One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son up and said it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, “I’m not going.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said.
“Firstly, they don’t like me, and secondly I don’t like them.”
His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why you should go to church: One, you’re 49 years old, and two, you’re the pastor!”
You must have heard or read this joke before. Whether it is real or not, I am sure we have had moments when we didn’t feel like waking up on a Sunday morning to go to church. For many people, it was already very challenging to go to church. And then the pandemic came and gave an impetus to our many excuses and challenges.
Many churches stopped meeting in person as a result of the pandemic. Our services went online and we connected only through technology. In many parts of the world, the doors to the churches have been shut and yet to reopen. Recently I spoke with a friend in Texas and was told that some churches were closing their doors for good because the people would not return even after restrictions were lifted. They must have their reasons.
When our live service resumed on 12 July, I vividly remember being in tears because the service felt different. For a start, we couldn’t sing and we had to change everything from rehearsal, to recording many aspects of worship. As someone who oversees the worship ministry, it hit me really hard. But that was not the only thing. Everything else felt strange. Our senses were heightened as we gathered, and we had to follow protocols and restrictions which were inconvenient and really frustrating. Gone are the days when one could just walk into the church and sit wherever there was an empty pew. Now we need to book tickets, show up on time, our gadgets must be working to scan the tickets, sit in the allocated zones and leave the premises as quickly as possible. Furthermore, if you have booked tickets and didn’t show up, you might get a message or a call from one of the pastors. And for some, even with all the safe distancing measures put in place, they may not be able to return because of their health.
It is no wonder then that some believers will be tempted not to come back to church at all. As someone puts it “If our restored gatherings are so different and restricted, our online options so available and convenient, and our physical presence a genuine vulnerability, why should we even meet in person?” As I was reflecting on these words, the words of the psalmist in Psalm 122 came to mind.
A song of ascents. Of David. (NIV)
1 I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
2 Our feet are standing
in your gates, Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.
4 That is where the tribes go up—
the tribes of the Lord—
to praise the name of the Lord
according to the statute given to Israel.
5 There stand the thrones for judgment,
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
8 For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.
The pilgrims approaching Jerusalem to attend the annual festivals were rejoicing! They loved the city and prayed that it would flourish. As the pilgrims started their journey toward the holy city, they acknowledged the hardship and dangers involved in such a journey. Psalm 121 speaks of the importance of God’s help for the journey. Throughout history, believers have gone through and endured many kinds of hardships whether it be exile, persecution, war, holocaust, pandemic or natural disasters. None of these had deterred the faithful from worshiping the Lord, our God.
As we come to faith in Christ, we become citizens in the heavenly Jerusalem. Thus, what Jerusalem was to the ancient Jews, the church is to us believers today. As they arrive and stand at the city gates of Jerusalem, they rejoice looking at the city that stands in contrast to the places they have come from. The church is built by God. The second verse of the song by the Gettys “By Faith” captures this:
By faith our fathers roamed the earth
With the power of His promise in their hearts
Of a holy city built by God’s own hand
A place where peace and justice reign
Similarly, the church stands in stark contrast to all that is happening around the world. The church’s manifestation is the counterculture – where believers live according to the “statute given to Israel” and not according to the ways of the world. The pilgrims could have simply stayed home because the journey would be costly, inconvenient and time consuming. Yet the invitation to come to the Lord’s house thrilled them and they took the journey.
The purpose of their journey is to praise the name of the Lord (4b) for the bountiful harvest the Lord has given them. They pray for peace (Shalom) of Jerusalem. One commentator wrote that Shalom (peace) was more than the absence of armed conflict but that it implies a centeredness that would buffer a person from the difficulties of life. It included the ideas of health and well-being. As believers, we have 10,000 reasons to give thanks to the Lord and not just merely sing about it.
The idea of gathering to worship is not man-made. It is an ordinance; a statute given to God’s people to gather and tell of His mighty acts. Our worship service is not merely about singing songs and listening to sermons. Our four-fold order of worship reenacts God’s redemptive plan.
We gather to worship together at the invitation of the Lord. The songs we sing remind us of what God has done and is doing. Just because we cannot sing out loud does not change this. There are many people who are unable to sing and yet they are able to sing from their hearts to the Lord. We gather to hear God’s word read and spoken to us. We hear and feel because we are not mere pixels on the screen. We are embodied creatures, created in the image of God. As believers, God’s spirit is with us and moves among us. We witness Baptisms and partake in the Holy Communion which are signs and means of God’s grace to us. We can see, touch, remember, taste and do it in remembrance of what God has done. We pray and respond to God’s word. As we leave, we go out to fulfill what God wants us to do as His chosen and beloved people.
Sunday service is much more than just singing. Our very act of preparing the night before, all the preparations on the day – waking up early, getting dressed, getting the children ready, getting to church on time, sitting with others, waiting, listening, meditating, praying, partaking, witnessing, greeting one another, our smiles behind the masks, our very presence in the church as part of the body of Christ is our act of worship to the Lord. We do all these in obedience to the Lord’s ordinances. As part of God’s body, we have a job to do. The work of the ministry is not just for pastors and leaders. Every believer has a spiritual gift that the church needs.
Our very act of gathering to worship as the body of Christ is a strong witness to the world. Every Sunday as we leave our homes to worship God, others are watching what we do. Week in and week out, our friends and neighbours go through the broken world without hope and purpose. David Gunderson writes, “the unbelieving world also needs to see the gospel’s transforming power embodied in a local family of Christians who love God and serve each other in the most gracious and gritty ways.” We may not be able to preach or say much but our very act of going to church is a witness to those who are yet to know the Lord. I pray that the Shalom of God will truly be visible in our lives so that others may come to know Christ too.
During this time, going to church may be inconvenient, time consuming and costly. But I pray that like the pilgrims, we will rejoice and go to the house of the Lord because He invites us to experience the Shalom that comes to those who love Him and do His will.
Pr Loliro Sani
January 17, 2021