Going to Church? Start with “Why?”

This is a slightly edited version of what I sent out in the weekly email on Monday.

I have been wrestling with the deeper meaning of Holy Communion since I became an Anglican.  In actual practice the Eucharist frequently felt like an awkward, anti-climactic add-on. It was often rushed, something to get through quickly.  Often the liturgy would be abbreviated if the sermon happened to go a bit long.

Well, I need not have pondered so long.  The essential meaning of the Service was right there in the Book of Common Prayer.

Consider the two offerings that we make in the Eucharist as described in the second post-communion prayer, “The Prayer of Oblation,” and notice particularly how we are reminded to regard these offerings as a privilege we are unworthy to perform. This prayer recaps with gratitude what we should have been doing all the way through the whole service:

O LORD and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving [Hebrews 13:15]; most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee [Romans 12:1-2], humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all partakers of the Holy Communion, may be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him. And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service [Luke 17:10]; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen.

With these “sacrifices” as our top priorities, and bathed in a profound sense of grateful unworthiness, we have an advantage over those who go to church seeking to be entertained or even fed. We will come to church to worship, to give thanks, to give ourselves afresh to Christ in gratitude for our great salvation (“and all other benefits of His passion”). We will seldom be disappointed, and if so, mostly with ourselves.

This is not just for the laity.  Performance anxiety can be an exhausting problem for those who lead, preach and officiate on Sunday.  But when I come primarily to offer grateful worship, and to give myself afresh to our Lord, even if I am up front my performance fades to almost nothing in significance.  It’s not about me! What a relief! Worship is a much “easier yoke and lighter burden” than pleasing the people — or myself.

Even the sincerest Christians will find this counter-cultural. We are programmed in everything to ask first: “What am I getting out of this?” The church has sadly adopted a marketing approach to evangelism and everything else. “Come to our church. We have all these things to offer YOU.” Dallas Willard characterized most ministry today as “providing religious goods and services” for the market. This is not only tacky, it is deadly.  It keeps us in the center, which is the cause of all our problems in the first place.

True worship is 180 degrees different. We come to give not to get. We come also to encourage our brothers and sisters — another great privilege and joy. What could be more fulfilling than to bring joy to our Heavenly Father, in spite of our many imperfections, and encouragement a sibling in Christ? Our Anglican way is perfectly designed for just this.

If grateful giving is our primary joy in life, we Communicants should be the happiest, most contagious, people on earth–and look forward to Sunday most of all. Wouldn’t this transform our outlook on Sunday mornings, and our children’s attitude toward church? I wish I had been raised this way, and raised our kids this way. On the way home the primary question would not be what did I get out of church today, or what didn’t particularly suit me, but what was I able to give?

(Note: I haven’t said a word about that other offering — money! When we understand worship, money takes care of itself.)

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