What do people think they are doing, when they go to church? The expression ‘go to church’ is itself an interesting one: for most people, going to church means going to a service of worship. What that actually means for us is an interesting question. I suspect that we have many other reasons along with the worship event itself, often to meet with that particular group of people, or a subgroup, as well as to engage in other activities before or after—not only to talk about the football!
I think it is helpful to think that we go ‘to church’ when we leave the gathered company, as much as when we gather. We come together to worship, to learn, to be encouraged and perhaps challenged. But then we also disperse as the church, to be the church in our places of work, recreation, and our homes and neighbourhoods. This too is ‘going to church’ and we do not value this enough, and challenge people to see it for what it is, our most fundamental life as ‘the church’.
When we ‘go to church’ in that other sense, as the gathered community in a particular place, with a particular history and culture, derived from the whole history of Christianity, but also a denomination or movement, and then too this local place and its own story: what then? What do we intend and expect?
I have often asked a congregation whether in fact they expect anything much at all, from God. Do we really think, hope and pray that today, here, we might encounter in some way the creator of the universe, the one whom we name as God? Do we think that what we say matters at all? Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that it is remarkable that people do not seem to realise that God hears what we say (about God)—and he was suggesting that we need to take our ‘God talk’ a little more seriously. If we gather to speak about God, let us take that for what it means. We’ll need to think and prepare for that. And we might also need to say less.
When we gather, I should hope we do not try to ‘shut out the world’. That is a horrible idea of worship and implies a very odd idea of God. Luther famously conducted his daily office (praying, reading the bible, singing a hymn) standing at the open window of his room, overlooking the street. Eyes open: physically and figuratively. Imaginatively at one with God and the world.
Similarly, when a preacher seeks to offer some insight into the readings from scripture, their task is not to take the people on a one-way journey into ancient history, the meaning of words and so on: the task is to ask what the text means: and that means to ask both what the text meant and then what does that meaning now mean. It is well envisaged in Karl Barth’s famous idea that the preacher must work with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Our worship has to embody the dialogue between word and world: two-way dialogue, not just preaching at the world!
So what does it mean to be called to worship, to come to worship, as we ‘go to church’. Many years ago I read some sentences from William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid twentieth century. These words I have developed and adapted, to create this ‘call to worship’: I think it expresses something of my hope of what it might mean to go to church in our local situation.
We have come together to worship God:
Worship is the nourishment of the mind on God’s truth;
It is the quickening of the conscience by God’s holiness;
It is the enrichment of the imagination by God’s beauty;
And it is the enlargement of the heart through God’s love.
We have come together to worship God—acknowledging all those who have gone before us in this place and this land,
indigenous and settlers, all created in God’s image, all people of the earth and all invited into the divine presence.
So let us still our hearts, gather our lives and our community: and worship God.
If something of this is what happens when we ‘go to church’, we might then ‘go to church’ in other more imaginative, caring and committed ways.