I’m glad you’re taking the new year as an opportunity to seek real spiritual growth. Yes, I did write to Mike, and he has obviously experienced some benefit, so I am happy to write similarly to you, as you’ve requested.
William, you are a first-generation Christian. That is, your parents were not Christians who practised regular spiritual disciplines. Our parents are the ones who shape many of the routines and rhythms of our adult lives. We tend to model and continue the rhythm of life that our parents bequeathed to us, with modifications. That means, lacking such an example from your parents, you have to learn the disciplines associated with church life from scratch. Your parents did not teach you, so you have to learn elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many people in your position make a fundamental error. Thinking that church is akin to certain other public gatherings, they treat it in the same way. For example, they think a church service is closest to attending a concert, or a speech, or a political rally, or a public lecture, or a hobby club or society. Therefore, they treat it similarly: they attend it as regularly as they would one of those events, they mingle or socialise at about the same level of familiarity or superficiality, and they involve themselves with a similar level of commitment.
What that looks like, at least in your case, is that you attend about three out of every seven Sundays. You probably don’t notice it, but that means you’re in church 22 Sundays out of the 52. Or to put it another way, you’re in church for five months of the year, and absent for seven.
Now lest you think this is all about numbers, let me explain why your Christian growth will be stunted or extremely slow with this pattern of attendance.
The first is the concept of continuity. Many immature Christians think that church attendance on a Sunday is like going to see a standalone movie: an encapsulated whole, with no connections outside itself. They have no concept of one Sunday being integrally connected to the previous or succeeding Sundays. For them, church is like going to the gym, or having your hair cut: it might be good for you, it’s good to go back, but each attendance is a discrete, freestanding spiritual experience.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Church attendance, to have any real benefit in your life, functions by growing in understanding of an ongoing, continuous exposition of the Word. A sequential, weekly, verse-by-verse exposition of Scripture is how we gain a large-scale, coherent, and comprehensive Christian worldview. The Bible is a collection of books that have beginnings, middles and endings. The Bible as a whole is a long, sequential story of God’s revelation to man. A faithful preacher must preach through the whole counsel of God one verse, paragraph, chapter and book at a time. To attend a church the way you do is the equivalent of like hearing a phone conversation that drops the last third of every sentence. It is like reading a book which misprinted every other page as blank, or listening to a tune which omitted a third of the notes. The point is, you would not be able to make sense of what you are hearing. That’s exactly why your kind of church attendance does not promote growth. You can only grow through understanding of the Word, and understanding comes through connecting a very long series of biblical dots. Because your attendance is so sporadic, it is simply impossible to connect those dots.
In fact, I will sometimes have someone disagree with a point I made in a sermon. It is almost always a point that I answered, or balanced out, in another sermon. But because the critic has swooped in and cherry-picked one paragraph out of one sermon, they can accuse me of error. When someone is faithfully present every Sunday, this hardly ever happens, because they are absorbing the continuity of Scripture: the way it harmonises, balances and complements itself.
The second reason why this kind of attendance seldom produces growth is related to continuity: it is the sheer volume of Scripture. Just as a preacher cannot capture the continuity of the Bible’s message in just one sermon, neither can he compress the full scope of God’s Word into every sermon. It takes many sermons, over many years, to begin to even lightly cover the whole counsel of God. Think of it. The Bible has 1189 chapters. Even if a preacher preached an entire chapter every Sunday for a year, it would take him 22 years to preach the whole Bible. Some Scripture allows a chapter-per-sermon, but much Scripture requires a very detailed examination of single paragraphs, or even single verses. This will take more than 1189 sermons. He will also need to explain some matters through topical sermons. He will need to address very practical matters from time to time. He will need to preach special sermons on special occasions or because of urgent events. This is why I cannot even begin to sympathise with the person who complains that having two services on a Sunday is “too many sermons”. Even if you were to get 104 sermons a year, it would still take many of those years to gain a competent grasp of Scripture.
So what then of the person who hears 32 sermons a year, or 23, or 15? There is no question: the person is spiritually starving. No amount of personal devotions can make up for that kind of loss. Their comprehension of Scripture will certainly remain infantile, vague, and superficial. It will lack context, scope, and depth. It will misread God’s character, misunderstand the purpose of redemption, and misconstrue the nature of the Christian life. It is really high arrogance to acknowledge that the Bible is as large as it is (over 780 000 words in English), and then present oneself to hear it for about 20 hours in a year.
Amazingly, the very same person operates with a completely different standard in other realms. She reads that her course in public speaking or marketing or accounting contains 40 hours of lectures, and she happily signs up, and attends them all. He learns that his degree course will require 450 hours of lectures in total, and he enrols. Convert his degree course to a study of Scripture – divide his 450 hours into 40-minute sermons – and he would be attending 675 Sunday services. That’s 13 years of consecutive Sunday morning sermons. Would he do that? The point is, people don’t treat the knowledge of God’s Word the way they treat the knowledge needed for professional advance or “personal growth”. They simply don’t understand the investment of time needed to grow in God’s Word.
English has a number of metaphors which describe your kind of attendance: hit-and-miss, drive-by shooting, scattershot, shotgun. Why would these metaphors all employ the image of firearms or shooting? It must be because unplanned, irregular, haphazard shooting very seldom hits its target. Stability, focus, and practice are the stock-in-trade of an accurate marksman. Continuity and regularity are likewise the only way to hit the target when it comes to God’s Word.
William, until you begin to grasp the sheer scope of what God wants you to learn, as well as the complex and harmonious shape of what God wants you to learn, you will likely keep attending church in this haphazard way. To do so is to keep yourself in a very infantile state of Christian maturity.
Once you see the size and complexity of God’s Word, then frankly, the only sensible thing to do is to attend whenever it is preached.
Your friend and pastor,