We’ve all been there. It’s early on a Sunday morning and the alarm buzzes, tearing you away from that awesome dream you were having, leaving you lying awake, still half asleep, staring at the ceiling.
And then the thoughts slowly start rolling in through the fog in your brain:
“I don’t really have to go to church today, do I? I mean, the pastor isn’t going to miss me.”
Or: “I’m too tired to get up. Besides, I’ve got an exam to study for. I have to be well rested for that and God wouldn’t want me to fall asleep while I cram. Right? Right.”
Or: “I can worship God anytime. I’ll read the Bible a little more this week and that should make up for it. Maybe I’ll even listen to some Christian music while I read. I’ll go to church next week. Definitely. Next week. Now to flip the pillow over to the cool side…”
Finally: “I’m never drinking again…”
So what’s going on here? Why do we choose to get up early on a weekend, dress up, put on a smile, and drive out to church? For this post, I want to get into the issue of why we go to church. What’s it all about?
Not long ago, I watched a video by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, abbot of the Orthodox Monastery All Saints of North America in British Columbia, Canada. The youtube broadcast in question, which you can watch here, addressed the issue of worship. What is true worship? Why do we need to go to church? Why do we need to worship alongside other people? Can’t we worship God just as well on our own? These are some of the questions that the archbishop addresses in his talk.
What’s interesting is, the answers to these questions depend on which Christian tradition you come from. In other words, each tradition has its own answer in regards to the definition of true worship and the need for church attendance.
As I listened to Archbishop Lazar speak, I couldn’t help but reflect on my old, Protestant background. It seemed so much easier to say that I don’t really need to go to church this week, that I can worship God on my own, when I was a Protestant. This is because, generally speaking, most Protestant traditions (especially the Southern Baptist tradition that I came from) are much more individualistic than the Orthodox tradition. I don’t mean to say that the individual has no place of importance for the Orthodox, but there is a much greater sense of the importance of the community – of the Body of Christ. There’s a sense that “we’re all in this together.” The Christian life, for the Orthodox tradition, is centered around the life of the Church – which is really the life of the Holy Spirit working in the Church. For the Southern Baptists, though, the Christian life is much more centered around the individual. For example, each individual is more or less free to interpret scripture however he or she deems fit. The Orthodox, on the other hand, must interpret scripture in light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church and the sacred tradition of the Church – the life of the Holy Spirit.
There are two main points that struck me as I reflected on this issue of why Christians go to church (or at least why we should). These are points taken from the Orthodox tradition that I think other traditions could richly benefit from.
First, in talking about why we Christians should go to church on Sunday, we should think about what genuine worship really is.
Orthodox are quick to point out that worship is not about having an emotional experience and it’s not even about “offering” God our adulation or praise or even our time and energy. God doesn’t need anything from us and we’ve nothing to give – everything already belongs to Him. What I’m getting at is a key point that atheists and agnostics typically make when they speak with Protestants. According to many evangelical Protestant traditions, it’s often said that the purpose of human life is to glorify God. But critics of Christianity are quick to point out that this means humanity is created by an egomaniac with infinite powers. “God created us so he’d have more beings to bow down at the cosmic Throne? Forget it, I don’t want anything to do with your divine, egomaniacal, puppet master. We’re lucky he’s just a figment of your imagination.”
And the atheists and agnostics have a point on that one – on more counts than they know. But that’s another topic entirely.
So if real worship isn’t emotionally connecting to God or offering our time and energy, then what is it? According to the Orthodox tradition, real worship occurs when we choose to open our hearts to receive the gifts that God has in store for us. Real worship is humbly realizing that we’ve nothing to offer and so we lay our hearts down before the divine Presence and receive the healing – the grace – that the Lord has for us.
Now, at this point, you may be asking, “So if worship if opening my heart to God, then why can’t I do that on my own time? Why do I have to drive out to a building and open my heart to God with other people?
That gets us to the second point and this is something that I think sets Orthodoxy apart from any other Christian tradition. As I said, real worship is humbly submitting oneself to God for healing.
But healing of what?
Our egocentrism and our alienation from God and others. According to the Orthodox understanding of the Fall in Genesis, human beings never fell into “total depravity” as some Christian traditions believe. Humanity did, however, fall into egocentrism or self-love and so the image and likeness of God was darkened in our nature. It was darkened, but not lost. We go to church to struggle against those marks of the Fall. We go to church for healing.
So every Sunday, Jesus Christ freely offers healing to us all. He does this first and foremost by offering the gifts of His divine Body and Blood in the Eucharist and also with the divine Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy and in the prayers and holy mysteries of the Church. And this healing is received not in isolation, but in communion with others. One must remember that isolation and alienation are marks of the Fall – we chose to alienate ourselves from God and from other people as well. As we saw in the story of Cain and Able, human beings forgot somewhere along the line that we are all brothers and sisters. We are a family. So true worship is done together – with the people of God. If we are isolated and alone because of the Fall, then we can’t receive healing in isolation. Indeed, part of the healing process (restoring the fullness of human nature that we were originally created with) is unity with others. Unity with other human beings helps take away the venom of the Fall.
In the Divine Liturgy, we are offered a chance to be restored to unity with God through the holy mysteries (especially in the Eucharist) and unity with others in coming together and growing in unselfish love towards one another.
This is the nature of true worship. In the end, it’s not for God at all. Quite the contrary – it’s for our own benefit. By engaging in true worship, we set aside the old, sinful nature and little by little, we become more like Jesus Christ – taking on His divine nature.