By Mike Donehy
Easter was a disaster this year. The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection fell on April Fool’s Day, and it couldn’t have felt more appropriate. It was my first Sunday home in two months, as I had been on tour every weekend for the past eight weeks. I was super pumped to finally get the whole family dressed up in our pastel pastoral finest; dreaming of how impressed my friends would be at our impeccable color coordination and our children’s immaculate behavior. My wife and I had our fourth daughter just five months ago and thought to get all six of us out the door fed, somewhat clothed, and conscious was already a heroic feat, I knew Jesus was going to bless our efforts and reward us with a blithe and breezy Easter worship service.
I was wrong.
Instead of angels singing, I woke up to my four-year-old’s blood-curdling screams next to my bed. The two older girls were fighting over leggings and aggressively “tug-of-warring” them into two pieces. I tried hitting the snooze button on the top of my middle child’s head, only to realize she was quite warm, and probably coming down with something. It didn’t work anyway, so I groggily heaved myself out of bed and onto the floor. I laid there for a few melancholy moments, and let the cacophony of their screams wash over me. Great start. It could only get better from here, right? Wrong. The rest of the morning hit me like a smoke grenade. I fumbled through the fog, but I’m not even certain what happened. I’m pretty sure it involved a 102-degree fever, poop in someone’s underwear, and dog vomit. Yes. There was definitely dog vomit. My wife and I took turns going to church, washing clothes, and scrubbing the floors until we collapsed from exhaustion somewhere around 8 pm. Happy Easter.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24,25 (ESV)
Yeah right. If you’re anything like me, the task of getting your whole family to church can often times feel; not only non-beneficial but perhaps downright diabolical. I remember growing up terrified of Sunday morning. It was unequivocally the tensest morning of the entire week. “Get your clothes on and get out the door!” My poor mother would yell frazzling at the five of us. Now a parent myself, I understand her dishevelment. The effort involved in getting out of bed, rushing children out the door, only to stand shoulder to shoulder with semi-strangers sleepily singing half-rehearsed versions of someone else’s songs can hardly feel like it’s a good use of anyone’s time. After all, in today’s day and age, why not just stream the pastor’s sermon online, pray with my wife before a bowl of cereal at Bedside Baptist, and save everyone the time and energy?
Wasn’t Sunday supposed to be a day of rest?
Honestly, I think these are all valid points. I think, like in our family, if you got a kid with a fever, you should stay home. If you’re exhausted, you absolutely should get a little more sleep. Full-time ministers ought to keep in mind, if we’re offended when our congregants miss a Sunday morning, we may not be pastors, we may be pharisees. God isn’t giving out brownie points for perfect attendance, is He? But, I want to stress, we got plenty of legitimate excuses to stay in our pajamas, but that’s not why I’m writing this. I actually want to offer three thoughts I’ve arrived upon convincing me the rigamarole of Sunday mornings might just be worth it.
God is a relationship.
If God is indeed a perfect trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and if He existed before He made anything, then I believe it’s safe to say a relationship is who He is. Before He created, saved, or redeemed, He was. He is the relationship. It’s also worth noting we are all made in His image. Everybody. This must be why Jesus went around saying things like, “the world will know you’re my disciples by how you love one another.” Jesus knows that failure to care for each other sends a distorted image of who He is to the world. We know it’s true. It’s why our relationships with our families, friends, and lovers, mean much more to us than our titles do. At least, if we have the courage to admit it, they do.
But being a community and appearing like one are both completely different things. I know a lot of people who talk about being in community. It’s been a buzzword for years. I think the growing urban core in most American cities is even a testament to that billowing value.
However, being in proximity to a lot of people is not nearly the same thing as being in actual community with them. The problem with an actual relationship, is you have to embrace being put out. You have to embrace people you disagree with. If your entire friend group agrees with everything you say, then you’re not really in a community, you’re in a relationship with yourself.
I’ve found, friendship isn’t based so much on sharing the same space or opinions, as much as it’s based upon the moments we willingly inconvenience ourselves for each other. I want to repeat that. Actual friendship flows from the moments we joyfully serve someone we don’t have to.
Think about it. Who would you call to pick you up from the airport even though you could just as easily call an Uber? That person is your friend. That said, I can’t help but wonder, if even the sheer fact I’ve gone through the hurdles of feeding, clothing, and corralling my children might actually be a helpful signifier to the person next to me in the pew, that I will go to great lengths to love them when they feel unlovable.
To stir each other up.
If you go back and re-read that verse in Hebrews you’ll find the admonition to keep meeting together is sandwiched by two other commands. “Stir up one another,” and “encourage one another.” Think about that. I’ve read a lot of blogs recently from some pretty well-known evangelicals who are proud of how little they need church anymore. They get what they need from books and a few close friends. Cool. What I’d like to ask them is, “Yeah, but what about the people at church who need you?” The writer of Hebrews is acknowledging you may not be showing up on Sunday because you need to receive. You may very well be there because you need to give. Imagine if we all showed up with that mindset. Sunday mornings might look a little different.
They are different too. Whether we acknowledge it or not, part of the shepherd’s job is to contextualize the timeless Gospel to an ever-changing audience. The sooner those in charge of weekly gathering embrace that the better. Sunday mornings have vastly changed over the last two millennia. Think of the last thirty years. The invention of the internet is just one of many technological advances that hasn’t changed the importance of meeting together, but has forever changed why we should.
In Jesus’ day, the synagogue wasn’t just a place of worship, it was more of a city center. It’s where you learned about God. It was also where you got all your information. If Shelly down the street was selling chickens, that was the place to find out.
Home life was vastly different as well. Families lived in “insulas.” These were family residences comprised of “mansions.” Interesting aside here, this is the same Aramaic word Jesus used when He described His Father’s house. The word doesn’t mean a million dollar home, it meant, “an addition.” Every newly married son in a family would build on to His Father’s house, one generation at a time until the never-ending ranch-style home took up an entire block.
Fast forward to our modern post-internet existence. We don’t go to church to find out about anything. We honestly can research more about God and our neighborhood by jumping on Facebook on the car ride to church, than we could learn in an hour sitting in the sanctuary. Ironically though, our home lives are more privatized and disconnected than ever. With this in mind, I get it. Why come to church when the pastor hasn’t seemingly embraced this shift in culture? I’d like to throw an encouragement out here for any congregational leaders reading. Before the internet, our weekly services focused on giving our people a lot of information about God, while sending them home to discuss in their communities. Perhaps it’s time to switch our focus. It might be a good thing to consider giving your people more time to create community inside your church walls, and sending them home with information to lean into on their own.
This, I feel, is the most convincing reason I have to throw myself out of bed each Sunday morning. Put simply, Jesus threw Himself out of heaven for me. If Jesus wrapped Himself in all our flesh, then all of this matters. The cotton in our shirts matter. The food stains on our babies’ clothes matter. Sitting awkwardly next to a stranger matters. In Christ, we live and move and have our being. Soul meets body and body meets soul. Being in one another’s presence is a subtle yet sobering reminder that Jesus came and is in our midst.
This is why we gather. We come, because He came. It’s why I don’t tell my children to close their eyes when they sing. I tell them, “Look around! Look at all these people who love Jesus.” It’s why I look around as our church begins to line the aisles to take communion. I whisper again to my kids, “Look at all these people who need Jesus, just like us.” It’s why Jesus gave us wine and bread to remember Him by. Taste matters. It’s why you keep hearing about the laying on of hands throughout scripture. Touch matters. We are more connected than any of us realize, so next time someone asks me “Why bother coming to church?” I’ll answer straightforwardly, “Because Christ bothered coming to me.”