Introductory Note:

In anticipation of the Church’s birthday (Pentecost Sunday) this Sunday, I’ve offered a couple of pieces this week about the way we “do” church together. Today, I’m sharing a piece of my own, in which I explore some of the reasons we even do church at all.

I wrote this reflection a few years ago, during a stretch when I was finding it particularly difficult to engage in a local congregation. These days, I am enjoying a much happier season—I can hardly wait to go to church on Sunday mornings, and I am grateful! Still, I am keenly aware that for many who will read these words, church is a struggle.

Whatever sort of season you find yourself in, I pray something in these words will encourage you to continue (or begin) to commit to a local church. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health … together we are the Bride of Christ.

Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

A man goes into a deli, orders the mat­zo ball soup, and motions the wait­er back to his table.

Taste the soup,” says the man.

Sir, is some­thing wrong?” asks the wait­er. I can get you anoth­er bowl right away.”

Taste the soup,” says the man.

Sir, is there some­thing you want me to tell the chef?”

Taste the soup.”

Fine,” says the wait­er, exas­per­at­ed. I’ll taste it. Where’s the spoon?”

Aha!” says the man.

Some­times you have to do what’s being asked of you before you under­stand why it’s required. You have to be will­ing to taste the soup in order to dis­cov­er the spoon is miss­ing. In reli­gious par­lance: Under­stand­ing fol­lows obe­di­ence.” It’s an axiom every bit as true as it is vex­ing. Psalm 111 observes that all who fol­low [God’s] pre­cepts have good under­stand­ing” — not the oth­er way around.

Some­times, for me, the com­mand to taste the soup” has been about attend­ing church. Trou­ble is, I just haven’t felt like going.

I’ve been slid­ing into pews (or mod­ern equiv­a­lents) from infan­cy; my voca­tion has tak­en me to hun­dreds of church­es around the world. I’ve met some of my dear­est friends and endured some of my dark­est betray­als in youth rooms, foy­ers, and sanc­tu­ar­ies. I’ve cried, sung, prayed, com­mit­ted, dis­con­nect­ed, recom­mit­ted, scrib­bled ser­mon notes, doo­dled, been wound­ed, been healed, encoun­tered the Mys­tery, and dozed off — some­times all in the same service.

There are sea­sons when Sun­day can’t come soon enough. The gifts church has giv­en me are too numer­ous to list.

But there are also stretch­es of dis­il­lu­sion­ment. Times when the songs that once ush­ered me into a pro­found aware­ness of God’s pres­ence seem sud­den­ly schlocky and manip­u­la­tive. Morn­ings when I can’t find any­one I know dur­ing the greet­ing” time, and a pre­vi­ous­ly cozy rit­u­al morphs into a car­i­ca­ture of super­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ty. Those are the Sun­days I strug­gle with the ser­mon and feel my the­o­log­i­cal earnest­ness hard­en­ing into elit­ism, dis­cern­ment dis­tort­ing into self-righteousness.

Like any­one who has logged seri­ous pew time, I’ve got rea­sons to be jad­ed. I’ve seen church­es split over triv­ia while they triv­i­al­ize glar­ing immoral­i­ty amongst their lead­ers. I’ve encoun­tered gos­sip pos­ing as prayer, and bul­ly­ing mas­querad­ing as spir­i­tu­al guid­ance.” I’ve watched the realign­ment and reduc­tion of the gospel into a busi­ness plan for mem­ber­ship growth or per­son­al improvement.

Most dam­ag­ing of all, I’ve looked into my own heart and known that if my pew-mates are any­thing like me, church is com­posed of frail humans, each of us an unre­li­able, poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous mess of con­flict­ing motives and waver­ing intentions.

Peo­ple who com­plain that church is bor­ing have no idea. Church is scary.

So I sell myself the half-truth that church is some­thing we are rather than some­thing we do. I stay home with my the­ol­o­gy text­books and Bible and enjoy a dis­sen­sion-free con­gre­ga­tion of one. I con­sole myself with an online net­work of enlight­ened indi­vid­u­als who share both my con­vic­tions and my cyn­i­cisms. We sat­i­rize the excess­es of orga­nized reli­gion, feel­ing clev­er­er than we ought about shoot­ing the fish in our own bar­rels. We cre­ate a vir­tu­al but sig­nif­i­cant com­mu­ni­ty. And for a while, it’s enough.

There’s just one prob­lem. Beneath my rhetoric of anti­le­gal­ism, enlight­en­ment, and self-pro­tec­tion there remains a still, small — but increas­ing­ly insis­tent — voice. And it’s telling me to taste the soup.

The bib­li­cal wit­ness indi­cates that when God gets hold of peo­ple, they almost always work out the impli­ca­tions in groups. This has nev­er been an easy process. The Israelites praise, squab­ble, fail, and repent togeth­er in a seem­ing­ly end­less cycle. The Chris­tians in the apos­tle Paul’s church­es alter­nate­ly thrill and break their pas­tor’s heart over and over again. But they keep at it, and with every try Paul grows more pas­sion­ate about the rag­tag crew of noto­ri­ous­ly fal­li­ble humans who so thor­ough­ly are the church that they can’t help but do church togeth­er. Striv­ing to con­vey the pro­found con­nec­tion between Jesus and the peo­ple who gath­er in his name, Paul employs only the most inti­mate metaphors — we are Christ’s bride, or his very body.

The tri­une God has always been into com­mu­ni­ty. And com­mu­ni­ty, I am forced to admit, ulti­mate­ly requires meet­ing togeth­er with flesh and blood folks I can­not block” or unfriend” should they become annoy­ing. It means get­ting close enough to hug and to arm wres­tle, to build (and some­times hold) each oth­er up, even as we risk let­ting each oth­er down.

It is impor­tant to remem­ber that tast­ing the soup” is not the same as drink­ing the Kool-Aid.” We are not required to unthink­ing­ly remain in tox­ic or abu­sive envi­ron­ments, or even to fol­low a par­tic­u­lar struc­ture or meet on a cer­tain day. Obe­di­ence in this area is sim­ply inten­tion­al prox­im­i­ty with a group of peo­ple who love Jesus and each oth­er. It is com­ing togeth­er to his table, if only because that is what he asks us to do. And it is trust­ing that he’ll show us not only the spoons we’re miss­ing, but also the feast he has in store.

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >