coming out. I usually don't want to exercise. I rarely regret it afterwards. My son doesn't want to practice piano. But the only reason he's starting to be able to read music is because he does practice. There's great joy in choosing to do things we don't want to do. By saying "no" to our desire to skip we're saying "yes" to Jesus and his desire to meet with us in worship.
- "Me and Jesus." One excuse I used to employ often was the idea that I can have just as meaningful of a worship experience alone with my coffee and Bible as I can at church. Time alone in the word and prayer is important. But skipping the carefully prepared banquet to eat alone is impoverishing. It prioritizes me over us. Christianity is not a private affair. A Buddhist can meditate alone without a community. A Christian cannot. God saves a people, not just individual persons.
The purpose of this post is not to lay a heavy burden of guilt that will prod people into the pews. While some Christians have tried to solve absence in worship with the threat of mortal sin, such an approach admits defeat. People who need to be threatened with God's wrath into worship show that their hearts are still very cold and far from God. But the fruits of a genuine conversion will naturally lead to a desire to be with God's people, where God's gifts are given.
As we live in these gray and latter secular days, the church continues to feast on the inestimable riches of Jesus Christ. Each Sunday the table is set. The seat is open. Let's show ourselves to be anything but nominally Christian - let's always be found where he has promised to meet with us.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church