The experience of church

Commentary by W. Thomas Smith Jr.

CHURCH ATTENDANCE IS AN UNUSUALLY EMPOWERING ACTIVITY (please excuse the now-hackneyed word, “empowering”). I’m speaking not evangelistically, but as a matter of experience. It’s nothing short of wondrous: Dare I say it? Miraculous. This is not to suggest that every moment experienced inside the church building is some sort of spiritual euphoria. It is not. Or is it?

Granted, there is prayer and worship and fellowship and witnessing and healing and education and encouragement. But oftentimes there’s more work to be done than proverbial manna to be eaten.

Yes, the physical building needs attention as do the activities within and the missions beyond. But most important are the people.

With people there are all sorts of delicate problems requiring deft solutions. Sometimes there is the work of helping another in his or her struggles – from grief to angst to discouragement – or in some way crying out to another in our own. Some of the struggles are deep and seemingly without hope. People are bruised, broken, and afraid. People get angry. Feelings get hurt. Petty jealousies abound. Corrupting pride is ever-present. Relationships and human interactions can become convoluted. There are people who wrong us, disappoint us, betray, ignore, dismiss, or otherwise let us down. And we will invariably do the same to others. Why? Because the church is “people.”

But there’s an otherworldly dynamic that transcends all of it: Though you probably won’t experience it if you only attend church once or twice a year, or even five Sundays in a row. Church attendance has to be a regular weekly or biweekly venture for months or years before you begin to fully recognize this otherworldly dynamic. That’s not to say God won’t delight you with an exception. It’s amazing what He does and how He works.

The church is filled with miracles and blessings, inexplicable long-term love, real healing, substantive hope, promise, and a unique strain of binding respect, forgiveness, and affection (yes, a shared familial love) that wraps around all the people in the church.

When two people argue in the church – as they will also in the extra-church secular world – there is the enigmatic presence of God. That presence frankly, unusually, tempers the argument. You may think the argument or relational rift is bad at church; but imagine for a moment the potential coldness and cruelty of it in the secular workplace.

There are also the constant relational blessings, big and small: An unexpected hug, a touch on the shoulder, a handshake or a fistbump, maybe a wave from across the room, a smile, a sincere compliment, a funny story, a shared picture of a grandbaby, perhaps something profoundly inspirational or what we believers refer to as “a God thing.” You may think these things don’t matter, but they heal wounded souls. And when you are blessed by them week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year, something extraordinary begins to happen.

In the world (at work, on the road, at the airport, in the grocery store, in the daily grind) you are exposed and vulnerable.

In the church, you are safe, even if you don’t always feel like you’re safe, which is one of the reasons I believe ‘the enemy’ tries everything in his power to keep us from darkening the doors of the church.

The enemy doesn’t want you to know any of this. He wants you to not-be greeted if you walk through the door. He wants you to perhaps see someone from the world you’re not fond of. He wants you to experience a cold unfriendly chill, feel like an awkward outsider, and walk away from church altogether.

The enemy will throw other unhappy variables into the mix, giving you every possible excuse not to get up on Sunday morning, the only day you have to sleep, when you forgot to pick up your clothes from the dry cleaners, your elbow hurts, you’re stressed about work, the kids are fighting, it’s raining, and the dog’s sick.

Never give in to his crafty efforts to deprive you of the joy with which you will never know, much less imagine, without the experience of church.

Get up and go to church. And keep going even when you don’t feel like it.

I am reminded of this every single Sunday morning as I drive away after a few hours spent at church – including worship service, Sunday School, and fellowship with believers – and there in my car I suddenly feel this uncanny sense of elation welling up in me. Something unusual has just happened. I can’t really describe it. But I always recognize it in the almost immediate, stark contrast between the spiritually regenerating experience of ‘church’ and my driving back into the temporal, concrete-hardness of the world.

– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a New York Times bestselling editor and military technical advisor. Visit him online at uswriter.com.

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