The most famously difficult class at Emory’s Candler School of Theology is CT503: Systematic Theology. My professor was a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was known at the time as the most challenging teacher of this course.
During one class, he handed back midterm papers. In general, the marks were low. Students were unhappy. Some of them loudly disagreed with his grading policy and with the content and method of his teaching. Many of the students were on edge, and the professor was visibly frustrated. It was unsettling. Toward the end of the class, he looked at his watch and said, “Chapel starts in five minutes. Let’s all go worship. We need that.” When he said this, it was as if we all took a deep breath.
Of course! Worship! Arguing over theology and doctrine—or the manner in which a professor assesses our understanding of it—is one thing; worship is something else entirely. It transcends our differences. To encounter our living God, and by doing so learn to love one another more fully… It’s why we exist!
For those of us who went to chapel that day—which included the professor and most of the students—the issues that divided us seemed far less important after we worshiped together.
Worship is something that’s primarily done in community. It also creates a special kind of community bound together by the Holy Spirit—who is the very Spirit of Christ among us. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” To me, that means that Christ is present to us in a special way in worship—a way in which he may not be present otherwise.
We are the Church together, not Christians by ourselves. If we fail as a church to gather for worship, we are spiritually harming ourselves. This is, in part, what makes Anne Rice’s decision (discussed below) so distressing. Yet Rice, despite her avowed faith in and love for Jesus, is correct to say that she is no longer a “Christian”—because to be a Christian is to be a worshiper in community.
I would only add that we cannot adequately or faithfully love Jesus, no matter how much we may wish to, if we cut ourselves off from church.
To be a churchgoer is to exercise great faith at times because it means seeing beyond appearances. After all, church is, at its most superficial level, a hopelessly human institution. Yet we pastors and theologians say it’s much more than that. Among other things, being a churchgoer requires a great deal of humility and even a willingness at times to suspend our disbelief—toward others and most especially ourselves!
I’m thinking of this passage from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is corresponding with his “nephew” demon Wormwood, whose assigned human “patient” has recently become a Christian. Not to worry, counsels Screwtape, there’s still plenty of time to win his patient back to the camp of “Our Father Below.”
And the best way to start, he writes, is by fostering within his patient the natural sense of pride he feels over against his fellow worshipers at church.
[I]f the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is!… What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s [God’s] ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug” commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.†
† C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (Weswood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1961), 18-19.