In an age of world-class preachers available at the click of a button, why should anyone bother going to a local church in-person and listen to a perhaps less gifted pastor exposit Scripture?
With many churches beginning to reopen, this question has special relevance. The pandemic has changed our church habits with many of us having grown used to weekly worship in front of a screen. So aside from simply desiring to reengage with people, is there a particular reason to go to church in-person?
In some ways, this isn’t just a pandemic problem, though. One of my joys before the shutdown was meeting with Don, an InterVarsity alumnus, for a monthly breakfast, where we’d talk about life, relationships, movies, family, and God. “How’s church?” I’d ask him.
“It’s good . . .” he’d say, “I haven’t gone in a while, but I always listen to the sermons and the worship.”
Don’s church was uniquely suited for the online experience with its pastor being a gifted communicator and its worship leaders reflecting New York City’s rich talent pool. His church has always streamed worship services online and has an attractive social media presence. Don hadn’t been to a worship service in person for six months before the pandemic made it impossible for him to attend.
Don’s experience isn’t unusual for students whose transition to a new school cuts them off from the familiar rhythms of worship with family and friends. Many struggle to connect to a local church while at college, instead forging a worship and community life out of campus fellowship and listening to their favorite preachers and worship online.
All this leads us back to the question we started with: why go to church in-person?
1. A local church is responsible to know, serve, and care for you.
Imagine being parented by Google Home or Alexa. If you scraped your knee, the device could tell you to wash the cut and use antibiotic ointment. It could instruct you to place a bandage in the most hygienic way possible. But it couldn’t pick you up, place you on its knee, and hold you.
Perhaps you’re old enough to settle yourself after a skinned knee, but what about a broken heart? What about when your dream dies, when your heart’s heavy, and your prayers feel tethered to the earth with leaden weights? In these situations—as well as the joyous ones—we don’t simply need information; we need connection, encouragement, direction, and hope. It’s hard to get these from a recording.
Within a local church, we can be seen, known, loved, and valued. In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorts the church leaders from Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.”
A local church tends to be far more intergenerational than a fellowship group, which generally attracts people in the same age and stage of life. This reality helps pastors and church leaders take the long view as we bring our questions, concerns, and opportunities with us into the weekly rhythms of worship and fellowship.
2. A local church can speak with nuance and clarity into the specific situations of your community.
While we’ve all been through the same storm (COVID, racial reckoning, political polarization, campus closures, etc.) we’ve not all been in the same boat. Things look different in northern Manhattan compared to San Diego, Madison, or Dallas.
After Sophia and I got married, we went to the Philippines to visit her family. We brought a photo album with us and sat down with dozens of cousins, aunties, great aunts, uncles, and others who couldn’t be with us on our wedding day. Sharing photos in this way, it was very clear what can and can’t be communicated through a picture. This led to her family asking many questions and us telling stories to build a shared appreciation for an event that happened on the other side of the world.
But what if photos are already up on Instagram? What if, observed in the isolating light of a smartphone’s screen, there were no questions, just assumptions about what this smile, that gesture, or this group shot “meant”? Not only would this rob us of the opportunity to share appreciation, but it’s a sure way to solidify misunderstanding. Why wasn’t cousin Joe in the photo? Who’s this person I don’t know, and why’s she in all these photos?
A quick glance at the deep tensions across the wider church suggests that these misunderstandings aren’t just a problem for public discourse and can’t be fixed with a YouTube sermon. Consider Paul’s charge to Timothy in his pastoral ministry: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). To do this well is much more like sitting down with the family photo book of Scripture than posting a shot on Instagram. We need this patient, persistent, incarnational encouragement if we’re going to grow as followers of Jesus within our contexts and communities.
3. Public speaking and preaching aren’t the same.
Public speaking is a competitive art form. Whether we’re speaking for points in front of judges (Toastmasters) or speaking for likes and views on YouTube (TED Talks), the goal seems to be a certain aesthetic quality.
In contrast, preaching is a spiritual gift. Paul describes what we call preaching with the Word “exhortation” in Romans 12:1–8. Paul’s point in this passage is to set preaching alongside the other gifts and graces vital to a healthy church. Preaching is not to be elevated above the other gifts but used alongside all of them, so the body of Christ can be whole, integrated, and holy. Thus, going to church is not synonymous with listening to a sermon.
While sometimes the gift of preaching is aligned with finely honed public speaking skills, it isn’t necessary for the task of nurturing holiness. Recently, I was reviewing a student’s sermon. I had three pages of suggestions for improving his public speaking skills, but as he interpreted Psalm 32 and the practice of confession, I was convicted of sin and moved to practice confession in a fresh way.
World-class preachers are like world-class musicians. They’re a joy to listen to. But the goal of preaching is not simply aesthetic pleasure; it’s to invite participation in the story of God. We need ordinary preachers to help us join the dance, or sing along, not simply those who inspire us with their virtuosity.
This week, if it’s safe and healthy to do so, go to church. Find a place where you can be seen, known, loved, challenged, and valued. Smile at the ordinary person who stands before you in a daring effort to share the very words of God.