Growing up, church was pretty boring. Often, it felt like I was just going through the motions. Listening to scripture readings and singing hymns didn’t seem like the best way to spend a weekend morning. Communion didn’t mean much. Yeah, church was boring.
For many, the same attitude lingers on into the young adult years—even longer. Feelings of “not being fed” may cause some to leave church altogether, or at least try to find another Christian experience. Sometimes, people go for the churches that emphasize popular preachers and modern music—forget liturgy and sacraments.
I’m just not getting anything out of it! may be a common cry for many who find church boring. But I’m willing to bet much of this boredom stems from ignorance: We simply don’t know what church is all about!
At least, that has been my experience.
The fact is, the more I have learned about church, the less boring it has been. I have encountered four points in particular that have made me less bored—and even more excited—about going to church:
1. Worship like the first Christians
One of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve come across is the continuity between the Mass and the Sunday worship of the early Christians. If you attend any traditionally-based, liturgically-minded service on Sunday, then you are experiencing something that spans two millennia of Christian history.
Check out what Justin Martyr, an early second-century Christian, had to say about how Christians worship on Sundays:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.”
–First Apology 67
Notice that there are essentially two major parts: the proclamation of scripture and the celebration of the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper). This has been the basic format of Christian worship since, well, the beginning. It’s cool to know that the basic structure of the Mass—or any other traditional Eucharistic liturgy—has been maintained for over 1,900 years.
At least. For there is still an earlier document, the Didache, which again highlights the central place of the Eucharist during Sunday worship:
But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
This Scripture + Eucharist format is not only ancient but universally present. Wherever the Christian faith spread, Sunday worship would ultimately be anchored in two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. West or East, Latin or Greek, early Christians practiced their faith in reference to their own local cultures and traditions while always holding firm to this essential form of the Eucharistic liturgy.
Nowadays, however, it’s not uncommon for some churches to relegate the Eucharist to a place of secondary importance. In fact, some do not even have communion on a weekly basis. One reason for this is precisely how some Christians now understand communion, which leads to the next point…
2. The Eucharist is Jesus Christ
Perhaps THE reason why church is no longer boring for me is my deeper appreciation of what—or rather, who—we receive during communion. In the Eucharist, Christ is present. By receiving it, we receive Christ.
That’s right. A celebration of bread and wine becomes the very means of intimate union with Christ. For some Christians, this is a bizarre claim. The Eucharist is obviously just bread and wine, right? Well, apparently, yes: to the senses, it’s just common food. But Christ often uses the mundane to convey his grace. According to St. Paul, the bread is an actual “sharing in the body of Christ” and the cup of wine is an actual “sharing in the blood of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16).
Jesus tells us that by receiving his flesh and blood in the Eucharist, we come to partake of his own divine life:
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Ah! Suddenly it becomes clear on why the Eucharist was central to early Christian worship. To early Christians, the Lord’s Supper was not just a symbolic memorial but the substantial presence of their Lord and Savior. Justin Martyr, who was quoted earlier, goes on to say:
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
-First Apology 66
Early Christians were emphatic in their belief that Christ is present in the Eucharist. The second-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 110) goes so far to say that the heretics are those who “do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans).
While this may be a foreign—even shocking—belief to many American Christians, the fact is, most Christians have historically held a high view of the Eucharist. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and other ancient Christian traditions believe that the Eucharist is truly Jesus Christ. Many Protestants, like Lutherans and Anglicans, also believe in the real presence.
So how could going to church ever be boring, then? By attending a Eucharistic liturgy, the Lord of the Universe—the great I AM—gives Himself to me. Literally. By taking communion, we are spiritually united to Christ. Read John 6:56 again! By receiving the Eucharist, we “abide” in Christ, and he in us. Fifth-century Christian Cyril of Alexandria puts it beautifully when he says “as two pieces of wax fused together make one, so he who receives Holy Communion is so united with Christ that Christ is in him and he is in Christ.”
3. We’re made for *liturgical* worship
Sometimes, church only feels like going through the motions. Cross, kneel, sit, stand, repeat. In the past, I’ve been externally present, but not always internally so. Again, I was bored. But I have since realized that the body’s involvement actually deepens the experience of worship.
Liturgy, ritual, sacraments… all of this corresponds to human nature.
The fact is, we aren’t disembodied spirits. We aren’t angels. We have bodies, created good by God. We should expect God to relate to us through our bodies.
Think of the Incarnation, after all. You know, God—eternal spirit—assuming a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. God chose mere matter as the means of our salvation. This incarnational principle extends beyond the person of Christ, particularly in the sacraments he instituted. The seven sacraments (or “mysteries”) of the church are none other than material realities that make present the spiritual realities they signify. The Eucharist is the supreme example, but others express it as well. In baptism, initiation into God’s family is accompanied by water. In confession, God’s own forgiveness is conveyed through human ministers. In confirmation, the Holy Spirit is given with the anointing with oil.
If you’ve ever been to a Catholic or Orthodox church, you’re sure to see this sacramental principle on full display. Icons, statues, and other artwork recall important events in the lives of Christ and the saints. Incense fills the room, suggesting sacred presence. Special vestments signify the ministers’ sacred duties. The candle’s flame symbolizes the light of Christ. Voices and instruments lead the congregation in prayer. Parishioners cross themselves, genuflect, kneel, bow, prostrate, and so on. And of course water, oil, bread, and wine are used in the celebration of the sacraments.
And then there’s ritual. The idea of ritual is controversial in some Christian circles, but the fact is our daily lives are full of “rituals”—even if not religious ones. We may have specific routines when we wake up and before we go to bed. We may have habits of doing things at work and school. We should only expect there to be rituals in our spiritual lives as well, especially considering that Christian worship is a communal—and not just individual—phenomena.
4. We are (ONE BIG) family
Lastly, I have come to appreciate church as the means of bringing all people together. To attend Mass is to be part of something much, much larger than myself. Of course, there are many ways of connecting with fellow Christians, but none do so like the Eucharist.
The Eucharistic liturgy connects all Christians in all places and in all times. The liturgy is the corporate worship of the Church. That is, it brings together all of Christ’s disciples into one body, God’s family. “We who are many are one body,” says St. Paul, “for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). The celebration of the Eucharist is not only communion with God but communion with our fellow Christians, then. It acts as a sign of the church’s unity. It’s what makes the church, well, church.
This includes those in Heaven as well. In fact, the Eucharist is in many ways a prefigurement of our union with God and neighbor in Heaven. But even now, we are united to the saints in Heaven, the great “cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on in our journey of faith (Heb. 12:1). I think we modern Christians lose sight of this, but the faithful in Heaven are as real as we are, and they’re fully part of the church. St. Augustine relates the saints above to the Eucharist when he says:
Neither are the souls of the pious dead separated from the Church which even now is the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise there would be no remembrance of them at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ.”
–The City of God 20:9:2