“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
Every week, millions of people all over the world attend some form of church service — whether it be at a historic inner-city building, a sparkling suburban structure, or a secret underground location. For many Christians, Sunday morning marks a time of reflection and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s also a time to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of other believers. Among many African Americans in the inner city, “remembering the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) is a prerequisite to starting the week off correctly.
It’s true that many of us attend church out of tradition or a sense of obligation. However, anything worth practicing — and anything valued enough to perform repetitively — is worth understanding. Which leads me to a question that may seem unnecessary on the surface but that is fraught with meaning for the living of our faith: Why do we attend church?
For many, the question is superfluous — the Bible commands we go to church, so we do it. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” meaning that we should often afford ourselves the opportunity to join with other Christian men and women. Some Christians agree with that notion and some do not; however, it is relatively easy to conclude that many of us attend church because it is a part of our family upbringing or because of what the church represents to our society and our communities.
Our Heritage of Faith
I believe the truth about our theology as churchgoers is deeply rooted in our upbringing. It is apart of our cultural matrix.
We attend church because our parents attended or because our families have been members of a particular church for years. It represents a place where we all come together in fellowship and worship. One could survey any given church and interview countless parishioners capable of testifying about the positive experiences afforded to their families because of their commitment to attending service.
Ultimately we can, throughout history, point to the church as a place that has allowed all of God’s children to be a family. Even during slavery, the church represented the one place where the slave family might be allowed to go together. Slaves attended the church of their masters, and as long as the family worked on the same plantation, they could generally be assured that Sundays represented a small space in time where they could be with their families and be encouraged through the singing of spirituals and the presentation of God’s Word, and particularly what it had to say about true freedom and justice.
Middle-Class Flight and Return
In the book Preaching to the African American Middle Class, pastor and homiletics professor Marvin McMickle writes: “What better way is there to view the ministry of churches in inner-city areas than as agents that both prolong life and help to avoid decay in communities where almost every other business and institution has abandoned the area?”
McMickle goes on to observe how in the wake of middle-class flight from cities, churches survive as some of the few institutions left in blighted communities, often next to barbershops, beauty salons, currency exchange centers, and liquor stores. “Almost everything that inner city residents need in order to have a meaningful life is located outside of their community,” he continues, “ranging from medical care to adequate shopping facilities to employment beyond minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
But, for the most part, the church remains.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis the African American church is often the only legacy institution that has not uprooted itself from the inner city. While the quality of life for many of the parishioners has increased — allowing them to relocate to suburban areas — the church has not relocated. I believe many African Americans continue to attend churches in our cities for that reason. The church has always been there as a part of the community, and it is viewed as an entity that will remain. It is a prototype of the nature of Christ in the community; its presence will remain steadfast and unmovable.
As we have changed and grown, so have our churches. The emergence of the African American middle class brought with it the emergence of the African American megachurch. Chicago, for instance, is home to several megachurches located in predominately African American urban neighborhoods. Congregations like Rev. James Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which boasts some 15,000 members, sits in the heart of the Roseland community (largely African American and partially Latino). The Apostolic Church of God, pastored by Dr. Byron Brazier, and the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, are both situated on the Southside and are predominantly African American.
Many scholars committed to the study of church growth and trends would argue that the birth of the American megachurch came as the result of suburban sprawl, social disconnectedness, and a rejection of traditional Protestant denominations and church models. However, I would argue that in the African American community the expansion of the middle-class and its members’ ability to participate as valuable consumers in society (meaning that we could now shop at the megamalls) also gave Black people the resources to support and become a part of larger church ministries.
We continue to attend church because it has managed to adapt to a changing culture, becoming more contemporary in its worship and diverse in its membership to reflect the surrounding society. But we also attend church to be rescued emotionally and spiritually from that very same society.
Jesus Is the Answer
Any number of sociological arguments about the church’s role in society can be made. Certainly the economic incline of the parishioners and the rise of mega-entities have caused the church to change, and we can relate to the fluctuation. But because these arguments are easily debated, they do not carry as much weight as this argument: We attend church because of our love for Jesus Christ.
Countless scholars have harvested mounds of information regarding church membership, trends in church growth, and the theology of churchgoers, but none can easily refute the idea that many Christians simply love the Lord and desire to experience His Spirit in the presence of other faithful and desirous believers.
Church represents the one place in society where we can worship and praise God in our own way and with few inhibitions. While we might acknowledge the role of our families in our relationship with God, and might identify with the consistent and conversely changing roles of the church, it is beyond debate that Jesus is the number one reason that Christians continue to gather on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to demonstrate our need for spiritual renewal and our commitment to God’s Word as the guidebook for our daily lives.
This article originally appeared in Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary.
As it turns out, do-it-yourself is not just for Home Depot or Lowe’s aficionados. Jana Riess, author of the new book Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, which was released by Paraclete Press last month, attempts to achieve sainthood in 12 easy months.
As Riess writes in the introduction to her book, “this project originated as a lighthearted effort to read spiritual classics while attempting a year of faith-related disciplines like fasting, Sabbath keeping, chanting and the Jesus Prayer.” Each month, Riess endeavored to read a new spiritual classic such as writings from the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers (some of the first hermits of the Christian tradition) while incorporating a spiritual discipline such as fasting. (She even reveals how to eat Girl Scout Cookies while losing weight! Read for the skinny!)
