"How's that?" My husband asked. He was visiting a casual acquaintance we'll call Brian. Brian used to go to our church, but we hadn't seen him there for a long time.
"Let me tell you a story," Brian said, leaning forward in his seat. "You know where I was last Sunday? I was out canoeing on the lake with my girlfriend. The sun was sparkling off the water and then this big heron just flew right over us. I've never felt so peaceful and happy in my life. Church isn't for me."
He's not alone.
More than a third of Americans describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Their churches aren't brick-and-mortar structures, but the world God created.
They worship on the hiking trail and on the golf course, in the yoga studio and volunteering at the soup kitchen. They believe in fostering a personal relationship with God, and don't see how stepping inside a church would help them do that.
I respect that way of thinking, except... maybe belonging to a church is about more than just what you get out of it.
A long time ago, Moses and the Israelites were attacked while wandering around in the wilderness outside the Promised Land. Moses chose some men to defend them, and said he'd stand at the top of the hill holding up his arms during the battle.
As long as he held his hands up, the Israelites prevailed.
But when he put them down, they started to lose.
So Moses held his arms up for as long as he could, but after a while the inevitable happened: it was a long day, and they grew too heavy. That's when two other men who were there with him stepped in.
...they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. (Exodus 17: 12)Luckily for Moses and the Israelites, churches are communities of people. They're more than buildings, they're networks for giving help and receiving it.
Sometimes you'll be Moses, overwhelmed and shaking as you try to hold up a burden that's too heavy. Sometimes you'll be the able-bodied friends at his side. Whoever you are at any given moment, you're always needed.
Can you worship God out on the lake as well as you can in a pew at church? Can you still feel His presence in the waves and the wind if you're not in a Sunday service? Absolutely. But it's also missing a big part of what it means to be a believer.
There are people in your religious community right now struggling with illness, exhaustion, depression, or crises of faith who need you. And even if you don't know it, you probably need them, too.
So is church for you? Well, it is, and it isn't.
Church is a place you can go to get strength, but it's also a place to give it. Moses was part of a community of believers who (literally) supported him when things got too hard, and that's not so different from the way things are — or at least the way things should be — in our churches today.
Whether you're more like Moses or more like his friends, one thing is clear: if you're not there, it's everyone's loss.