There has been something fundamentally apocalyptic about the COVID-19 pandemic: it has uncovered things about modern life that had previously remained unseen. From the fragility of our sense of security to the promises and perils of modern science, from the fractured condition of our social attachments to the alarmingly conspiratorial habits plaguing much of the American public, the hidden has surely been made manifest as a result of the pandemic.
One thing that has been vividly unearthed is the American church’s relatively weak commitment to regular attendance of Sunday worship. According to Barna research, approximately one in three Christians have stopped attending church altogether (whether in person or online) during the pandemic. An additional third have admitted to streaming a different church service online other than their own—digitally “church hopping,” basically—reflecting a certain consumeristic mindset endemic to much of the evangelical church.
All of this provides a fresh chance to consider basic questions: Why do we go to church? What is so important about regularly gathering as God’s people? While there are certainly many good answers to this question—it’s commanded of us in Scripture, Sabbath rhythms are important, worship is critical to discipleship and evangelism, among others—one key answer is simply this: We go to church because we are forgetful.
Remembering God’s Story
Throughout the Bible, we see that God is uniquely concerned about his people’s memory. We likewise see that spiritual amnesia is a serious and unremitting problem for these very same people. Endless are the commands to not forget God’s deliverance and provision (Deut. 8), to remember his faithfulness (Ex. 13:3), to call to mind his wonderful works in history (Ps. 106). God’s people are to know, love, and remember his story. In fact, this story—God’s story concerning his people—could reasonably be summarized as: God’s people are faithless and forgetful, but the God who has covenanted himself to them in love is faithful and steadfast; he remembers his people.
Our forgetting and God’s remembering, then, are part and parcel of the story—the very story God calls us to, well, remember.
What does this have to do with attending Lord’s Day worship? We are, as James K. A. Smith and many others have explained, storied beings. We crave stories; we need narrative. In a real way, we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In fact, we need stories to tell us how to live, to provide us a script for living, as it were. Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
Story must always ground action; the narratives that constitute our being necessarily inform our becoming.
Worship Forms Us in God’s Story
As storied creatures, we’re always imbibing and living out some story—be it true or false, good or bad. As Christians we have been summoned by a gracious God to enter into the true story of the whole world. And while it ought to be our duty and delight to do so, we— much like God’s people of old—often fail at this task.
We forget God. We fail to remember who he is and who he has called us to be. We imbibe false stories and thus live falsely. This is perhaps especially the case in a world as digitally addicted as ours, where artifice, novelty, and disconnection from the past seem to carry the day. In this overstimulated new media age, we desperately need reminding of who God is, who we are, and what story we’re in.
In this overstimulated new media age, we desperately need reminding of who God is, who we are, and what story we’re in.
This is where church worship is crucial. In our gathering together as the people of God, we come into his presence to be retold the story of reality; retold what God has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ; and retold what God is now doing in and through his Spirit to redeem and purify a people for himself. This happens in the ordinary liturgy of the church: through prayer and praise, through Word and sacrament. In his provocatively titled Against Christianity, Peter Leithart writes:
Through rituals of worship, we begin to realize together who we are together; of course, we are a sinful people who need to break away from the world, to make a weekly exodus from Egypt; of course, we are an ignorant people who need to be instructed and reminded each week of our language and our story; of course, we are the children of our heavenly Father, who has given all things freely in his Son and displays that gift in the gift of food; of course, we have been engrafted into the community of the Trinity, for each worship service begins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and ends with the triune name spoken over us.
For Leithart, it’s obvious (as the repeated and italicized “of course” would indicate) that God’s people, feeble-hearted and fuzzy-headed as we are, should need to make a weekly exodus from the world to come into God’s presence. Worship forms us into the people of God. It instructs us in our story and thereby allows us to, as Leithart later puts it, “name the world Christianly.” It reminds us, once again, that we are God’s children and called—and empowered—to live as such.
For a forgetful bunch like us, the regular rhythms of church remind us who God is and who we are—that we are his people in his world.
This, of course, has always been a reason Christians need church, but perhaps it’s an even more pressing reason now, in a sped-up digital world where attention spans are shrinking and allegiances are fragmenting. Every day, the internet pulls us in a hundred different directions, into different (and competing) tribes and stories. This was especially true in the last year, when pandemic isolation resulted in our spending even more of our time on the internet.
In a world like this—increasingly artificial, distracting, and, in a way, unreal—if we don’t carve out at least one day a week to be powerfully reminded of our place in the Christian story, our already fragile, fickle, and forgetful hearts will invariably stray from this story. In a world so often distorted by online life, we need the clarifying force of God’s Word read, preached, prayed, sung, and tasted.
To stay in and live out God’s story, we need to remember it. And to remember it, we need to go to church.