Sunday, July 4, 2010

Going to Church Out-of-Town

I have been thinking about the subject of out-of-town church attendance (especially on vacation). In fact, I just got back from vacation--today. We have the blessing of attending a church that has four congregations spread out across the city of Chicago. Since we got back early afternoon, we knew we would enjoy the fellowship of saints with our brothers and sisters at the North Side service which is at 5pm. Not everyone has this kind of church structure, however.

Some of my friends with whom I have discussed this don't go at all. "There is no church like our church", they say (which loyalty I applause); they are lazy and want a break from church; or they are uncomfortable about being in a strange setting. Other Christian families will hack their own service (foot washings and all! just kidding). I'm sure there are other reasons. Consider the following questions:

What's the purpose of going to church in the first place?
Let me be frank here. I loathe the phrase "go to church." Churches are organized organisms (covering all bases here=+) made of people who have been regenerated by the blood of Jesus Christ. They "go to church" to hear the Scriptures taught, pray, praise God through song, observe the ordinances, give their resources to the work of the church and to the needy w/in the church (Acts 2:42-47). Unfortunately, this is the "rap" that alot of American Christianity has-- the major share of our "going" is to meet with each other. While the Scriptures enforce the need for mutual celebration of the Gospel in praise and Word (Hebrews 10:25), the church is a going entity TO THE WORLD (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Perhaps, we should retrain our parlance to include words like "worship Jesus" or "meet with believers for unified praise to the Savior". 'Nuf said for now.

Is community the only consideration in making the decision?
For some people who don't bother going to church when they are out of their own church, their argument rests often on the fact that their "community" isn't the one at which they are vacationing. Therefore, "why bother with going to church where I am not going to have long-lasting community?"... goes the line of thinking. I am glad for the deep fellowship already cultivated on the home front. Well (for one), the subject of "community" is over-hyped and nearly becoming cliche. It is almost like the concept of missional-- it has a lot of different meanings depending on who you ask. While well-intentioned, this particular line of reasoning is myopic. We easily waltz over the passages of New Testament Scriptures that record the instances when displaced or missionary believers were seeking out the fellowship of locals and vice versa. I would dare say that not only is this rationale myopic but very American. And lest I be called out for nationalizing a particular sin, it is quite Adamic. There. If anything, healthy body life in your own local church should arouse such passion and curiosity for how the Gospel is being fleshed out in other assemblies outside of your "Jerusalem."

When you're with extended family, should you attend with them or should you maintain that your one-off/out-of-town attendance be in concert w/ how selective you are on the home front?
For some people, your theology matters a lot, and that is good. However, I would say that if you are concerned with maximizing time w/ your believing family who you are visiting and building unity, you should show how deeply the Gospel runs in you so as to elevate your extended family over your strongly-held preferences. Of course, you could not go at all if it is a heretical church or you could seek another church and meet up for lunch later. But that won't really aid the "unity factor"; it will only remind everyone of certain "wedges" of preference that exist in your family. Some forthrightness or creativity on the front end will help alleviate tension along w/ much love.
How about going to church out of town to hear a certain favorite preacher?
Definitely. You better believe it, but realize that there is real body of hurting and healthy peeps that show up every week to hear your favorite dude preach. Check them out, too.
Just don't do that at your home church. One of the not-so-fondest memories I had of attending one church for a while in Greenville, SC was seeing how many members (!) didn't show up to church when the "rock star" pastor wasn't behind the sacred desk. When you join a church, you are in a sense wedding yourself to that assembly until death, heresy, excommunication or relocation doth thee part.