However, by year’s end, Riess was reminded why Jesus had to die on the cross: she failed at keeping even her own rules and regulations for the project. From reciting the 12-word Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — to keeping the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath (which included pre-shedding her toilet paper prior to her Sabbath observance), Riess concludes that sainthood is not a do-it-yourself project for the light of heart. Still, though she flunked sainthood, she gained valuable insights into herself that translated into her irreverent yet poignant book.
Riess, who blogs at Beliefnet.com and is the author or editor of nine other books, spoke to UrbanFaith about Flunking Sainthood.
URBAN FAITH: You mentioned that your year of DIY Holiness was your effort to “pop a little zing back” into your relationship with God or the “spiritual equivalent of greeting Jesus at the door wrapped in cellophane.” Did it do that for you?
JANA RIESS: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There were certain practices that were more resonant with me than others. For example, the Jesus Prayer definitely had that effect.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT? Jana Riess learned that the quest to become a mature Christian is more about the journey than the end result.
You write about how difficult it was for you to implement these new disciplines and read these Christian classics each month. Did you expect it to be that hard?
I think I was naïve going into the project. There were some practices that I expected to be difficult like fasting which is why I wanted to get that out of the way quickly, so I chose to fast in February, the shortest month of the year.
But there were other practices that I was expecting, frankly, to be much easier than they were … like gratitude. I was very surprised by how difficult it can be to sustain genuine gratitude. We talk a lot about being thankful and what that means, especially at this time of year with the holidays. With being thankful, one thing that I discovered is that it is difficult to sustain gratitude over the long term for things that are fleeting — even things like health. We’re always most grateful for our health when we’re just getting over an illness rather than if we have a long period where we’re feeling just great.
What was your favorite spiritual practice and why?
My favorite spiritual practice was the Jesus Prayer, and that’s the only one that I’m still doing every day, because its only 12 words long. It is something I’m able to incorporate into daily life very easily. It’s also not showy. Other people don’t even have to know if I’m saying the Jesus Prayer in my mind. Some of the practices that I tried were very obvious, like fasting or practicing financial generosity, because they involved other people. Because the Jesus Prayer has an emphasis on the fact that I’m a sinner, it reminded me that I’m not in the position to judge other people, which is something I need to be reminded of every day.
Although you earnestly attempt to implement these spiritual disciplines from month to month, your sense of humor makes it clear that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Do you think that Christians should inject humor into their spiritual lives, or is this just a part of your personality?
Both. I think that it’s essential for me to have humor in every aspect in my life. Humor is a wonderful way of helping us to not take ourselves too seriously and to deal with hard times. I think also many Christians could try to inject a little levity in their lives and in their relationships. We need more joy frankly, many of us.
There’s a wonderful book that just came out by Father James Martin. He’s the resident priest on The Colbert Report. He’s very funny. The book is called Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about humor and the Christian faith. One of the things that I took away from that book is that instead of trivializing deep religious faith, humor can actually enhance deep religious faith and make it stronger. He points out places in the Bible where humor is used intentionally and places in religious history where humor is important. It’s a good book.
Do you feel that many Christians are unaware of the spiritual classics, or even some of the spiritual practices that you mention in the book?
Yes, I think that’s true. It’s certainly true in my religious tradition. It is difficult to try to make some of these texts more relevant for today. Some of them may be off-putting. I mention in Chapter 3 that Brother Lawrence’s book rubbed me the wrong way in some instances, even though it was very spiritually enriching. Just the style of it is so different — the author referring to himself in the third person. It’s just a very different kind of book than what we would read today. So sometimes I think the spiritual classics get ignored simply because they are not written how we would write now.
Do you think that God requires that we implement all of these practices or read all of the spiritual classics?
No. And thank goodness! I think that are many different kinds of spiritual practices precisely because there are so many different kinds of people. And when we beat ourselves up for not being able to do all of them perfectly, we are not even honoring who we are in all of our diversity. Some people are more active. They are doers in the world. They are into social justice. Other people could think of nothing better than to sit for two hours a day in deep prayer. People are so different.
What advice do you have for other aspiring saints, other than reading your book?
Although I flunked sainthood and often felt that I was doing these practices far from perfectly, there was tremendous value in doing them. We don’t expect that we’re going to read a book about soccer and then suddenly be able to play it the very next day like Pelé. We practice if we’re in a sport or trying to learn to play an instrument, and the practice in itself is the journey rather than the destination. Not every athlete is going to make it into the Olympics, and not every Christian is going to be able to fit into contemplative prayer. But we learn from the doing.
Oldies but Goodies
If you’d like to follow Jana Riess’s lead and add some Christian classics to your reading list, here are a few that Jana recommends:
The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul by the 19th-century French saint Thérèse, a young nun known as “the Little Flower of Jesus,” sought to forget herself in quiet acts of love (translated by John Beevers).
Eternal Wisdom from the Desert: Writings from the Desert Fathers; 3rd-century monks and nuns drawn to live in the Egyptian desert; they were the first hermits of the Christian tradition and inspired the model for Christian monasticism. (edited by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.).
The Rule of Saint Benedict by Saint Benedict, the 6th-century Italian monk considered the father of Western monasticism; his “rule” were spiritual precepts distinguished by a unique spirit of balance, reasonableness, and moderation.
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French monk; known as “Lawrence of the Resurrection,” his primary message was focused on being aware of God’s presence in daily life.