The Protestant tradition generally recognizes two sacraments, the ones I just mentioned, the Lord's Supper and baptism. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions recognize seven sacraments.
In doing some research into the theology of my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, some have argued that our tradition recognizes (in deed if not in word) three sacraments: the Lord's Supper, baptism and the Lord's Day.
The gathering of the saints on the Lord's Day as a sacrament. You don't see this gathering mentioned a lot in discussions about the sacraments. But in my faith tradition going to church--the observance of the Lord's Day--is very much a sacramental practice.
To be sure, more often than not gathering on a Sunday in the Churches of Christ has been experienced more as a duty and an obligation than as a sacrament. But interestingly, the way we've focused on duty and obligation in observing the Lord's Day has informed how I've come to understand the sacrament of our gathering.
Specifically, at least when I was growing up, church services were aggressively non-consumeristic. Church was never supposed to be entertaining. Church wasn't even supposed to be interesting. Church wasn't supposed to be helpful or useful or impactful. Church wasn't there to "meet your needs."
So if you ever expressed a consumeristic sentiment--"I'm just not getting a lot out of church."--you'd be met with a blank stare. Why would you expect to "get anything" from church? Such an assumption betrayed a deep flaw in your theological understanding of what church was about. Church isn't about you. Church is not about your boredom or your needs or your feelings of fulfillment. The fact that your are bored is perfectly irrelevant. Church is a duty. You go regardless. That is all.
That's how I was raised. You go to church. Simply because you are supposed to go. Commanded to go. To expect to "get something" out of church was consumeristic, self-absorbed and ego-centric.
Consequently, for many decades church services in the Churches of Christ were stubbornly uninventive. To innovate was to betray the fundamental conviction that church wasn't about "reaching" or "speaking to" the audience. If you were trying to please or interest the audience you were focusing on the people and not on God.
Of course all that sounds horrible. A church aggressively committed to being boring doesn't sound like a great way to do church. But this focus on duty had a genius about it. And it was this: a church based upon duty was not anthropocentric. In a church-as-duty model the human agent--our needs, wants, preferences and desires--were marginalized. Church-as-duty just isn't about you.
There is wisdom here. And it points to an irony in a lot of contemporary Christian worship. In striving to be more and more about God contemporary Christian worship has, ironically, become more and more about the preferences and tastes of the audience. True, when church is boring your numbers will be small, but you can be much more confident that the people showing up are showing up for God and not for themselves. Because they would, probably, rather be somewhere else. Yet here they are because they see it as their duty to God. God expects the gathering and they are obliging.
Again, many people will be rightly horrified by this grim vision of going to church out of a sense of duty or obligation. There is something masochistic about dragging yourself and the family out of bed on a Sunday morning to sit through a boring, rote and seemingly pointless religious observance. I myself rebelled against this in my young adulthood. I wanted church to be "meaningful" and "impactful." I saw the "duty" of going to church to be an example of a mindless and spiritually hollow legalism.
Which is to say, I now realize, I wanted church to be less about God and more about me.
So here's the crazy thing. I've found my way back to seeing the wisdom of church as duty. But less as a duty and more as a sacrament.
Here's my confession: I'm increasingly delighted when church is boring or irritating. I only feel the Spirit of God moving in my soul when I'm struggling to stay awake or chaffing at the banality of the praise songs. Spiritually speaking, the worst thing that can happen to me is for me to "like" church.
I don't want church to be like Facebook. I don't want to "like" church. I want to be bored by church. I want the drudgery.
I'm exaggerating of course. I'm simply here trying to gesture toward this notion that, more than anything, church is about showing up. Regardless. Showing up regardless.
I love it when church is stimulating, impactful, meaningful and thought-provoking. But for me, more and more, the showing up part is the most important part. I'd like the other stuff to happen of course, but I'm going to show up regardless.
Because I think the gathering itself--let me make that really clear, the gathering itself--is sacramental. I experience grace in the gathering. And when I look back on my early experiences of church, where we very dutifully gathered every Sunday, I now realize that the grace I experienced was due to the gathering, the simple act of gathering, week in and week out.
Grace came to me, sacramentally, in the material act of congregating. Grace came to me in the bodies and faces of those who greeted me at the door. In the bodies and faces of those who sat beside me in Sunday School class. In the bodies and faces of those who prayed and sang beside me in the pews.
The content of the service varied. Sermons were variously interesting or boring. Songs were variously uplifting or ear-splitting. Prayers were variously inspiring or rote. But week in and week out all that proved to be irrelevant. Grace came to me through the gathering. Church may have been a duty but it taught me that gathering, the simple act of gathering, was an experience of grace.
And so, to this day, the alarm will ring early on Sunday mornings. And the Becks will roust themselves out of bed. We get cleaned up and we drive to church.
And if it's no longer a duty it definitely is a discipline. Who wouldn't rather sleep in on Sunday morning? But we go. Because the sermon will be great? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going. Because the praise will be uplifting? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going.
We are going simply to experience the grace that comes with the sacrament of gathering. That is all.
And that, I've discovered, is enough.