Many people do not regularly attend church. Some are physically unable to attend, others work on Sunday mornings, and others simply do not bother to make the attempt. Many people are referred to as nominal Christians, their names remaining on church membership lists for years, yet having no real relationship with the church at all. Others are sometimes called C and E Christians, attending worship services only on Christmas and Easter. Today, The Rev. Dr. John C. Whatley, III, senior pastor of the Community Church of the Midlands, shares his feelings on the importance of regular attendance and being an active member of a church family. We extend profound thanks to Dr. Whatley for his insightful thoughts on this important part of the Christian life. Due to the length of Dr. Whatley’s message, Part I will appear today and Part II on Wednesday, September 30.
Thanks to my congregation and to numerous others from my previous churches, as well as a number of my former students, I rarely have to wonder what issue I will address in our monthly newsletters. The most recent question I’ve received from my friends who have inquiring minds admittedly is not a profound one, but it does have profound implications. It also deals with a concern that deserves the thoughtful consideration of every spiritually sensitive individual. It’s this: What should be our attitude toward people who don’t take church and regular worship seriously? After all, many of them are genuinely good people.
I have been deeply impressed by a statement in the gospels that says that Jesus himself took worship and participation in a spiritual community so seriously that it was his custom always to take his place in such a community every Sabbath. What impresses me most about that is not just his regular presence there, but the fact that, unlike some folks, he seems not to have had a need to manufacture excuses not to be there. The telling statement that it was his custom to worship faithfully implies that he wanted to be there! No one was pressuring him! And even more amazing to me is the fact that someone as spiritually mature and ethically advanced as he would think it important to be there, especially since he seemed already to be so highly evolved. Apparently he felt that what he had achieved needed regularly to be nourished and sustained, perhaps even further deepened within of a meaningful community.
Years ago in a seminary classroom, I learned the meaning of the term ‘worship.’ Originally, I was told, the word was pronounced ‘worthship,’ which, of course, means to declare the worth or value of something. In light of Jesus’ reported statement that his coming and the purpose of his ministry was to experience life in all its fullness by not neglecting the spiritual dimension, then to keep that reality central in our consciousness through regular worship would seen certainly to make sense. Without consistent nurturing, it is easy to lose awareness of that which is most important for our well-being and to neglect it. That is true for many good people.
For example, I once dated a girl who had a small mole-like mark that appeared on her back. Because some of my psychotherapeutic training took place in a medical school and at several major medical centers, I had been exposed to a great deal of medical information that I otherwise would not have encountered. The place on my girlfriend’s back looked particularly problematic to me, so I urged her to see a dermatologist to have it evaluated. However, she continually appeared to have other things to do that seemed more important to her, so she put off seeing a specialist. I continued to urge her to take care of her physical health by checking things out, but to no avail. To make a long story shorter, that dear lady, a truly wonderful person, died much too early of a malignant melanoma.
Just as some people neglect their physical health, many others neglect their spiritual health. My friend did not want to die. She simply neglected something important and, at the time, unknowingly hurt herself. Many people today do not realize that by neglecting the spiritual dimension of life, they also could be hurting themselves unintentionally. I have seen that happen to numerous really good people whose lives and relationships could have been more meaningful, more abundant and infinitely more fulfilling. I also have seen people who consciously, consistently opened themselves to a spiritual reality that seemed somehow to lift them to a higher level. They began actually to think, speak, act and relate differently! Life itself became more qualitative, It is amazing how that seems repeatedly to happen when people take the spiritual dimension seriously and sustain it.
But let me be honest. The positive effects I described above do not take place for the majority of people who are part of a spiritual community, usually for two reasons. The first cause for the lack of a positive result may be a problem with the motivation of the person him or herself: He or she could be involved in a spiritual community for the wrong reason. The second cause may be the inadequacy of the spiritual community itself. Sometimes it is a combination of both. Although what I have written thus far can apply to any spiritual community, my emphasis from this point on will focus particularly on the average Christian fellowship.
If lack of a positive benefit is the result of inadequate motivation for being involved in a spiritual community, that could take a number of different forms. Let’s look at a few examples. Probably the most common inadequate motivation for going to church is (1) to find new people with whom to socialize, other stimulating people with whom they feel they have something in common and can share activities apart from the church during the week. (2) Others go to church only to have their ideas, viewpoints, and preformed political, social or religious perspectives confirmed, rather than to reexamine their views in light of the teachings of Jesus. (3) There are huge numbers of people who do not understand that a more fulfilling life does not take place just by going to church. It can take place only when one allows the church experience to bring about transformation, constructive change in one’s life and relationships. Jesus describes this as the ‘narrow way,’ and he observed that few people experience it. I think he was very much on target about that.
There are perhaps ten or twelve other forms of inadequate motivation for participation in a spiritual community. All of them tend to preempt one’s progress spiritually and they rarely produce a maximally fulfilling life. On the other hand, the motivation, attitude and focus of a person could be quite adequate, yet the individual will miss the profound joy of a more fulfilling life because the problem is not the person, but a woefully inadequate spiritual community!