Church Attendance, Devotions, and Morality, Oh my!
This morning a number of my friends posted a video for a recently released book by a popular author and speaker. The video was really good. The concept behind it was really good. But I found myself wrestling with an internal tension as I watched it.
One side of me yelled, YES! The video was creatively and powerfully making the point that following Jesus is about every corner, every moment of our lives. Truly following Jesus leaves no part of who we are or how we live untouched. This video echoes Dallas Willard when he said, “I am learning from him how to lead my life in the Kingdom of the Heavens as he would lead my life if he were I.” I love that the video shows Jesus working a desk job, doing some tricep dips, and shoveling the sidewalk. We don’t think of what it means today that Jesus was human in meaningful ways often enough. This video does a brilliant job of making the humanity of Jesus tangible.
So why was I feeling tension? It stems from this quote.
“What if following God or following Jesus isn’t about church attendance or getting your daily devotion in or trying not to sin too bad? The incarnation…is actually an invitation to respond to what he did on the cross and actually live his life here on earth.”
I have long been immersed in the streams of Christian thought that label themselves missional and organic. I love so much of what the leading thinkers in these areas have to say. There is so much truth and power in it. The part I have come to wrestle with is that it seems the church, spiritual disciplines (especially “devotions”), and morality are regularly set up as punching bags. This is not true only in the video I saw, it seems to have become widely true in these circles.
Statements about following Jesus not being about church attendance, spiritual disciplines, or morality are true in one sense. It is possible to have perfect attendance on Sunday morning without being changed by the power of God and learning to live all of life as Jesus would if he were you. But there are multiple problems with the assertion as well.
First, it is possible to isolate any part of a holistic life of following Jesus and then say “that’s not what it means to be a follower of Jesus.” For instance, it is important to be a good neighbor. However, I could also say, “What if following Jesus isn’t about being a good neighbor?” That one thing does not make you a follower of Jesus. However, based on the teaching of Jesus it would be difficult to assert that it doesn’t matter if you’re a good neighbor or not. When we pick on church attendance, spiritual disciplines, or morality we are siphoning off one part of following Jesus and saying it is not the whole thing. This is a bit like saying, “What if making a sandwich wasn’t about buying bread?”
Second, statements like this make it seem like church attendance, spiritual disciplines, and morality have no role in being a follower of Jesus. Yet it would be difficult to make the case that these things are meaningless in the life of a disciple of Jesus.
We are called together as the people of God, and when we gather to worship God, grow in relationship to each other, and be reminded of the mission we have been given by Jesus, we are standing in a long train of followers of Jesus stretching back to the early church in Acts 2. It is also in these times that our collective identity of a people who give allegiance to Jesus as King can be most clear. The church gathered is not the whole of following Jesus, but it is a part of it.
Similarly, spiritual disciplines contribute to our connection to Jesus–the One who gives us life and continually teaches us what it means to follow him. Finding ways to intentionally connect daily with Jesus–including devotions for some–is a good thing, not something to be disparaged.
And while our faith is not about following a list of rules and being good enough to merit God’s favor (this would be the opposite of grace) it would also be difficult to read the teaching of Jesus and think he doesn’t care how we live. Finding freedom in Jesus means finding freedom from sin. We should try to avoid sin. Not because this will make God like us more but because sin is destructive and Jesus died to free us from its power.
Statements like the one above paint an unnecessary and harmful false dichotomy of what it means to follow Jesus. What if instead we said, “What if church attendance, getting your daily devotion in, or trying not to sin are strokes in a much larger and more beautiful painting?”
Finally, the statement ultimately works against itself. The charge is to learn to live all of life as Jesus would. This should absolutely be the goal of discipleship. And if that were to happen, then we would gather with others who worship God to worship him together. We would spend time in “devotion,” intentionally seeking a deeper relationship with the Father. And we would strenuously pursue being “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” To do the thing we are being asked to do includes doing the things that are being disparaged.
It is on this point where I wish we could make peace with each other as followers of Jesus. Right now there are important things being said by those who self-identify as “missional.” There are also great things happening among those focusing on the intersection of faith and work. There are deep insights being shared from people focused on the formational aspect of the church as a gathered people. None of these things are bad! We don’t have to pick on the others to make our perspective seem more important. Rather, if we value each other, and our different emphases, we will be able to more fully accomplish the task of becoming people (individually and collectively) who are all we are meant to be in Jesus.