Studies indicate that church attendance has been declining for the last forty years. A few years ago the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion reported that 22% of Americans attend church weekly or nearly weekly. Disproportionately, over three times that many in North American say they are practicing Christians. It appears that less than a third show up for public worship on a weekly or nearly weekly basis.
Serious Christians practice some form of private devotion: quiet time with no one else around. We discover God inside of us in this way. Through prayers and reflection, coupled with Scripture or spiritual writings in hand we seek out what God wants from us, and sense God’s voice through spiritual impression. The private devotional adventure is exclusive: through the prism of our own experiences, needs and disposition. We could think of it this way, we kind of experience God’s voice through our voice in private devotion. It’s expedient but it’s not enough.
As important as private devotion is, public worship gives us the opportunity to hear other voices in a spiritual setting. We hear from God through the experiences of others: how they have discovered what God is to them and what he wants from them. We hear a public sermon. Selected Scriptures are publicly brought into view. Spiritual discussions and spiritual concepts are shared in the church educational setting. We hear the voice of God through the commonalities and differences of our brothers and sisters at coffee hour and like gatherings. We cultivate friendships by working together and talking to each other inside the walls of the church. It is a dichotomy that we need to be left to ourselves with God alone to discover ourselves through private devotion, yet we should not be left to ourselves too long without a way to hear the thoughts and experiences of others. We need to hear God’s voice through many people. This is public worship at its best!
Plugging into the community of faith gives us the opportunity to serve others in very creative and undiscovered ways. Many churches offer robust and bountiful opportunities to help others: soup kitchens, thanksgiving turkey giveaways, teaching classes or singing in the choir. We find structure and team effort so we can enhance the spiritual and social needs of those most vulnerable among us: visiting nursing homes, assistant living facilities and hospitals or swinging by to encourage a shut-in. There are foreign missionary opportunities, providing basic services and spiritual support. Virtually all churches offer some path to help us reach outside of ourselves and help someone in need. This is public worship at its best!
I was ten years old, playing ball at a church parking lot when I had my first distinguishable experience of faith. It was a faint but detectable acknowledgment that God was real! It was a moment of faith for me. That summer, I took the initiative to attend summer Bible school just a few minutes from my house. My parents were not Christians so I had little guidance of how to approach or cultivate those feelings of faith I was experiencing. After those summer Bible classes, unfortunately my faith lay dormant for several years. It’s hard to cultivate our faith strictly on our own.
In my late teens I had a close friend in my neighborhood who’s older sister was a church person. She continued to nag me to come to church with her, I finally caved in. I gussied up and went off to church. I intently listened to the preaching. It made sense to me. I felt the warmth of the people. I knew I would be back. I did go back and I have never stopped going to public worship. Vickie, my friend’s sister introduced me to God through the church. The church dug around in the soot while God’s breath rekindled the smoldering amber of faith that were hidden under the ashes in my heart. This is the kind of thing the church does. This is the best of public worship!