I wish I had a nickel for every time it’s happened. I’m having a nice, pleasant conversation with a new acquaintance when the inevitable question comes up: “So, what do you do for a living?” Of course I tell them I’m a pastor of a church and then comes the inevitable retort: “Oh, that’s nice. Of course I’m not much of a churchgoer myself. I don’t think you have to go to church to be a Christian. I feel much closer to God in nature. Give me a forest or a sunset over a church building any day.”
Now, of course there’s a certain truth in what these people say. What Christian hasn’t gazed up at a beautiful sunset or a clear star-filled night sky and felt wonder and awe at the God who created it all? What Christian has not communed with God on a hilltop or a hiking trail and, for a moment, felt lifted up into the very arms of God! These are amazing experiences and something we all treasure. But God never intended for these experiences to be the be all and end all of the Christian life. Wonderful as they are God intends them to be the icing on the cake, not the whole cake.
Why? Because these experiences demand nothing of us. They feel great, they stick in our memories, but they do nothing to hold us accountable. What sunset has ever told you that the life you’re living is not pleasing to God? What starry night sky has ever challenged you to put your own needs second and to reach out and seek to meet the needs of others? What seashore has ever called you on something or, heaven forbid, disagreed with you?
Do you see where I’m going with this? There’s nothing I like more than icing on a cake. But if that’s all I ever ate I would soon starve nutritionally. And there’s nothing more beautiful and awe-inspiring than a sunset but if that encompasses the whole of my spirituality I will starve spiritually.
That’s why Christ created the Church! And it’s why the writer to the Hebrews urged his readers not to give up meeting together “as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25). The writer knew that we need other people in order to become all that God wants us to be. We need their prayers, we need their support, we need their encouragement, and, yes, sometimes we need their kick in the pants.
So, please, don’t give up looking at sunsets and starry night skies. Those things are great. Just don’t make them a substitute for all that the Church can mean to you. With all of its faults and foibles and failings, the Church is still God’s instrument for helping people to realize their full potential in Christ.