Recently I read a post entitled, “Why I’m Not Attending Church with My Girlfriend.” In it writer Jozen Cummings discusses his relationship with his girlfriend, a devout Catholic who attends church regularly, while he, a former Catholic who is now a Baptist, has sporadic attendance. Gina invites him to church often but Jozen declines citing that although church is important to him and his faith in God is deeper than any “religious practice,” there are many things that have kept him away. From a periodic lack of desire to attend church to what seems like a residual ecclesial exhaustion from his Catholic altar boy days, Jozen articulates why he stays away more often than not. Undergirding his argument is what he describes as the personal nature of faith and church attendance. He begins his story by talking about how both he and his girlfriend view faith as a personal matter and concludes it with church being a personal matter as well. Of this he says,
Church is not a time for couples to be together so much as it’s a time for all of us to be with God. That’s my time for Him. I truly believe that, and yet, I haven’t been giving Him much of it. I also realize, writing about this may contradict some of what I said about taking my faith personally. But I wanted to share because I know people who look at faith and church-going as a high value in a partner. I believe Gina and I feel the same, but I also believe we might not ever attend church together and we don’t have to. As long as I go do my thing and she goes to do hers, I think we’ll be all right, at brunch, together.
My concern about Jozen’s situation—and maybe that of anyone who doesn’t consider church attendance with their significant other important—is that it isn’t a sustainable model for being in intimate relationship with another person. Intimate/Intimacy is the key word here. Whether casually dating or charting more serious territory that is leading to engagement or marriage, church attendance as a couple can unearth much about a person that you wouldn’t get if you just met up for brunch with them.
To attend church with your significant other is to let them into your most personal and vulnerable space and you theirs. The church is a city of refuge from a chaotic world and thus it is the space where many can let their hair down, let the tears flow, be silent, or be slain in the spirit. Now this could be a reason not to attend church with your significant other because you may not want them to see your “ugly cry,” or maybe you don’t want them to know you sing quite off key, but these possibilities of vulnerability can open a relationship up. Does this mean that if your significant other doesn’t sing along or barely sways during praise and worship that your relationship is doomed for failure? Not necessarily. But it is something to take note of if you are more prone to charismatic expressions in worship. Or maybe you like to debrief about the sermon after church but your significant other has very little to say and seems like he or she didn’t even pay attention. This doesn’t mean they are going to hell in a hand basket. It does give you something to reflect on if church is an important part of your life. And if he or she doesn’t attend church at all are you comfortable with upholding the spiritual mantle in the relationship and, if so, how long? Throughout my time in church I’ve seen far too many wives attending church alone, managing their rambunctious children alone, taking their relationship to the altar alone, only to return home to a husband who is sitting on the couch or hitting the links. One cannot the spiritual mantle alone. Two can carry it better.
Sharing with the Community
When you attend church with your significant other you are also exposing your relationship to a community that should have your best interest in mind—“should” being the operative word. A friend directed me toward Hebrews 10:24-25 which says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.(NRSV)” Many know this scripture as, “Do not forsake the fellowship of the saints…” This is important on an individual level as well as on a communal level. It is the fellowship with other believers that strengthens and sharpens us—iron sharpens iron—and the hope is that a couple’s fellowship among other believers will strengthen them, collectively, for the journey ahead. That is the hope, but as you can imagine there are some saints who are too nosy for their own good and others whom are just scandalous, therefore, protecting your relationship is important even when you are in church. If you’ve been attending a church for long enough, you know whom your allies are and whom are those you keep at arm’s length. Everyone will have something to say about your relationship—in and outside of the church—but you should be clear on who the wise counselors are in your church that can or may help you discern the direction of your relationship.
Sharing a Sacred Space
In his book, “Works of Love” Soren Kierkegaard said,
“Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between (hu)man and (hu)man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, God is the middle term…if God and the relationship to God have been left out, then, Christianly understood, this has not been love but a mutual and enchanting illusion of love.”
God as the middle term in a relationship is a mediator between both parties, and part of that mediation should take place in church, well before a couple decides to go to the chapel to get married. Gathering in church together can enhance a couple’s spiritual devotion toward God and each other because it binds them to a place, a space—if you will—in time. Attending church with your significant other Sunday after Sunday gives you a neutral place where the two of you can meet and leave all of your cares behind. It is the place where you are supposed to be able to find some semblance of peace. But it is also the place where the two of you can receive the preached word of God and the Eucharist. This is of particular significance because the first binds you two together in a common understanding of the Gospel and the second binds you together as people in the body of Christ and restores you.
Going back to the story that inspired this article, Jozen and his girlfriend seem to exist in two different spiritual spaces. She is a devout Catholic attending mass every week, receiving the word and the Eucharist, while he wavers between receiving the word and not. Right off the bat we know that there are theological differences that can separate them in significant ways and make them less compatible than they think they are, but that’s not anything they will discover if they both insist on maintaining separate spiritual lives. And this is the clencher.
I hesitate to use the phrase “equally yolked” but it is deeply implicated in this discussion. The vitality of a relationship where one of the people has a strong commitment to God and ecclesial life is enhanced when both share in that commitment. For a couple that desires to stay together and go the distance, going to church together might make all the difference. Sure a couple may pray or read the Bible and/or inspirational books together outside of church, but there is very little to replace entering the sanctuary together, worshipping and fellowshipping with the body together, hearing the word together and taking communion together. In the best case scenario, when you attend church with your significant other you are increasing the possibility for intimacy. Your attending to corporate worship together can reinforce your personal worship and relationship with God because it is in the gathering together that we are encouraged and reminded of the importance of our personal relationship. Church attendance is not mandatory but it does bind us to God and each other in explicit ways that our ordinary day-to-day activities don’t bind us.
But what do you think?
- Do couples have to attend church together?
- Do you think that there is ever a time when it is too soon to go to church with a significant other?
- Do you think church attendance with a partner helps or harms relationships?
- Can a relationship between two believers be sustained if they go to separate churches or if one of them goes and the other does? (Keep in mind that this doesn’t include circumstances where people can’t attend church together because of work, ministerial calling, etc.)
- If you asked your significant other to attend church with you and they kept declining, would it be a dealbreaker?
- Can faith be a personal matter when two people have entered a committed relationship?
- Like the couple that prays together, does the couple that goes to church together stay together? Are you part of a couple who went together while you were dating and you’re now married to that person? Share your story.