Worship is not about where, but how

By John W. Fountain

A South African woman at a well, the only source
of water for hundreds in a township, fills her bucket
Photo: By John W. Fountain 
For weeks, a little chocolate girl named Brenda and I climbed the stairs of Sister Betty's house to practice for our church play. A Sunday School teacher and Bible enthusiast, Sister Betty drafted us for a dramatic interpretation of a passage of Scripture: St. John 4. I was about 10 and Brenda about 7 or 8. I was Jesus. She was the Samaritan woman.
            Over and over again, we rehearsed our lines with dramatic inflection. Brenda had a mean set of pipes and routinely did recitations in church, her voice bellowing like a megaphone: "O clap your hands, all ye people . . . "
            We were both budding thespians, good kids from good church-going families with praying grandmothers who loved the Lord. We arose on Sunday mornings fully aware that - barring serious illness or the Lord having returned on a cloud to rapture the church - Sunday School, and nearly all-day worship service, was inescapable.
            As a boy, I vowed, braving the risk of saying it out loud: "When I get grown, I ain't ever going to church, ever!"

"As a full-grown man, especially as of late,
 I have made no secret of my absence, 
or defection,
 from the institutional church."

It wasn't church per se. Some things about it I liked: singing in the choir, the music, the funny way people sometimes danced in the Spirit. I liked Sunday School and learning about Jesus. But even as a child, there seemed something very isolating about the whole church experience.
            Most kids I knew didn't go to church and our religious circle seemed seldom to connect with anyone beyond our walls. Oh, I heard powerful testimonies and saw what "the saints" claimed were the myriad manifestations of the Spirit. But all this paled in comparison to the manifestation of darkness and evil that encompassed my neighborhood, where thieves even broke into the church, stole offering plates, choir robes and tambourines.
            Even back then, there seemed a fixation with "going to church" more than on "being" the church.
            As a full-grown man, especially of late, I have made no secret of my absence, or defection, from the institutional church. For I find in it no place for me. And in some ways, I realize now that in some ways this is the way it has always been.
            The other day a "friend" on Facebook wrote, "If you scared, go to church," then he quoted Hebrews 10:25, which urges that believers "forsaken not the assembling of ourselves together."
            I "liked" the comment, then responded: "But may I ask, my brother, does to assemble together as believers really mean to go to church? He has said wherever two or three are gathered in His name that He is in the midst. And when he re-plied to the woman at the well when she inquired whether Jerusalem or 'this mountain' is where we should worship, he answered not by telling her where, but in what manner to worship: In spirit and in truth.
            "What if the church is broken, no longer a healing station, not a shelter from the storm, insensitive, misguided, puffy, stuffy, insincere, hurtful, dysfunctional?
            "Should going to church be our focus, or going to God in prayer, in our homes, in our cars, assembling with our friends in coffee shops, parks, rented facilities, street corners and wherever the Spirit leads, admonishing, warning, urging and encouraging one another?"
 I never heard back. Instead, my Christian brother responded by promptly "unfriending" me and removing himself from contact.
 In some ways, that is what “the church” has done.
And I might be lost were it not for Sister Betty, little Brenda and my knowledge of an encounter another outsider had with the Savior more than 2,000 years ago.