Three women sit at the bar. The first woman says, give me an empty beer mug. The other two get beers. The first woman grabs hold of the empty mug. She puts it up to her mouth and sets it down. She traces the lines of the mug with her index finger. You ask what she’s doing and she says going to the bar is important. It is what she believes she must do in order to live a good life. She doesn’t enjoy it much but it is the right thing to do. This is her duty. She sits for a while, gets into a bar fight, and leaves when she’s had enough.
The second woman exchanges a smirk with woman number three. She takes the beer and pours it over her head. She works the beer into her hair and her pores. She takes a deep breath. She blows beer bubbles. She says that this is a very important experience for her. It’s crucial from time to time - not necessarily as a habit - you need to remember what it’s like to be covered in beer. She even pours beer over her head at home and on tuesday and Wednesday mornings and watching online videos of other people pouring beer over their heads.
The third woman of course drinks the beer.
Now drinkers one and two are working hard at bar attendance. The first one is hanging in there - she is bringing her faith and her duty into the beer experience and she feels that this is going to work, this ritual of going to the bar, holding the beer mug. The power of this event is in either fulfilling your duty to go to the bar (drinker 1) or to immerse yourself in the beer, as an experience (drinker 2). Drinker 3 is shaped by the physical action. The alcohol, as the Bible says, gladdens her heart.
Something real has happened for drinker 3. The power is not in what she brings to the beer experience, but the beer itself. she has experienced it, yet she wants to repeat the experience, because it isn’t just an experience, it is actual physical transformation. She knows exactly what it feels like to hold the mug, and drink the beer, she wants to repeat the experience because it shapes her. If someone were to ask her why she is a regular at the bar - haven’t you experienced beer - she’ll tell them yes, and that’s why she wants to come back.
You don’t have to be told that you should go to worship if you understand that it is formative. You go because it shapes you, nourishes you, gladdens your heart. It actually changes you. One of Steinbeck’s great observations about the church comes from East of Eden:
“The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels.”
Worship has to be more than an event taking a man out of his bleakness for a time. Something has to really happen in worship. Not because you’re doing your duty, and not because you’re getting church all over you, but because in worship we actually partake in the person of Christ and are nourished - we are actually more equipped for Christian living as a result. We are full. Not figuratively, if you close your eyes and imagine it hard enough, but really-spiritually full.
If we want to talk about “attending” worship, then we mean it like attending the emergency room or attending your own wedding. These are not experiences; they are life-jackings. The worship service of the Lord Jesus is even more so. It is profound experience that truly nourishes and shapes us.
What’s at stake here is raising the bar for what Jesus is doing through His local church:
Ephesians 2:19–22 (ESV): So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The really spiritual way to live is to worship the Lord in His church with every expectation that you will partake in the very real presence of the Lord to nourish you, equip you, heal you, and make you whole.
One of our congregants texted a question about the sermon:
“Was just thinking about your sermon today and the example you gave of the 3 women in the bar. Is person number 1 or 2 the fault of the individuals attitude or is it something inherently wrong with how the church congregation partakes in worship as a whole? Is it both? In other words how do you make sure you’re person # 3? Brian thinks we are all persons # 1,2, and 3 at different times depending on the attitude we bring to worship. Thoughts?”
The answer is both, really. It’s possible to be drinker 1 or 2 no matter how well your church teaches the Bible and structures the liturgy, because we naturally want to keep God at arm’s length. But the way a church worships makes a big difference. The church that speaks only in terms of personal experience, and focuses on the individual should not be surprised when their people are pursuing worship as duty or as an immersive event. The church that is preoccupied with “preparing your heart for worship” often loses the point in pious spiritualism. After wringing every bit of experience and emotion and “worshipfulness” out of attending church, what’s left? Do your duty, and hope something happens.
These churches should not be surprised when the communion of the saints, the social dimensions of the Gospel, and the Kingdom priority of reconciling man to man is completely lost. Event-driven, sermon-information-driven churches should not be surprised when their people feel excluded from worship by their struggles with sin (because they’re bad at diligence) or when they feel ashamed to be present (because they’re bad at immersing themselves). And when Jesus is really and truly offered to them at His Table, they will either bladly “experience” Christ’s body, or sit back like second-class citizens. These are the first and second drinkers, and though they are dutiful and immersive, even though they are regulars in the bar, they are absolutely dying of thirst.