The Importance of Showing Up
I hear the refrain so often.
“I’m just looking for community”
I hear it from single people. I hear it from married people. I hear it from parents with kids. But mostly I hear it from young people. So many young people. I hear resounding loneliness. I hear the pain of disconnection. I read about skyrocketing rates of mental health issues for young adults such as anxiety, depression, suicide rates, etc.. There is an increasing body of research on the real physiological damage that comes from social trauma and displacement. And yet in spite of the longing for community, emerging adults are less likely to attend church than prior generations of young adults.
I hear people complain they don’t feel like they belong, that they’re not being fed, that they feel excluded, that people are judging them, and so forth. And I look at them and I just don’t understand how they can feel those things so powerfully when they barely show up to church. Of course, you feel excluded when you’re not regularly part of something.
Community is work. (Episode 11/20/18) It is no different from the physical training and nutrition required to change your body. It takes time to build. And yet it never ceases to surprise me how people consistently fail to live up to their stated value of community by not showing up consistently to church. The act of showing up is critical to everything important in life and for those who claim a religious affiliation, regular church attendance is the bedrock of Christian community. It is 80% of the struggle for community.
The act of showing up is critical to everything important in life and for those who claim a religious affiliation, regular church attendance is the bedrock of Christian community.
It’s strange because people don’t usually whine about being fat and out of shape when they aren’t making consistent effort to eat healthily and exercise. And yet somehow people think community should come effortlessly like it did at some point in the past. Their reference point is some previous magical past moment in their lives where community simply happened.
That’s why one of the biggest disservices a campus Christian fellowship can do is lure followers of Jesus into thinking that intimate community is easy. That’s what I thought after being involved with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) during college. It felt like the epitome of church. I thought my college experience was the purest expression of Acts 2:42 - all day, every day. Of course we just happened to live in close proximity with each other, were unencumbered by work responsibilities, had minimal pressure to study and attend class, hailed from mostly upper middle-class backgrounds, and shared similar intelligence, drive, and idealism. With those factors on our side, of course, community was cake.
Again, the workout metaphor still operates here. Most people have a season in their lives, usually in high school or college, where getting in peak physical shape came easily and naturally. You played on a sports team so there was social pressure to stay fit. You spent hours each week in practice with your team so that working out and your social circle was intertwined. And then after the season is over, real life happened. Your body didn't recover as quickly. You gained weight. You noticed the rate at which you built muscle and lost fat was significantly slower than the past. But you likely recognized the reality of aging and life seasons and doubled down on the commitment required to keep your body healthy, knowing it would take much more work than it did when you were young. And again, the physical health metaphor works at many levels here because our food industrial complex often impedes healthy eating. We eat way too many processed foods that aren’t good for you and yet processed food is cheap, easy, and tasty.
The corollary is we have virtual community that works against face-to-face community. Social media is a form of processed community that makes it incredibly easy to connect with others, especially those with whom we share a particular set of values. Dependence on social media can cause in-person community, which involves people different from you, to not only feel optional but even undesirable. Thus, it's no wonder you don’t feel like you belong at any given church because on social media, you can freely associate (and do) with those with whom you have everything in common. But that’s the beauty of Christian community - and the reason the late Eugene Peterson recommends going to a small church - you don’t get to pick who you’re with and you’re forced to engage them in close quarters.
Lastly, the nature of community is that it’s not just about you. When you played on a sports team, your participation, your skill, and your physical health were necessary for the utmost performance of your squad. None of that could happen if you didn’t show up first. What you fail to understand when you don’t show up to church is you alter the social dynamics of your community. When you don’t show up, your community learns to function without you. When you show up consistently and are engaged, the community adapts to your presence. You might even say the community is formed by your presence - not once, not sporadically, but by your consistent engagement over time. The thrill of friendship and belonging is rarely a dopamine rush. It is rather a settled kind of contentment that comes from focusing on others.
So take some time and reflect on your commitment to your church community. Decide if you’re willing to do what it takes. And if so, then show up every week. Show up when you feel like it and when you don’t. Recognize, just like working out when you’re past your prime, change will not come as easily as in the past, cultural factors are working against your relational health, and it will take time and commitment to see results. And just like any type of physical training or diet, set some reachable goals. Start with stuff you can control like showing up for three weeks straight and minimizing weekend travel. Graduate from there to arriving early or meeting one new person each week. Confront your distaste for painful aspects of the service. It may be the singing, greeting, or sermon portions of the service. Ask God to reframe your perspective of those activities. As you build momentum, come up with goals that confront fears and areas of growth. Here are some possibilities: Stop listening to the sermon for others and think about how to apply it to yourself. Sing loud. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know during the greeting time. Stick around afterward and mingle. Serve in a ministry.
All these efforts take time. You will encounter resistance. Expect days where you feel like tapping out and would rather stay home. Anticipate some moments during service, just like in a tough workout, where you want to quit and yet recognize this is ultimately for your good. Finally, celebrate a victory every time you choose to show up. Your physical, mental, and emotional health rest on it.
This blog post originally appeared on Fred Mok’s blog, Rant of the Exiles