If truth is the compass for Christians, love is the whole forest we’re moving through. The New Testament is filled with commands to live lives of love. We are told in 1 John that God is love. John 3:16 tells us that God loves us so much he came as a man to rescue us. Paul makes it clear that if we don’t have love, nothing else matters (1Cor.13.)
So here is where going to church comes in. Love is generally written as a verb, something we’re supposed to do. I can’t learn to love people unless I hang out with them on a regular basis. In many of our other arenas of life, we’re with people we’ve chosen, or have something in common with, or at least people we’re paid to tolerate. But anyone can show up at church, so it’s a real training ground for love.
Worshiping with a bunch of people I may not otherwise choose to be with is a marvelous antidote to my persistent selfishness. Little by little, week by week, my heart enlarges to take them all in. When I began going to church at sixteen, I was looking for people to help me and teach me. In my twenties, I was mostly checking out men. For years, it was about me. But when you stick with it year after year, you eventually find yourself falling in love with old ladies, children, mentally ill people, people whose speech you hardly understand, people with dreadful political opinions, people who dress weird.
This weekly showing-up keeps love from being theoretical. It does no one any good if I lament child poverty rates in my city, but stay put in my recliner. I have to go find a kid in poverty and start giving him what he needs. Where do I meet kids in poverty? I see them every week at church. It’s harder to stay distant from childhood poverty when you see its beautiful faces every week.
It can be argued that you don’t have to go to church to find social diversity or be in community. True, but when you worship with people, when you’re all gathering to make God the main thing, you are more powerfully and equally connected. Before God, there is a common ground where everyone belongs and is safe. We meet at the cross, and one good look at it strips us of all our pretending and posturing.
Each Sunday I’m not in church, I’m not hearing about births, deaths and illnesses. So I don’t get a chance to pray for those people. I don’t get to look into people’s eyes, so I’m not sure how they’re doing. I don’t know that a teenager I’ve been teaching is in despair, or that a lady who had back surgery last month is still in a lot of pain and could use a meal. My voice is absent from the songs of praise going up to heaven, my body is not there for the holding of babies or the words of welcome to someone new. Plus, I miss the chance to build a little spiritual muscle by straining against my own will to get out of bed and do these things. Will God still love me if I bag church? Of course, but I’ll miss an opportunity to love God, others and myself.
Jesus sums up the whole law by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37,39.) Going to church is a great beginning.
(Next in this series, “A Weekly Dose of Beauty.”)