I’m postponing J.K. Rowling and the transgender movement again. But I’ll get there.
People say going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. It’s true of course. But it’s also true there is no living faith apart from the weekly cadence of corporate worship (circumstances permitting). If ever there lived a rebel who had no fear of burning down mere religious tradition, no fear of offending sanctimonious hypocrites, no problem destroying cherished but derelict institutions, it was Jesus. And Jesus was in worship every week. In Greek, Luke 4:16 says it was the “custom of him” meaning “of his own doing,” not something imposed on him by his parents or society. Jesus went to synagogue, and it was intentional.
This helps explain (though not entirely) why Christians continued to worship under the Romans at the risk of their lives. Here is a PDF of correspondence between the emperor Trajan and the Roman governor of Bythinia, Pliny. It’s the best early picture of the price Christians paid to gather. And more to the point, it’s a measure of the importance of corporate worship to people who had no room in their lives for false gestures.
I’m saying all this because Covid-19 will probably mark the end of corporate worship for some people. For them, worship had most likely shrunk to a mere household habit. When the Covid restrictions came down the habit was ended, at first for a time, then permanently. Perhaps they will tell themselves they have transcended the mindless church-going masses to arrive at a more vital spiritual state. It’s more likely they left the true spirituality of Jesus a long time ago, and now the hollow habits are dying as well.
Recently I spent time with someone similar to what I’m describing above — by his own description spiritual but not religious. Neither has he been careful morally. Yet he is no hypocrite. He knows (to an extent) who Jesus is, and he knows who he is himself. We sat by a fire and had a few hours of remarkably unflattering conversation during which he faced and spoke the truth with a humbling integrity. I suspect people like him are much closer to God than people who are in church every week but have no real idea what they’re doing there. When the Holy Spirit speaks to those people, He must shout through layers and layers of hypocrisy. For my friend, my prayer is the Holy Spirit will whisper to him a truth to which his heart is already open. I would appreciate it if you would say a prayer for him.
So, this is confusing. I started off arguing for the importance of weekly corporate worship, and I’m ending by criticizing people who are in weekly corporate worship. But you probably get it: what I’m really arguing for is joining our practice of worship to a self-aware integrity, that we would be as honest as my friend, and as regular in worship as Jesus. Across the country, churches are opening. Pray that this virus would give us a new beginning in worship, that we would come in honesty, humility, and integrity to worship the God whose lovingkindness is better than life (hence the risks taken by the Early Church), and whose worthiness is our purpose. Permit me say that again: his worthiness is our purpose. Don’t come back out of habit; come intentionally, in full knowledge of who you truly are, to worship God for who he truly is. He is not shocked by your sin. He came to proclaim forgiveness and to forgive. Be he has no patience with lukewarmness (Rev 3:16). Worship him in spirit and in truth.
A favorite quote from James Stalker in Imago Christi, Ch. 4.I
One sometimes hears even professedly religious people at the present day disparaging public worship, as if religion might flourish equally well without it; and, for trifling reasons or for no reason at all, they take it upon themselves to withdraw from the visible Church as something unworthy of them. This was not the way in which Jesus acted. The Church of his day was by no means a pure one; and he, if anybody, might have deemed it unworthy of him. But he regularly waited on its ordinances and ardently loved it. There are few congregations less ideal perhaps than that in which he worshipped in wicked Nazareth, and few sermons are less perfect than those he listened to. But in that little synagogue he felt himself made one with all the piety of the land; as the Scripture was read, the great and good of former ages thronged about him; nay, heaven itself was in that narrow place.