Here are a few things to reflect on the next time you leave town:
1) If at all possible, try to get back to your own church for Sunday worship.
2) If you are a father with small children and the normal levels of getting out of the house on a Sunday are stressful, you should seek input from your wife on what it would be like for her to get to church on the alien turf. Ask her every time.
3) If possible, stretch yourself and make the effort to worship with believers that you don't know. Remember: Christ is your first commonality; not your geography or ethnicity. Expose your family to the wonderful "thing" that Jesus is doing all around your country and the world.
4) If you vacation to the same place, find a church and keep coming back to it. Extend your community. I know some people from Detroit who do that regularly when they escape away once or twice a year to their regular spot on Florida.
5) Put your "experience" way down on the list. Don't make experience a high priority. If worship is all about experience, then we should all give up on regular gathered worship. This might be simplistic, but I don't think experience as an end should be a driving motivator to attend or not attend church (whether at home or away).
6) Don't just do away from home what you do at home. In other words, join a church at home; stop church hopping. I suspect that if you church hop at home, this little article won't even cross your radar.

Perhaps, I have overthought on this.


Gregory said...

Great thoughts on wedding yourself to a local assembly and stretching yourself to be exposed to the wonderful thing that God is doing all around. Thanks for your thoughts, Will.

Brock Brockway said...

I could not agree more, Will. If we are true believers, we are members of one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This means that the particular local church that we associate with is just an organ within the body of Christ globally, and our desire and practice should be to continue to seek unity and fellowship with the rest of the body, especially when we are estranged from our regular fellowship. We are also commanded to not forsake the assembling together of believers, without regard to whether or not those are believers we live near or have previously known well. I also love the example of Paul who repeatedly sent greetings from one local body to another. This shows the mutual love that must be natural and yet cultivated for distant citizens of the Kingdom of God. I have also experienced this great blessing of fellowship and hospitality when meeting fellow believers for the first time in places as distant as Europe and Central Asia. Once again, I couldn't agree more, Will. Thanks for posting this.

Dan Winnberg said...

Thanks for the article, Will.
Two thoughts, one is in relation to what Gregory said. Gathering with God's people is not just simply a ritual, but is a crucial part of body life and an essential part of worship. Heb 10 makes it clear that one of the necessary aspects of assembly, that is stimulating others to love and good works. true local church commitment should not be held to fastly only if my favorite pastor is preaching or if I am serving "where i want to" in church. There is so much more to body life. What is interesting is the following verses in Heb 10...we should not continue willfully sinning by forsaking assembling. Strong words.
the second thought, and I hope not a cop-out, is when out of town we have considered the "nursery" factor. In other words, I am usually with one set of family or another and there are many grandkids all very young. We have felt it may be a bit much to overwhelm a nursery with 11 kids (not all mine :) ) all under the age of 5 or 7. Some churches can handle it, but for others, this may be more kids than they have in total. :)
Thanks for the thought provoking article!

duane.farley said...

Will, I think the issue you raise is a helpful and practical one for believers to consider. Thank you for drawing our attention to it. Your insightful post on this topic is timely since this is the major vacation season for many families (mine included). In fact, our family just got back from vacation yesterday.

Bottom line, I think believers "should" find a local church to attend while away from their own church. Perhaps a better way of stating this is: believers have the joy of finding another assembly to worship with while on vacation. Few things remind us of the universality of the church then when we have the opportunity to worship with the brethren in other congregations. We all need this kind of reminder because it is easy for all of us to slink back into a parochoial mentality.

But, there are more reasons for attending worship services while on vacation. First and foremost, is not Sunday the "Lord's Day"? It's not "My Day." Yet, when we take on the mindset: "This is my/our vacation to just get away from it all" are we not saying, "Sunday is 'my' day"? Without getting into issues of the "Sabbath" and the "Lord's Day" I think all believers would agree that Sunday is the day we rest our souls in Christ. Certainly there is merit to physical rest and relaxation on the Lord's Day. However, let's not forget the spiritual diminsion to "rest." There's a sense in which "rest" is very active. Why is it that many professing Christians and non-Christians plan and dedicate much time to rest and yet they feel restless in their souls? Could it be because physical rest is not the ultimate solution for an ultimate holistic rest? I contend full and satisifying rest only happens when our souls are active - when we are actively listening to the Word preached to us in a corporate setting, actively and corporately singing, actively and corporately praying with the brethren, actively fellowshipping, actively meditating on the Word after the sermon that was providentially appointed for us while on vacation etc. My point is simply this, rest does not come completely until we are actively pursuing rest for our souls through ordinary means of grace. While I am a big fan of hammocks, I must realize resting in a hammock and sipping lemonade will not give me complete rest.

