Among my friends and family members are quite a few who never attend church. Their reasons are varied, but I’ve noticed a couple of themes. One is that church is irrelevant to their lives. A second theme is that it’s boring. Those accusations don’t lack for supporting evidence. Nearly everyone familiar with church has a horror story or two to share.
As for the irrelevance, that all depends on what you’re after in life. If this is all there is, well, you’ve got nothing to fear. But for those of us who think there might be answers to questions such as why are we are here and where are we going?—let’s just say some of us find church to be highly relevant.
For too many, however, it’s simply that church promised more than it delivered. It’s normal to walk away from something that purports to answer life’s big questions but then doesn’t.
When my cousin was young, he went to church. Week after tedious week, he endured the same routines, the same phrases, the same rituals. Guilt was a prime motivational tool. Repetition and rote passed for “worship.”
Naturally, my cousin didn’t find this worshipful at all. The hole in his soul couldn’t be filled with dead religion. Now he’s agnostic. (This cousin and I are close, by the way.)
It’s amazing how frequently the Bible discusses improper worship. Such misguided worship generally takes one of two forms: it either chooses the wrong gods, or it has the right God but is insincere.
Both kinds, I fear, are easy to find. When God was rescuing the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, he gave them precise rules about how he wanted to be worshiped. There were detailed directions for priestly duties and clothing, how to be “clean” in order to worship, who got barred from worship and why. God wanted to be worshiped at a specific place. Never under any circumstances were the people to worship any other gods. (They did anyway, repeatedly.)
We do too. The apostle Paul wrote of the human race, “They knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools.”1
Paul then made a statement in which we can recognize a current error: “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped the things God created instead of the Creator himself.”2 You don’t have to look far to find this kind of worship. We worship nature, or other people, or health, or a system of government—anything at all but the one true God.
The second kind of faulty worship, I fear, can appear quite “Christian.” It’s found in churches that cling to human traditions and trappings. It looks religious—and it is. But it’s of no value. The prophet Isaiah described such “worship” when he wrote to the people of Jerusalem, which happened to be where God’s temple was. In other words, where the real worship was supposed to take place. God said:
“These people say they are mine.
They honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
And their worship of me
is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.3
They had the right God. But their worship had become meaningless. Centuries later, a group of religious leaders would approach Jesus with a sanctimonious accusation. “Why do your disciples disobey our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat?”4
Jesus would have none of it. He fired back, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” Then he quoted the prophet Isaiah. Guess which passage.
These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas
as commands from God.5
This is the kind of hypocrisy I’m afraid my friends and family members have seen too much of. And it’s given them an excuse to avoid church.
The Jewish people of Jesus’s day made much of the fact that worship had to happen at a place—Jerusalem, to be precise. When Jesus had an intentional discussion with a woman from a despised people group, she brought this up. “Tell me, she said, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”6
Jesus gave a fascinating answer, one that deflated traditional ideas of worship and expanded it to all kinds of places and people. He said, “It doesn’t matter.”
Well, that’s not exactly what he said. This is what he said: “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem.”7 Say what? It doesn’t matter? What happened to all those meticulous Old Testament regulations about how to worship God?
Jesus elaborated on his startling statement. “The time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”8
In spirit. We can’t merely recite rote phrases and go through mind-numbing rituals. We’re meeting with the Creator! That should invoke an invigorating sense of awe in us.
And in truth. We won’t want to believe distortions about God, and we’ll want to love what he values. Jesus valued the law greatly, and told his disciples, “If you love me, obey my commandments.”9 Then he distilled them down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind;” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10.
Love for God and neighbor isn’t a religious box to check. It’s a call to a life of worship. If we love God with everything we’ve got and our neighbor as ourselves, the relevance of God will shine in us like the stars.