"Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, ... God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23-24 NIV).
I wouldn't go to a theologian for advice on, say, managing a computer network. For the same reasons, I don't necessarily take at face value anything a computer guru would say about religion. I wouldn't necessarily dismiss it, though, and that's why I've been thinking for the last couple of days about a quote attributed to Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft and the "information age." I'm not sure of the context, or why he was commenting on religion in the first place, but he said something pretty interesting: "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."
I have no idea whether or not Bill Gates goes to church. For all I know, right after he said that, he said something along the lines of, "But I go anyway because I think it's important for other reasons." But, that short quotation actually started me thinking in a couple of different directions, and, if you'll indulge me, maybe I'll think it through here.
Actually, my first thought was, "Well, I don't think your software is very efficient either, so I guess we're even." But I guess that's for another kind of article. So let's go with my second thought.
I had to agree with him.
To an extent, anyway. Religion, as it is defined as going to church on Sunday mornings, isn't very efficient. There are a lot of other things that could be accomplished on a Sunday morning, and if you tell me you've never even thought of a few, then you'll fib about other things, too. You could read the paper and have a nice, quiet morning with your spouse and kids. Go to the zoo. Finish up that yard work that's been on your to-do list since last spring. You could catch up on some reading, finish your homework, or go into the office for a couple of hours.
You could serve breakfast to the homeless. You could volunteer at a hospital. Help your neighbor out with that project he's been working on. While we're at it, let's dream big. You could start up your presidential campaign. You could discover a cure for cancer. You could solve the problems of world hunger and poverty. (You might need two Sunday mornings for that ....)
So yes, I have to agree: multiply all the people who attend church on Sundays with all that they could be doing instead, and there's a lot that's potentially not getting done while people sit in pews. Instead, they're putting their lives on hold for an hour or two in order to sing songs, read an old book, listen(?) to a (boring) sermon, and have a bit of cracker and a sip of wine or grape juice.
But maybe that's the point of what we refer to as "going to church." It's inefficient, in terms of allocation of time resources. There are a lot of other things we could be doing, even need to be doing. And yet we carve out a chunk of time we don't have to do things that seem irrelevant to the things that the world considers really important and valuable.
Marva Dawn, in one of her books, calls worship "A Royal Waste of Time." She says that's why we do it: "it takes us out of time and into the eternal purposes of God's kingdom." I think I agree, at least to the extent that I understand what she's saying. Worship with the church is important precisely because it requires us to push everything we're striving to accomplish into the background of our lives and invite what God wants of us into the foreground. Sure, we can worship alone, anytime, anywhere — but do we? And when we do, isn't it usually kind of hurried and rushed and squeezed in between appointments, or while we're on the way to do something else, or just before we crash into bed, exhausted by the day's efforts?
Worship with the church also forces us to remember that we're not alone in our faith. Sometimes it's easier to believe that we are, because recognizing that we have companions and compatriots in our walk with Jesus entangles us in their lives. It pushes us to take responsibility for each other, pray for each other, care for each other, challenge each other — love each other. That can be daunting and frightening, and I suspect that's what a lot of people who don't care for church really object to. They rightly recognize that church calls them to intimacy, commitment, and responsibility.
So while "religion" may not be efficient from the world's perspective, I think that's its valuable. It removes myself and my own agenda from center stage and forces me to give God's agenda — that I love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that I love my neighbor as myself — the central place in my life that it deserves. If meeting with the church for worship wasn't a regular part of my life, I don't know where the impulse for living out God's purposes in my life would come from. I don't know where my heart's compass would be calibrated so that it points reliably toward home. If I didn't meet with the church for worship, I'm not sure I would ever be able to remember that human ingenuity, effort, and accomplishment make rather poor gods.
Gate's words also cause me to wonder how "religion" has become synonymous with "Sunday morning" for so many people. While a lot happens, at least in the Christian "religion," on Sunday morning, what happens then is supposed to have to do with Monday through Saturday, too. Maybe part of the reason that people outside the church — often good people — tend to think of religion as irrelevant or a waste of time is that they think it's only about what we do for an hour or two on a Sunday morning. Maybe they think it's disconnected from what they term "real life." I wonder where they might have gotten that idea?
Oh, right. From church people, most likely.
So maybe it's not our job as Christians to set people like Bill Gates straight about how important it is to express our faith through worship in church. Maybe it's more our job to set ourselves straight — to bring our lives as seen on Monday through Saturday in line with what we say we believe on Sunday. Maybe, as the people around us see evidence of our transformed hearts in our words, actions, priorities, and values, they'll be less quick to dismiss the church and organized "religion" as irrelevant. But, if what we confess on Sundays has little to do with the rest of our lives, can anyone be blamed for thinking that there are more important things to do with a Sunday morning?
The time has come, Jesus told us, when worship has less to do with holy places outside of ourselves and more to do with the holy places we make for God in our hearts and minds — in our "spirits." Then God, who is Spirit himself, can take up residence in the only tabernacle he ever really cared much about: us. Make room for him this morning as you worship. And be sure to leave him that room for him in your life when you leave.
You never know who might be paying attention.