Another consideration is sanctification. It is not an individual pursuit but rather a group project. I realize this group project happens primarily within the local church we've coventanted with and not churches we may visit on vacation. However, certain means of grace can't be fully enjoyed and benefited from by ourselves. I need others to sing with, pray with, and fellowhsip with.

A final factor that must be considered is what we as parents communicate to our kids. As a father of three young children I have to contemplate what I'm communicating to them. Perhaps like myself you've been on vacations where some extended family members stay home while others go to church. All of them profess Christ as Savior, but some stay and some go. In these situations, it would be easy to stay and use the excuse: "we only have so much time to spend together and so we are going to use the time to visit." Obviously, family is important and spending time together ought to be treasured. But, what is the subtle message communicated to a child like my six year old daughter? Sunday is "my/our day" to do as I/we want, not the "Lord's Day." Furthermore, it communicates I find more pleasure in my family relationships than in my relationship with Christ.

Thanks Will for generating this discussion.

Sam said...

My first thought after reading this was that this wouldn't have been a topic 100 years ago. It is also less likely to be a topic in some countries and many inner city neighborhoods. So this is a topic for a select group and generation of people. People who have the technology (generational...think travel), and the means ( to travel) to pick up and go.

Thus, its for a people who can choose and shop and consume. And therefore this tension exists...where do I go to church when I travel? Do I attend a local congregation when I travel or do I rest with my family? What if the churches in the area don't offer all the bells and whistles that my church back home offers? What if the band plays too loud or the preacher believes in speaking in tongues? Should I allow my family to "worship" with such a church?

What this group of people (of which I am part) often fails to recognize is that we have the unique opportunity to see and experience and encourage our global family. It's a stewardship and a privilege. On our trips around the world we can either continue as divisive, snooty, consumerist or we can choose to encourage, learn from, teach and edify our larger global family.

So someone can choose not to attend church while out of town but at least let the reasons be legit (for rest or solitude or for the reasons Dan mentioned)...not b/c it's not "your home church" or b/c they don't doctrinally line up with you.

Paul said...

Challenging thoughts on what it means to be the global body of Christ. Also challenging to me as an individual, since the the last time I went on vacation (a couple months ago) I/We decided not to attend a local service.

Alexandra Marie said...

It is so key when discussing this subject to have the Kingdom of God at the center and to position ourselves so that we may see the vital importance of the Church over the church (Not in any way to say the local church is forgotten or without responsibility). I agree that it can be a american mentality to build walls around an exclusive community that even those within cannot penetrate. Ultimately, however, it is not uniquely american to exclude but is the attitude and disposition of any sinner in one way or another.

I appreciate your commentary on the purposes of going to church. If we consider the purposes of Church we must submit that first and foremost the church exists to bring glory to God through worship, we were made to selflessly adore and enjoy God. It isn't until we move to a lower tier that we find community. This second tier is most commonly given a higher priority than the worship of God and I'm not sure believers are not always individually at fault for this; for many churches forget to give God his place in sermons, church service projects, community picnics, etc.

Having experienced "Going to Church Out-of-Town" for the last 10 weeks and counting, I believe our response should be to continue to fall at the feet of our Savior and ask that he might refine our hearts and actions so that we would approach church in any location with godly motivations. Ask that he would give us wider perspective and understanding of the KoG and the global Church. More than understanding, that we would love the KoG and seek after it until it finally arrives.