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Back to School, Back to Church?

You have likely read the title of this article, minus the question mark, on a church marquee, bulletin, or in a church ad at some point. In church life, we try every method we can to emphasize church as an integral part of seasonal rhythms and routines. For some of you, summer is not any different than any other time of year, except for the sweltering temperatures and dry (usually) weather. For me, summer has always been marked as a special season. Not only did I look forward to summers as a college, graduate, and doctoral student; but I also married a teacher whose work schedule lightens during this time. So, from the perspective of a student, parent, and a teacher’s spouse, I understand the tendency to utilize summer as a vacation and break from the normal routine.

The wise teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:1 affirms for us that there is indeed “a time for everything.” From the pattern of creation, to the commands to honor feast days and sabbaths, the Old Testament recognizes the importance of spiritual seasons in our lives. Perhaps this is where Jesus cultivated the discipline of withdrawing to quiet places and praying in the midst of a busy and bustling ministry. I do not blame anyone for taking advantage of the summer as a time to slow down, or simply change their pace. I even encourage our faithful church members that carry the bulk of our ministry obligations to take a Sunday or two away from church every once in a while, as I do so myself. But to be honest, “back to school, back to church” is not an ideal emphasis. Ideally, people should not have to go BACK to church in the first place.

Being connected to a church community is not an activity to engage in the same way that we do fall sports, extra-curricular clubs, dance, piano lessons, or your weekly wine and book club. We look at these kinds of things as enhancements to our and our children’s’ lives – add-ons that enrich us in being all that we want or need to be. If this is how you see church, you have missed the point. A church’s weekly gathering comes from two biblical precedents: God’s command to honor the Sabbath (Ex 20:8), and Jesus’s resurrection on the first day of the week (Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1). Gathering in this tradition is part of a rhythm that isn’t meant to detract from one’s life or make them busy on one hand, or to add amenities and special enhancements on the other. It is simply supposed to be tied to our identity in Christ, and as a part of his community that we call the Church.

I’ll be honest – as a pastor, I fight the tendency to make church appear as if it is an attractive product that will bring immediate benefits to all who plug themselves into it. The problem is – I’ve been around church people long enough to know that we don’t have it all together! The late Eugene Peterson struggled with this as a young church starter. After leading his congregation to raise the money and build the facility for Christ the King Presbyterian Church, he was taken back when attendance started to decrease. When he contacted denominational headquarters, his supervisor told him that if he wanted to see increased attendance again, he needed to start another building campaign. When Peterson said that they didn’t need another building, he was assured that it did not matter. “People need something tangible,” he was told, “something they can put their hands on . . . it’s the American way.”

Christians are not called to the American way, the attractive way, the easy way, or even the seasonal way. No matter what else might be going on in a Christian’s life, we still have a call from Jesus to follow him. This following MUST be done in community, or else it too easily devolves into the individualistic pursuits that fuel our American penchant for self-help, tangible achievement, recreation, entertainment, etc.

So as the fall approaches, you will not hear me putting the call out for “back to school, back to church” time. While I do hope you return to church if this is a routine you have fallen out of, I hope you do not equate it with just one more thing to include into your fall list of activities. If you do, you can be sure that when your schedule gets a little too full and seems more hectic than you would like, church and its lack of tangible amenities will be one of the first things to go. On the other hand, if you see your church community as integral and defining for your life and everything else in which you engage, you will find yourself making decisions that enable faithfulness to Jesus, even at the exclusion of other attractive options.

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