First Baptist, where Celeste and I go on Sunday mornings, has two joint congregations. One meets at 11 and there you have about 100-150, depending on the Sunday. The second meets at 12 and had about 200-300 Karen (Care-in) who come from Burma (Myanmar). We go to the 11 oclock service, and you have a wide variety of people– from all kinds of different socio economic backgrounds, age-ranges, and education levels. Many of us live nearby, and some come a distance.
Sometimes, we have our joint-service (which happens a few times each year) where both congregations meet together. The church is packed. At the most recent joint service, it started with each of the pastors opening in prayer (ours in English, the Karen’s in their language). Then the children sang a couple of songs from the front– Karen and non-Karen kids singing together. Then the congregation sang a few hymns– in English, and two Karen dialects– simultaneously.
This was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in church for quite a while. All of us, very different in so many ways, all unified and filling that church with music. The Choir Celeste and I are in did a song– a slave spiritual, and then a Karen choir of about 45 went up and sang. Their pastor preached, and it was interpreted (last time our pastor preached and it was interpreted). We closed with a hymn together– again, in three languages at once.
When Celeste and I were in Milwaukee the fall of 2011, we attended her little Lutheran church, which also had a wide variety of people attending– some with family members in prison, others with good jobs, others retired, and a spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. Every week, we would all line up and go to the front to take communion together, and that was one of the most moving spiritual experiences for me– watching that line, and being in that line, knowing all the different people there with all their various backgrounds, all going forward to participate together in Communion.
This sort of Christian communal activity is often perceived by some Christians as secondary to the most important focus of proper doctrine. On this somewhat gnostic Christian view, what matters is what I know, and what I profess (and what I do only secondarily, and what I do in particular church practice on Sundays as a distant third– much distant).
The difficulty with this view of Christianity is that it focuses too heavily on the head, and not enough on the heart and habits of the Christian. We are habitual beings, and the habits we have make us smarter or dumber, fatter or more healthy, more focused or less focused, more kind or less kind, etc. Habits and practices do matter– they are not merely secondary unimportant activities which really don’t matter, any more than actually exercising is somehow less important than what I profess and believe about healthiness.
When I worship in a church full of people with broadly diverse socio-economic, educational, relational, ethnic and other backgrounds, I have opportunity to be impacted in ways I would never be able to in a homogeneous congregation.
When we take communion together, or sing together, or say a prayer together, we mutually encourage each other and shape and form our own souls in community and purpose focused on the life Christ has called us to in community.
When I take time to read the scriptures, and pray for others, and meditate on what God might want to convict me of or prompt me towards, I will be impacted through this practice, in quietness before God.
Our practices are important. They do impact us. That is not to say that a proper understanding and a robust knowledge of scriptures and Christian living is not important, but as human beings, our in-the-world behaviors and practices, such as kneeling, breaking bread together, confessing out loud what we are struggling with or praise God for, and our singing and praying in unison together are fundamentally important to our lives as Christians in the world.
This is why it is so important, as Paul says, that you “not neglect the meeting together, as is the habit of some….”