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Friday, August 5, 2016

I'm Sorry: I've Invited You to Church for the Wrong Reasons

Dear people-I-have-wanted-to-come-to-my-church (and especially to those who actually come),[1 (see footnotes below)]

I am sorry. I have misrepresented to you the reasons for you to come to church. My only defense is that I didn't know what I was doing, because I misrepresented the reasons to myself too. I ask forgiveness for not representing the truth accurately, as some of you rely on me to do.

When I have invited you to church—and more often when I have encouraged a straggling, semi-regular attender to appear again—I have done so for your well-being. This is a major error.

It is a subtle error, to be sure. Because in fact, I have a good, God-honoring motive. Wanting another's well-being is of the essence of love, and God wants us to love each other.

It also happens to be true that coming to worship is good for your well-being. I have given you various reasons for this:
  • "In [God's] presence is fullness of joy; in [his] right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11 NASB).
  • It is a refuge and encouragement to faithful Christians who spend all week pressured and marginalized in an ungodly world.
  • Christian couples who frequently attend worship have lower divorce rates than those who don't.[2]
I have sincerely wanted you to reap all these benefits and many more.

My concern for you has become even more acute because of a shift that's happened nationwide during my nearly nine years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg: people who attend church are attending less often.

Even just a generation ago, "regular church attendance" meant about 46 or more weeks a year, and the off weeks were mostly due to sickness. Today, three or four appearances every two months is the baseline of "regular" in people's minds, even among people who think (and self-report) that they attend weekly.[3]

So I've been earnestly desiring your well-being while the frequency of your attendance (indiscriminately lumping you all together) has been dropping. And I remain certain that coming to worship every week is good for you. I've been appealing to you on that basis, not only if you are a non-attender and your welfare is our only common ground but also if you are a member of my church who claims Jesus Christ as Lord.

But I've been wrong. Your well-being is not the principal reason for you to come to church, even if it does help you—especially if you have already received God's forgiveness.

The reason to worship in church is because God wants it, and God deserves to get what he wants.

The principal reason to come to church is not your benefit, but his.

If you come, you will benefit, because God has so arranged the universe that what is best for him is best for everyone who loves him, in the end. He wants this for us more than we will ever know. But we only receive the benefit reliably when it isn't our main motive—when our goal is his benefit instead.

In the Book of Revelation, heaven is depicted as a continuous stream of praise by a gathered throng of all manner of spiritual beings, humans included. One of the words they say most is "worthy": "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power" (Rev. 4:11); "Worthy is the lamb who was killed [i.e., Jesus, the Son of God] to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and praise!" (5:12).

"Worthy" means, "you're worth it; you deserve it." And "you deserve it" means "we owe it to you." We owe the Triune God worship, praise, glory, and honor.

What's so special about God that we owe him worship? He "created all things"—including us—"and because of [his] will they existed and were created," and because Jesus was "killed, and at the cost of [his] own blood [he has] purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (5:9).

The reason to come to church is because God is more important than you, he wants you to worship him there, and you owe it to him because you owe him your life.

This may be difficult for you to accept.

For one thing, you may not believe that God cares whether multiple people sing and say congratulatory things to him in the same place at the same time. This is because your mind is shaped by the assumptions of your culture more than by God's perspective and wishes as revealed in the Bible. (Mine are too, by the way—this doesn't come naturally to any of us.)

You may think, "Why is God so vain that he needs people telling him how great he is all the time?" Answer: he doesn't need anything. He simply wants you to treat him the same way you treat everything else you value: you open your mouth and say how great it is, quivering with excitement, whether it's a sunset or a smartphone or a slapshot or a sister you are proud of.

You may think, "Why can't I do that by myself?" You should indeed do that by yourself—on your bed, in the wilderness, in the company of unbelievers, wherever. Good for you for doing it.

But that doesn't erase what the Bible says about doing it together. Go to and type "let us" book:Psalms in the search bar. Don't just scan the results; click on the verse references to read in context. Then read Revelation, especially these sections. Do you get the picture of what brings God glory?

It may also be hard for you to accept that you owe God worship in church because my approach has made it harder for you to believe it.

I have fallen into the trap of wanting you in church for your well-being because I've also wanted you in church for my well-being.

I feel a weighty responsibility to ensure the well-being of the institution that I serve. It is entrusted to me to shepherd it well, so I work hard to nurture its life and health and growth. I want you to be in church because I am too often afraid and embarrassed of failing.

Right or wrong, I find a great deal of my life's meaning and value in my work, which I can even more easily justify since it is "kingdom" work (i.e., work toward explicitly godly ends). I too often want you to be in church so that I know that I am worth something.

So, like the stereotypical car salesman, I think about what I need to do or say—or what I can persuade leaders, members, and other attenders to do or say—to get you and your family and your friends into church this Sunday.

I'm doing it for you, and I'm doing it for me. And I'm doing it for God in that I've always believed that God wants us to be there. But I have not been doing it because God deserves our best even though we don't deserve his.

So let's start over, you and I. Let's get on the right track. Let's repent. Let's confess our sin. Let's ask for forgiveness. Then let's "produce fruit that proves [our] repentance" (Luke 3:8).

Our obedience to God when we know what he wants is the measure of our love for God. It's that simple. And whoever's wishes you put ahead of God's is the person you love more than him.

Consider this when you look at your bedside clock on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning. Who are you disappointing—including yourself—if you get up and get dressed?

Consider this when you're making plans for Saturday night or for the whole weekend or for half the weekends of the year. Who are you disappointing if you say "no, I'm staying home"?

Consider this when you're registering your kids for activities. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "not that day" or "no more than once a month"?

Consider this when you're applying for a job. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "don't schedule me for then"?[4]

Whoever you don't want to disappoint is the person you love—or more likely, fear—more than God. Are they worth it?[5]

In my own repentance, I'm trying to make amends by telling you what I should have told you all along. But I was afraid of disappointing you. I was afraid that you would think I was a mean, judgmental Pharisee, and then you'd never come to my church. I loved, or rather feared, you more than God. And by loving you, I hurt you.

There's a song we like to sing whose chorus says, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and . . . it's all about you, Jesus. I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it. . . ." The song is about confusing slick music with worship, so I often think it doesn't apply to me. But my misaligned motives bring me under its judgment.

Let's indeed come back to the heart of worship. It really is all about him.
Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth. [Hos. 6:1-3 NASB]

[1] As this is an open letter to a broad set of recipients, I trust my readers have the discernment to recognize that not every single remark in it applies to every single reader.

[2] Whether one factor causes the other or whether another factor causes both is an open question.

[3] To my knowledge, evidence of this trend so far is anecdotal and hasn't been formally studied and precisely quantified, but the testimony is widespread enough that there seems to be something happening here. And it correlates with American Christians' beliefs about whether church attendance is "essential."

[4] I know that some people work on Sunday out of desperation to provide for their needs. I know that some people work a periodic Sunday rotation because they serve people who need care 24/7. Those are different matters entirely. I'm talking about choosing a regular Sunday job because you want to live on more rather than on less or because you like it or because you want to climb the ladder or because you want your boss's favor.

[5] If your question is, "What about the person who is too sick to come?" or "What about the person who is too disabled to leave their home?" or "What about the person who is the sole caregiver of a severely sick or disabled person?" I have two questions in reply. First, are you that person? Second, do you sincerely believe that I am referring to that sort of person in what I am saying?