One Sunday, as the children filed into the sanctuary after Sunday School I looked to my right to see my five year old friend Sam. I have known Sam for 3 years now and watched him grow from a toddling two year old to a funny, kind, and sweet boy. I glanced back quickly at his mom, who gave me an approving nod that told me Sam was sitting with me by choice, not by force. We were both quiet as the offertory song began, when I realized Sam really wanted to sing along with the rest of the church, but couldn’t read the lyrics. I quickly tried to whisper the lyrics in his ear before each stanza so he could join the congregation in song, just like my mom used to do for me before I could read. We both only got about half the words in before it was time to hurry through the next verse. The act of worshipping is only in part about the lyrics, however. In that moment, Sam likely didn’t process every word he sung, and I hardly had time to break down the theological components of what we were singing in my head-- but it was still very much worship, for both of us. When it was time to say the Lord’s Prayer in unison, he proudly handed me back the program as he prayed with his eyes closed, demonstrating his memorization. We then walked up for communion, he crossed his arms to receive a blessing as I held mine out to receive the wafer.
I cannot tell you what the sermon was that morning, or the Scripture that was read-- but the twenty minutes Sam and I worshipped together gave me a small inkling of what Mary must have experienced in Luke 2:19, “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” This Sunday, a very nondescript and all-around normal day, has become a cherished memory for me, because Sam helped me see just how important we are to each other in worship-- and just what we miss when we see church attendance as only about ourselves.
Church attendance matters for many reasons. Scripture tells us, “ And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” This understanding of gathering together has very little to do with ourselves, but much to do with those who we are gathering with--We go to church, in part, to encourage one another. Sam and his brothers love to make silly faces at me and tell me funny stories before the service, but what they do without realizing is make me feel loved. Seen. Known. The fact that Sam feels comfortable sitting next to me, or that his brother will stop in the communion line to ask me an obscure question, or that they anticipate my hand held out for a high-five-- all these things help remind me why I am a part of this community. They demonstrate to me, without even realizing it, that it matters to acknowledge people. When we listen to sermons podcasts or livestream a service, we lose out on the opportunity to acknowledge, encourage, and love our fellow worshippers. You cannot share the peace with an iPhone screen. There’s no need to share your bulletin with a computer. There’s no one to say the Lord’s Prayer with alongside when you stay home.
I know there a circumstances where it isn’t always possible to make it to Sunday services. I’m in no way here to shame or guilt anyone into being in a pew. But I do think it’s important to recognize that when we substitute the digital version, we will inevitably miss out on something very good things. The crux of digital church “attendance” for most is to hear the sermon. Hear me when I say, the teaching and preaching of the Gospel is so important and vital to our lives. We should, with every effort, try to listen to sermons even when we cannot be in the service that Sunday. But if we view this an equivalent substitute to participating in corporate worship, then we fail to recognize that the corporateness of Sunday matters immensely. You can listen to a sermon alone, sure. You can even sometimes laugh along with those who were present as their laughter finds its way into the recording. But there is something about the tangible experience of sitting in church with others that cannot be replicated on your couch.
Congregational singing matters. Joining the chorus of off-key grandfathers and boisterous children is different than singing along with the radio in your car. Both can be forms of worship, and both can glorify the Lord. But when we join with others, when we raise our voices together, we get to add our imperfect pitch to the chorus of the saints, to experience a small taste of heavenly worship. In those moments, we are united across economic, racial, political differences when we join in song together. Outside of the church, how often do you get to join others in unison like that? A concert or 7th inning stretch maybe, but what a privilege to be able to do that weekly rather than on occasion-- and how few people around us ever get that experience if they do not attend church at all.
In a liturgical tradition, we have the opportunity to join others not only in song, but in prayer. Much of the liturgy we recite in unison consists of prayers that are said not only in our parish, but amongst Christians all over the world. Attending church gives us the opportunity to be a part of something not only bigger than ourselves, but bigger than our context. While our services may look much different from each other on Sunday mornings, the ability to pray and worship alongside Christians both locally and globally provides us a chance to let go of our self-centric culture that permeates the rest of our week. Our self-importance hopefully shrinks bit by bit as we recognize the vast company we keep with fellow worshippers.
Sunday worship services, even in the most scripted and structured, are always full of unknowns. We cannot predict which child will let out a shriek in the middle of corporate prayer, or what note the worship band might play off-key. We do not know who will show up in every pew, and we may not necessarily know every face that does. But God knows-- and God delights in our worship of Him (Psalm 92:4). The worship that occurs on Sundays cannot be fully replicated through a podcast or video sermon, and for good reason: we need each other to worship.