“You really had to be there!” my friend said.
He was speaking in Boston at the recent annual meeting of our denomination, the Church of Christ, Scientist, about a wedding he’d attended.
The people who couldn’t come to the wedding, he said, probably sent messages of love anyway. But for those physically present, “the spirit of joy, support, and yearning for good that every person at that wedding was feeling for that new couple was palpable.”
Of course, being present hasn’t always been possible over the past few years. But now that restrictions have eased, the question of the meaning and purpose of organized religion comes roaring back.
What value does physically gathering to worship have for ourselves and society? Especially at a time when many organized religions appear moribund or unable to deal with the challenges of society much less the demoralizing scandals within their own ranks?
Those who’ve given up religious attendance, or never tried it, may point to the failings of organized religion as a reason to stay away. There is no question that reform and revival are needed in many directions in just about every type of human institution.
But as my friend put it, referring to that wedding, “There was nothing like being together. You had to be there to experience the whole thing.”
Isn’t that true of church at its best? Or any place of genuine worship of God? You really have to be there for the full experience.
When we show up to worship God together, the experience can go deeper than any other collective human experience, weddings included. It begins with each attendant bringing, as much as they can, the qualities of grace they might take to a wedding—a hunger for good, the expectation of joy, tangible support of one another, and palpable love.
In Christianity, Jesus Christ promised, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:30. The number of people, then, doesn’t matter. What does matter, is the presence of the Holy Spirit lifting everyone. This reveals church as a spiritual reality as well as a human community.
As Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of my denomination said, church is both the divine “structure of Truth and Love [God]” and an institution that must “afford proof of its utility.” And as Irenaeus, an early Christian leader put it, “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.” When the ever-presence and power of Spirit is felt in a congregation— or even a church committee—tremendous good is possible.
Christian Science churches have no clergy but are lay organizations in which everyone is equal. The congregation comes together as “a community of Christians dedicated to making vital Christianity the center of their lives,” as church historian Stephen Gottschalk wrote.
Sunday worship is contemplative and without ceremony. This strippeddown public worship allows yearning hearts to feel the Spirit and respond to it. The congregation sings and prays for everyone present. They listen for the Spirit-filled proclamation of the Word, which, we believe, actually heals the sick and redeems from sin. At Wednesday meetings, the congregation testifies spontaneously to God’s healing power, love, and presence.
When we show up in houses of worship, acknowledging God’s goodness and seeking to love one another, organized religion can face its shortcomings and fulfill its true function. And feeling God’s presence together, lifting us to higher worship, service, and love for each other is something we don’t want to miss!
Diane R. Hanover serves an appointment as the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Arizona.
Faith Matters Diane R. Hanover Guest columnist