I should say from the front end, I am writing this on Friday – before anyone has or hasn’t been to church this morning – and so I have no idea who, if anyone, has decided to skip church in favour of anything else yesterday. So, if you have done that, rest assured this is not a pointed dig at you. Just as with my sermons I write 3 or 4 months ahead of time, I cannot see into the future. I have been accused of preaching about pointed matters before – matters which came up well after the sermon had been written – which are simply what I thought the passage was speaking about some three or four months ago before whatever the thing was had even happened. In the same way, what may feel like pointed application directed at whatever you did yesterday, was actually written on Friday.
But it feels worth making some comment about the recent Church of England claim – emanating from bishop’s quarters no less – that they were fine with you skipping church in order to watch the women’s world cup final on Sunday. At least, that’s how the papers construed what was said. I think the official words coming from the bishop – dripping with ambiguity as CofE statements are wont to be so that they can be all things to all people – were something closer to it’s fine to skip a morning service to watch because you can always find a different service at a different time and do both. Which isn’t quite saying it’s fine to skip church altogether, but isn’t much better because of the attitude that clearly belies it. The issue is the age-old and yet fairly straightforward one of priorities.
The choice presented by the dear Bishop of Derby wasn’t quite skip church if you want. Rather, it was, if you have something better to do, you can always fit church in around your other priorities. Which doesn’t sound right different. If you want to watch the world cup instead of going to church, don’t worry about it, that’s fine. If you want to go to a service at another time, you can do so. No problem. Work the church around your pressing schedule. Why on earth not? I think two things need to be said.
The more obvious issue – that of skipping church altogether in watch a final – speaks most directly to the issue of priority. If that is the choice we make, we are simply saying there is something that we are happy to prioritise over the commands of Christ. To put it simply, Jesus specifically calls us not to forsake meeting together and doesn’t put caveats on that but he doesn’t care whether we watch the football or not, world cup final or otherwise. If we are sacking off the explicit commands of Christ in order to do something Jesus doesn’t care if we do or not, our priorities are wonky. If you straight up sack off meeting with God’s people – which Jesus specifically calls you to do – in favour of watching the world cup final which he doesn’t, I think we can say this is an issue of wrong priorities.
I know saying that I will get a slew of comments – or now I’m not on twitter, just people thinking in their own minds – that this is legalism or it is different because it is a “one-off”. This is, of course, nonsense. It is not legalism to point to things that Jesus expressly tells us to do and say we ought to do them. Nor do I think “one-off” sin – and for the avoidance of doubt, I think it is sin not to do what Jesus expressly tells us we ought to do when we evidently can do it – is somehow legitimate because we have determined only to do it every now and then. You need a better reason than ‘I had something better on’ or ‘well, it was only this time’ (notwithstanding all the other times we pull that one out the bag too) not to do what Jesus commands. I am not suggesting there are never any times we might not go to church for a whole host of reasons, but if we can do what Jesus commands us to do and we choose not to do it, or we just prioritise something else over his commands when there is no competing command we have to balance, it is hard to see how this is not rightly defined as sin. Sacking off the Lord’s people and the worship of Almighty God which he commands in favour of a football match which he doesn’t must be one such case.
If you think I am picking on women’s football here, I’m really not. I made this case when it came to the the England men’s team. I have made when it comes to Sunday clubs for your children that clash with church. I have even made this case when it comes to sacking off church on a Sunday (which I think scripture speaks about) in favour of Christmas family celebrations (which, contrary to popular belief, is not in the Bible). I think all these things – and many others – are simple matters of priority. Are we prioritising what Jesus calls us to prioritise or are we simply fitting Jesus and his commands in such as our real priorities allow? I think the latter position is a matter of sin and, if a regular occurrence, belies a heart that does not actually love Jesus at all. These things really do matter far more than many of us seem to think.
Of course, the Bishop of Derby wasn’t necessarily making a case for that. Her argument could be read more charitably as saying, if you want to skip your usual service to watch the world cup final, that’s okay because you can find another service at a more convenient time. So, she wasn’t arguing that it’s alright to skip church altogether (phew!) she was just saying you can pick and choose what service to go to, perhaps even finding another church to attend somewhere else. Not skipping church, just rearranging when and where you go to allow you to do both things you want to do.
That, on the face of it, seems a bit better. But a few things are worth saying. I suspect she and I have different conceptions of church and what it means to be a member of a particular local church. But regardless of what your ecclesiological understanding of the local church happens to be, if you attend a particular local church because you believe it is the right and best one for your spiritual nourishment, binning it off so you can watch the world cup final and then finding any other old church to attend later to make sure you have done your bit seems, well, rather like the same problem of priorities I was talking about before.
I also think this speaks into a rather unhelpful consumer mindset. If your church meets at a time that is unhelpful because it clashes with something else you need to do, just find another one that doesn’t. If you can’t get to your normal church, fear not, just rock up to another one and that’ll do. Not only does it smack of the consumerism within churches many of us want to rail against, it is the basest kind of consumerism. That is, sound and godly Evangelicals have their own consumeristic choices – like the best bible teaching or the most evangelistic output or whatever it is that you have deemed most important – but this sort of thing is a consumer choice based on what TV I want to watch or other clubs I’d rather attend. It feels a bit like not going to the best and most suitable place because the Lord and his people are our priority, but settling for anywhere that fits in with my other priorities. It hardly speaks to the heart of somebody who makes the Lord their highest priority.
All of that is to say nothing on the familial aspects to church. Church is more than a place you go to get your services and then leave. Whether you are an Anglican or a Baptist, we are all children of the reformation and recognise that church is not a means of grace that works ex opere operato. Which means just rocking up to any old church because it happens to suit has implications. A view that we can do that speaks to a heart that hasn’t really grasped what it means to actively belong to a church nor does it speak to one who will fulfil the commands of Christ that can only meaningfully happen in a familial church context. The ‘one another’ commands are virtually impossible to fulfil when you are not known, do not belong and simply pop along because the time was more suitable. You convey something to your church that you didn’t prioritise them enough to meet with them but blew them off because you had something more important to do, like watching a world cup final.
So, as I said at the top, I don’t know who is prioritising what because I wrote this on Friday. I’ll not be writing any follow ups pointing fingers at anyone either. But I do think we need to grapple with this issue as it rolls around any time one thing clashes with church. We need to ask seriously, what do our choices convey about our priorities? Has Jesus captured our hearts and are his people a real priority for us? I think our response when stuff we aren’t overly bothered about come up doesn’t show us much. We only see it for what it is when it is stuff that really matters to us – whether it is time with our family, clubs for our children (which we think serve their happiness and overall good), watching sporting events or events with national prominence – do we even prioritise Christ and his people over these things when there is a real pull on us to do something else? The answer might be quite telling.