The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it.
I’ve talked with three Christians this past week — two struggling with depression, and a third who just went through a tough break-up — who’ve all stopped gathering with God’s people during a difficult season. Whether for weeks or for months, all three have decided to stop going to church.
One said it would be unsatisfying, because there just isn’t a sense of connection. Another said it would be awkward, because they don’t want to see their ex. The last said it would be unhelpful, because they just have no desire to be there anymore.
I’m not here to minimize their burdens or condemn them for feeling the way they do. I’m not writing to them or about them. I’m just writing to every Christian who feels the way they’re feeling — to every Christian who feels (as I have before) like gathering with God’s people will be unsatisfying, unhelpful, or just plain awkward.
I’m writing to say something I said to all three of my friends at some point in our conversations: The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it.
Yes, I know: The church is a people, not a place. The church is a body, not a building. The church is something Christians are, not just somewhere Christians go.
Yes, I also know: The church is a family that should meet and study and eat and fellowship and pray and serve throughout the week, not just on Sunday’s.
I know these things, and if you’ve walked with God for awhile, you do, too.
But I also know that the church is marked, known, and enlivened by its regular, rhythmic, ordered gatherings (Hebrews 10:24-25). A body that’s never together is more like a prosthetics warehouse, and a family that never has family dinners or family outings or family reunions won’t be a healthy family, if any family at all.
Sure, you could listen to some praise music and an online sermon, but there won’t be any personalized one-anothering, there won’t be any face-to-face fellowship, and there won’t be any bread and wine. Sure, you could read the Bible and pray on your own, but you won’t hear the studied voice of your very own shepherd teaching and comforting and correcting you. Yes, you could just attend another church for awhile because yours has grown unsatisfying, but that’s not treating your church like much of a covenant community.
Covenants are made for the hard times, not the good times. In the good times, we don’t need covenants, because we can get by and stick together on good feelings alone. But covenant communities hold us up when we’re faltering and pick us up when we’ve fallen. They encourage us when we’re weary and wake us up when we’re slumbering. They draw us out of ourselves and call us to our commitments and responsibilities. They invite us back to the garden of Christian community, where growth happens best.
I get it: The worship team didn’t pull their song selections from your Spotify playlist; the pastor didn’t have the time and resources to craft a mesmerizing sermon with a team of presidential speechwriters; the membership may not have the perfect combination of older saints to mentor you and younger saints to energize you and mature saints to counsel you and hospitable saints to host you and outgoing saints to pursue you. But I know one thing: If your church believes the Bible and preaches the gospel and practices the ordinances and serves one another, then your church has saints, and those saints are your brothers and sisters, your fathers and mothers, your weary fellow pilgrims who are walking the same wilderness you are — away from Egypt, surrounded by pillars of cloud and fire, with eyes set on the promised land.
Which is to say, this isn’t really about you. Those people you wish would pursue you and care for you and reach out to you need you to do the same (Galatians 6:9-10). That pastor you wish was a better preacher is probably praying this morning that you’d be a good listener (Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; James 1:22-25). Those people whose spiritual gifts you desperately need also desperately need your spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:15-16). Those people whose fellowship you find dissatisfying or unhelpful or just plain awkward don’t need your criticism but your gospel partnership (Philippians 4:2-3).
And you can’t do any of these things if you’re not present.
At all times and in all places, the gathering of the saints is a means of grace established by God for edifying his people. Christians gather to worship not because it might be helpful to us if all the stars align, not because it might be good for us if our leaders plan the service just right, not because it might be helpful if everyone smiles at us with the perfect degree of sincerity and handles the small talk seamlessly and engages us with just the right depth of conversation that’s neither too personal nor too shallow.
We gather because the God we’re worshiping has instituted our gathering as a main way he matures and strengthens and comforts us, and not just when the songs or the prayers or the sermons or the Sunday School classes touch our souls right where we feel like they need to be touched. We meet because God builds up his people through our meeting — every time, in every place, without fail, no matter how we feel. Like rain in the fields, it’s just how our gatherings work.
So I know you may not feel like it this morning, and you may not feel like it for awhile. But I’m asking you to trust God, ask for grace, and go.
Go, because the church gathers every Sunday to remember the death of Jesus for our sins and the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and that’s precisely what we all need to be remembering and celebrating, regardless of what else is going on in our lives.
Go, because the stone trapping you in the cave of depression can be rolled away in a night, and once God decides to do it, no Roman soldier or Jewish priest can stop him. Go, because you’re gathering to anticipate a greater marriage than the one you hoped would happen later this year. Go, not because your trials aren’t real, but because that tabled bread and wine represents the crucifixion of the worst sins you could ever commit and the worst realities you would’ve ever experienced.
Go, and in your going, grow. Go, and in your going, serve. Go, and in your going, let God pick up the pieces of your heart and craft the kind of mosaic that only gets fully crafted when the saints stay committed to God’s long-term building project and speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).
The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it. So please, brothers and sisters: Go.