I am a pastor. Church is my job. If everyone stopped going to church, I would lose my job. Sometimes I get angry about the fact that my job performance is measured by whether or not other people show up. My higher-ups look at the numbers that represent a complex amalgam of other peoples’ fickle choices to decide whether I get to keep my job. For four years, I led a struggling contemporary worship service in a suburban church. Now, I lead an even tinier college ministry. The pressure never lets up. That’s why I need to go to church even though I work in a church. I need to be ministered to and blessed by someone other than myself.
I preached this past weekend on the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25. The premise is that they’re waiting for a bridegroom with lamps to light the way and welcome him to the wedding feast. Five of them bring extra oil for the lamps; five of them don’t. The bridegroom is late, and the ones without extra oil run out, so they miss out on the wedding feast. The moral of the story is that we have to keep our own lamps full if we want to do God’s work. We can’t just give and give and give. We need to take the time weekly and even daily to receive the oil that we need to keep our lamps going.
Filling our lamps with oil is what “going to church” is all about. Yes, it’s about worshiping God, but worshiping God is not what many people say that it is. Worship is not saying a bunch of flattering and righteous things about God so that we get a gold sticker. The evangelical tribe that I come from tends to portray worship as a completely unselfish, sacrificial act in which we honor God because it’s the right thing to do and not because we get any spiritual nourishment from it. I say that’s not worship; that’s a performance.Genuine worship happens when we are actually able to delight in the presence of God rather than our own piety. There is no greater joy than intimacy with God. It’s something that people all over the world accidentally experience when they encounter beauty and love that melts their hearts. When we come together as a Christian church, our goal is to intentionally create the space in which we can delight in the beauty and love of God’s presence together.
This communion with God is stifled in churches where too many egos and congregational politics have gotten in the way of delighting in God. When worship is a performance of competitive piety, it’s no longer worship.
I can’t really worship in big and loud churches. Perhaps it’s because my mind fills with cynical speculation about whether people there are actually enjoying God’s presence or the triumphalism of being part of something obscenely successful. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and I prefer places and practices that are quiet and simple. I worship best in small, dying churches that are weak and desperate enough for the presence of God to be palpable.
Every week on Mondays and Friday, I fast all day, and I go to the noon communion service at a local Episcopal church. There have never been more than seven people at one of these services. Usually it’s just me and the priest. We say the same thing every time we do it. The priest’s five minute homily is never earth-shattering. But the time in that space fills my lamp, especially in the moments after I’ve received communion when I savor the aftertaste of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in my mouth. After the communion service which is held in a smaller side chapel, I go into the massive empty sanctuary and spend about an hour with God, pouring my heart out and begging him to move in the hearts of the students in my ministry. Without this sacred time as part of my weekly rhythm, I would not be able to function.
I don’t go to church because I should; I go because I must.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.
Rev. Morgan Guyton is the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA. He writes at his Patheos blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice. His wife Cheryl, is a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church as well. Both Morgan and Cheryl attended Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC, where they met. Cheryl has served as a hospital chaplain in the past, but is currently taking some time off to stay home with their two boys Matthew (8) and Isaiah (5).
All of the views expressed on this blog are Rev. Guyton’s personal opinion and should not be construed as representative of the NOLA Wesley Foundation or any other Methodist body.
Header image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, used under creative commons license.
Pastor image courtesy Clip Art Panda, used under creative commons license.
Lamp image in-text courtesy Pixabay, used under creative commons license.