(RNS) — Every fall, our family returns to church. We don’t intentionally walk away during the summer months, but between vacations and camp drop-offs and lazy mornings and opportunities to see family and friends, we tend to tie our church attendance to the school calendar.
Come September, we have to remind ourselves why it’s worth it to nudge our teenagers out of bed on a day when they could sleep in. Why get dressed and head out the door to listen to a choir and hear some prayers and sit through a sermon when we could be hiking in the woods?
We keep going to church for all sorts of reasons. There’s the community. We love the intergenerational relationships that don’t come anywhere else. Eating chicken salad and grapes around plastic tables in the basement gives me a sense of connection to all sorts of people I wouldn’t know otherwise. I want our congregation to pray for us when we are in crisis. I want to have a reason to serve at our local soup kitchen. I look forward to seeing whatever child dons the star costume in the annual Christmas pageant.
There’s also the spirituality. I want our kids to be immersed in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. I want to step away from the to-do list of my life and enter a literal sanctuary at least one time each week. I want access to the things that psychologists say bring healing to our bodies, minds and souls — singing together, caring for one another, receiving forgiveness.
Our kids have birthday parties and soccer games on Sundays. And I would love to get some sleep and take a nice long run or read the paper or drink a cup of tea without any rush. I understand why people walk away when they encounter abuse or hypocrisy within the church. I resonate with Perry Bacon’s recent essay where he writes about his discomfort with the social conservatism he found in some churches. I understand why people would wonder if there is a place for their doubt and disbelief amidst creeds and prayers and praise songs. I understand why we might substitute church with community service and support for social justice.
Sometimes church is boring. Sometimes it feels superficial. Sometimes it seems irrelevant. But every September, when we walk back in those doors, I remember why we are there.
I don’t return because it makes me a better person. I don’t return because I always believe. I return to church every September because church reminds us of who we are in relation to Jesus.
Christianity rests upon God coming to us in the person of Jesus, to let us know that we are loved and cared for and healed and saved and invited to participate in all the goodness and beauty and grace and joy and love and peace of who God is. Forever. In and through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
Theoretically, that connection to Jesus could happen in the comfort of my own home or with access to a sermon podcast or a livestreamed service. Except Jesus said we find him where two or three of us are gathered together (Mt. 18:20). He said he is present in and among the people I am least likely to encounter in my everyday life (Mt. 25:34-36), and I often encounter those people at church.
At church, I am both taught about Jesus and given an opportunity to live as he lived: to slow down and listen to people who are oppressed; to upend social structures; to reject power and position; to move toward the ones in need without judgment; even, sometimes, to love my enemies.
The intergenerational community and spirituality I find at church is intimately connected to an encounter with Jesus himself. I encounter Jesus in the woman with an intellectual disability who is reading Ezekiel and teaches me about glory. I glimpse the risen Christ in the couple who have been fighting lately and who take the bread and the wine with shoulders slumped in grief. I remember the one who rules this upside-down kingdom of God when a child interrupts the sermon from the back pew and when an elderly widow has a panic attack and needs us to gather around her to pray. The Apostle Paul wrote that Christians are the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), in which each individual member plays a crucial and connected part. We encounter Jesus more fully when we gather together.
It is well-documented that thousands upon thousands of Americans are leaving church. I suspect the reason has to do with some combination of busyness and disbelief and hypocrisy and politics. But I also wonder whether those of us who are entrusted with the life of Jesus have forgotten or neglected to carry him with us when we walk out the doors of the sanctuary. Alan Kreider writes about what he calls the “Patient Ferment of the Early Church.” He explains that the early Christians didn’t try to tell people about their beliefs. But they did live those beliefs through hospitality, generosity, miraculous healings and sacrificial love. Those early Christians went to church because of Jesus. And then they lived out the life of Jesus in and among their neighbors. Their patient love changed the world.
At the end of the day, I go to church because it is only there that I publicly remember, reenact and celebrate the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the one who showed us what it is like for God to be alive. For God to be one of us. Every Sunday morning, I am invited yet again into the life that is really life. And then I am sent back out in love as one small but significant member of the Body of Christ.
(Amy Julia Becker is the author of four books including her most recent, “To Be Made Well: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope.” She hosts the “Love Is Stronger than Fear” podcast. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)