Sabbatical, Bonus: My Church Visit Experiences

I know, I know, I know…I need to finish out this series on my sabbatical before the end of the year! Sorry for the delay between posts but I promised you two bonus segments, so here’s the first one that deals with my church visit experiences.

First, let’s reset the series. In November, I went on a month-long sabbatical from ministry to rest, reconnect, and recharge. It was a great experience that was helpful to me in many ways. I have chronicled that sabbatical on this blog, dealing with the major goals and lessons associated with that experience.

But I also wanted to write about two other things I did while on sabbatical: visiting other churches and taking a month-long break from social media. This post is about my church visits, and the next post (on Thursday) will be about my social media fast.

I took two church “visits” while on sabbatical and still in town. And I know it might sound weird, but this was a real treat for me since I never have the opportunity to attend worship as a “regular” worshipper or see how other churches are doing things.

The first chance I had was actually on a Sunday morning that I was scheduled to travel to the cabin I rented for a time of solitude. So, I decided to stay home and check out the online church experience for myself, since that option seems to be growing in popularity.  In short, it was awful!

Now, you might be tempted to think that I felt that way simply because it was so different than what I am used to or that, as a preacher, I am “threatened” by the prospect of people staying home instead of attending church. But my assessment runs much deeper than that.

Since the experience was practically no different than watching YouTube videos on the couch on a weeknight, I had to remind myself several times that I was “at church” and that this was “worship.” But it wasn’t the worship I needed.

You see, there’s a reason why one of the most central activities attached to Christianity is corporate worship. At its core, Christianity is communal. In fact, one of the most incredible things Jesus does is create community from diversity. I need to worship with other people because I am made to live in relationship with other people. I need the encouragement of the congregation, and the congregation needs me to encourage them. I need to look into the face of another Jesus-follower in order to know that I am not alone in my attempt to live out the gospel that is counter-cultural. I need to “feel” the emotion and the passion that only comes from “being in the room” with others. I need to shake hands, give and receive hugs, laugh, and share stories with my fellow Christians. I need to be there to help those who are attending church for the first time feel welcomed into the body of Christ.

I also need the discipline of intentionally getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, traveling to the church building, and physically sitting in the auditorium. I know that sounds crazy, but think about it: The effort tells my brain that this is important. We often hear people say that “you’ll only get out of something what you put into something.” And we accept that as common wisdom. So, doesn’t that also apply to “church”? I didn’t get much out of my online church experience because I didn’t have to put much into the experience. I didn’t have to change clothes or even get out of bed, if I didn’t want to!

I know, I know, I know…this sounds like the petty ramblings of a preacher who needs a crowd to do his job:) But what’s interesting is that the New York Times just recently ran an opinion piece stating the same conclusion about online church that I’ve shared here. That article concludes with this paragraph:

“This, then, is the beauty of the church: not that it is perfect or convenient or fits easily into my life but that without it, my life would be deficient. I could still believe in God without the church, could celebrate Christmas without it, or go once a year. But I don’t believe I would truly be a Christian without the real, in-person, Sunday morning church.”

And the person who wrote that isn’t even a preacher!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for using technology to spread the gospel of Christ. And I believe that live-streaming worship services is a true blessing for those who can’t attend church for various reasons and can be a great source of encouragement and teaching for many.

But online church should not become the primary way that people engage with the congregational body of Christ for the simple fact that Jesus gives us the church for our spiritual benefit. And, according to the New Testament, a person cannot be fully discipled without the church and the relationships that emanate from the church.

My second church visit was to the Northeast Church of Christ in Oklahoma City where my friend Dwayne Case preaches. Northeast is a predominantly African-American congregation that has its own “flavor” of worship that is different from the predominantly white congregation with whom I worship.

Northeast is a good church that is doing good work in its community, and I absolutely loved my visit there. I was welcomed with open arms, encouraged by the fellowship, lifted up by the singing, and challenged by the preaching. It was exactly what I needed on my sabbatical.

There was a great family feel at Northeast that stood in stark contrast to the soul-sucking isolation I felt when I “attended” online church. As I observed and participated in the worship and fellowship at Northeast, I got the sense that the members “needed” to be there. They needed to see each other. They needed to hug each other. They needed to share their lives with one another.

And there, they could. There, they felt at home.

Which is what a congregation should be. It should be home. It should feel like home. And welcoming guests should be like welcoming someone home.

I need that “home” so that I can be helped and can help others to get “home.”

And you need it too.

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