OPINION: When church is the real thing

Hands down my favorite question to ask people in casual conversation is: Why do you go to church? I often wonder what compels people -- what compels me -- to offer so much of my life to the work of the institutional church. It is, after all, an institution that occasionally has a few problems.

Hands down my favorite question to ask people in casual conversation is: Why do you go to church? I often wonder what compels people -- what compels me -- to offer so much of my life to the work of the institutional church. It is, after all, an institution that occasionally has a few problems.

Amy Butler
I hear story after story from Calvary’s older members about how, when they first moved to town years and years ago, one of the first things on their to-do list was finding a church. And the way you found your church back then was that you went to the Baptist church closest to where you lived. And you were there that very first Sunday you were in town (and every Sunday following, barring life-threatening illness or natural disaster).

That’s not the usual story I hear these days, though. In Washington, church attendance is no longer culturally expected like it was 50 years ago. In other words, you can sit at home in your pajamas and read The New York Times on Sunday mornings and still be a good, kind, lovely person. I have met many people who do and who are, in fact. And without the cultural expectation of church attendance, there has to be some compelling reason for people who work hard at their jobs all week to spend their Sundays at church.

Many experts on the subject offer answers, but I’ve found that those answers are often less spiritual and more commercial. It’s the music, some argue. Others insist that a coffee bar and stadium seating will pack the house. Dynamic programs for children are always sure to attract harried parents looking for a break. And don’t forget the preaching -- all you have to do is find a pastor who can preach a sermon that thrills, inspires, and entertains every single Sunday!

I find all of these reasons to be rather fleeting, however -- temporary band-aid fixes to what are really deeper questions: What touches people’s hearts and moves their souls? How do people encounter God in deep and meaningful ways? Answer these and I suspect you’ll know why people seek out faith communities in which to invest their lives.

I thought about all these questions a few weeks ago when I was on a family vacation in Paris. We visited Sainte-Chappelle, a beautiful church built in the 1200s and filled with the most amazing stained-glass windows I have ever seen in person. Standing in the middle of what was once the sanctuary and looking up as the light streamed through the windows was almost enough to take my breath away.

I wandered around looking until I got to the front, where an entire section of the windows was completely blocked off with scaffolding and tarps. On an easel on the floor right in front of the scaffolding was a large poster-sized color photograph of what the under-repair windows looked like.

Then I noticed a tourist standing right in front of the poster, taking a picture … of the poster.

He was taking a picture of a picture so he could go home and show his friends something he didn’t see.

Later, the memory of watching that tourist acquire a souvenir so removed from the actual windows themselves made me think of why I go to church. See, there’s lots of superficial, individual life to be lived out there. Sure you can be a good person and not attend church, but my life in my community of faith makes me more real. It forces me to engage with other people, some of whom I might not take the time to engage with otherwise. It invites me to ask questions, even if they are hard questions with no answers. It asks me to care more about giving and investing than I do about my own comfort and preferences. It means I am not on the outside taking a picture of a picture of what it might mean to follow Jesus as my life and the lives of those around me are transformed by God’s grace.

How do you package and market something like that? I don’t think we can really explain it using the language of our consumer culture. Instead, the truly compelling nature of individual lives following Jesus in community may just be that they give us a glimpse of God’s loved-filled intentions for our world, an experience that is real and tangible. With the gift of faith community I will always be able to say: I saw that. We saw it and we lived it together -- the real, live adventure of following Jesus.

We saw the real thing up close, and sometimes it’s so beautiful it can almost take your breath away.

Amy Butler is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. This column is distributed by Associated Baptist Press.