When Justina Walford moved to New York City nine years ago…she’d left behind her Church, her God, and her old city, Los Angeles. Then a secular congregation called Sunday Assembly filled the spiritual void—at least for a time….‘They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, it Worked’, Faith Hill, The Atlantic, July 21, 2019.
I have watched a church-without-God movement called Sunday Assembly for a few years now. I wondered – what would it show us something about what wedo every week? Would it be a Christ-less shadow-mirror to our own Christ-centred gatherings?
Faith Hill went for a look. She writes, “Even as the growth of “no religions” has revved up in the intervening years, the growth of secular congregations hasn’t….Building a durable community of nonbelievers, it turns out, is more complicated than just excising God….One thing has become clear: the yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home.”
What brings me to church - again and again? It’s true, I have a deep need for belonging. When I felt most lonely in life, I found myself sitting over long late-night beers with…Christians! I went home each night both sober and loved. Both were amazing graces to me. I quickly came to Christ. I knew a new belonging. And I hadn’t even joined a church yet. Did it give me more belonging? Did it bring me ‘home’?
No. I found church strange for a long time. I didn’t like it much, but stuck at it. I couldn’t escape the fact that Jesus expected to be among ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (Matt 12:46-50). I loved hearing his voice there, though sometimes I fought sleep while listening to it. The two or three with me at the pub seemed even more committed to this gathering with others called ‘church’. (btw, the word ‘church’ actually means‘gathering’)
I came to love it. But it’s complicated. Over the years I have various senses of ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ in several churches. But the truth is, I have complex feelings of not belonging too, and of great dissatisfaction, and of wanting to be at home with something much greater. Even in the happiest of church times I know we were made for a better this.
I turn to the scriptures to set my church expectations.
Hebrews 10:25 says ‘let us not give up meeting together - as some are in the habit of doing - but encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’
That ‘Day’ is the day of Christ’s coming. I see that I am not yet home. I’m still wandering around in relative dark. It feels like it. That explains a lot. I am not yet home. I think I rightly expect some comfort. But I am not yet home. This tempers my expectation with a little realism.
I also notice a word sits where I would place the word ‘belonging’. It is the word ‘encouraging’. It doesn’t say let us not stop meeting but belong together. It says let us not stop meeting and encourage one another. Encouragement is the heart of church - a less selfish end than belonging. It’s you-centred, not me-centred. I might not belong but still be encouraging, even.
Beware the Christless church. The Christless church folk of Sunday Assembly sought a home for themselves and belonging. They came up short quick. I need not make that my aim. It might happen accidentally, and that would be nice. But I am here to put courage in others to live life in light of the fact that we are not yet at home with Christ. My ‘belonging’ is shaped by belonging in oder to ‘encourage’.
Church is not everything to me, but it is one of God’s amazing graces to me as I muddle through life. You are one of God’s amazing graces to me. Put courage in me for the greater hope. Don’t let me settle for a belonging church which is my resting home. Rather, let me live up to an encouraging church which helps my set my hope. Give me Christ’s church, according to his expectations.