Monday, June 28, 2021

Why I Love Church

I came home from worship on Sunday morning, and the first thing I said to my wife was: “I love church!” It is true. I love church. I look forward to worship all week long, every week. A lot of my clergy colleagues do not love church any longer.

I don’t blame them. Churches can do serious harm to people … especially clergy. Clergy burnout is at an all-time high. It has gotten worse during the pandemic. Many pastors cite divisive politics and conspiracy theories as precipitating factors leading to their exit from the pulpit. Partisan politics is functioning as a rival religion within many congregations.

Church can be toxic to both clergy and laypeople. No one knows that better than I. About a dozen years ago a denominational executive told me that he thought I was suffering from PTSD caused by clergy abuse! Not abuse by clergy, but abuse of clergy … by churches. He was not a professional therapist, so his diagnosis was not official. But as a longtime “pastor to pastors” he had seen enough abused clergy to know the signs.

Psychological suffering caused by churches is epidemic. It is known as toxic religion. That is why so many people have rejected “organized religion” and the “institutional church.” Toxic Christianity is usually the phenomenon of authoritarian structures – sectarian cults, fundamentalist, evangelical, and Roman Catholic churches. The Southern Baptist Convention is in the midst of an abuse scandal now, just like the Roman Catholic Church has been in recent decades. But clergy abuse can happen in any type of congregation.

Somehow I survived, I healed, and I still love church. I persevered... or rather perseverance happened. It was not my doing; it was grace. I never stopped loving church, even when a particular congregation and denomination was not healthy for me. By the grace of God I now love church more than ever. Why do I love church so much?

I love the music. Congregational singing touches my soul. I love good preaching. On the other hand, there is nothing that will propel me to the exit faster than hypocritical or judgmental preaching. For me preaching needs to be honest, biblical and prophetic. The preacher does not have to be a master orator, but his/her words need to come from a place of authenticity and be transparent to the biblical text and the Spirit.

I love church fellowship. Some people are able to thrive with private spirituality alone. These are the “spiritual but not religious” folks. Not me. There is something that happens in me during communal worship that does not happen in private prayer or meditation.

I love church because it is holy space. It is a time and place set aside for nothing but God. A Sabbath. There are very few such times and places in our culture these days. The world encroaches on sacred time and space, and fills them with noise, technology and entertainment.

In worship the universe opens to the Sacred. The veil of the temporal and physical world drops away and reveals the Kingdom of God, which is always present just beneath the surface. The heart opens into eternity. I cease to be, and God is.

This is not due to any particular liturgical design. It is not a psychological gimmick crafted by skillful worship planning. In fact, if I sense that the worship leaders are manipulating the congregations’ emotions, it will send me out the door faster than a bad sermon. Sacred Space is something that is equally present at all times and places. Yet for some reason it is revealed to me – in me – most readily on Sunday morning in church.

Heaven comes to the earth. The heavens open, and the Spirit descends … or perhaps the Spirit ascends from the depths of the soul. Ultimately the spiritual geography of inner and outer is the same. The Spirit takes control. No special effects. I am not a Pentecostal or holy-roller. Just Holy Presence.

I am no longer present, but the Spirit is present in and through me. Like John the Revelator, a door opens to heaven and a voice says, “Come up here,” and I do. I spend an hour – and an eternity - in the Presence of the Divine.

Most of all I love worship because I love God … with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. The personal God. The God beyond the Personal God. God in Christ. God in others. The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. The Ground of Being. Being Itself. 

Words cannot describe the Divine I know in worship. This is the Eternal God. The God I knew before birth. The God I know now and forever. The God of perfect love. That is why I love church.

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