“Maturity is living with the tension.”
When I learned of the coming retirement of megachurch pastor Rick Warren, I opened his inspiring book “The Purpose Driven Life” to a random page and encountered those words. He was writing about how to manage one’s expectations of fellowship at church.
“Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity,” pastor Warren wrote. “On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency.”
Earlier this year, Pew Research Center reported that only 27% of adults in the United States were attending worship services in person. The number is double what it was after COVID-19 first hit. But after climbing last summer, attendance has plateaued.
Why is this? Surely lingering health concerns are a factor for some people, but my experience tells me the roots run deeper.
Consider, for example, the problem of other people. As a Latter-day Saint who has worshiped weekly for several decades, I get why so many Americans are not keen to worship in person alongside their neighbors. People are the worst. They’re rude. They’re loud. They smell. They misspeak. They snub. They forget. Aside from family and a few close friends, I’m more comfortable in solitude, entertaining myself with a book and my thoughts. I’m with the 30% of my fellow citizens who prefer to continue watching church services online.
But I also know two other things: I’m one of those annoying neighbors, and even introverts like me need the refining influence of other people.
God gave us bodies for a reason. We cannot use and enjoy all our God-given senses through Zoom. A life lived too much via video conference is a life not fully lived. The physical presence of other people — with all the awkwardness and anxiety that may entail — is a freeway to expedited soul refinement. Without other people, we are doomed to pass through this brief existence with too many of our rough edges unrefined by the polish that comes only from the friction of association.
Joseph Smith once said he was “like a huge rough stone rolling down from a high mountain.” His only polishing came from contact with other people whose incompetence or hatred “(knocked off) a corner here and a corner there.” In this way, he said, “I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.”
If we aren’t encountering our own polishing experiences in worship, where will we find them? At work? Perhaps, but many people are employed remotely. At the grocery store? A computer guides us through self-checkout. While shopping? We do it mostly online. At restaurants? It’s easier to order takeout. At the library? Self-checkout has taken over there too.
Remote work, self-checkout and online shopping are great blessings in many ways. But houses of worship are among the few remaining islands of meaningful (and sometimes maddening) in-person association.
I recently spent many hours preparing material for a group discussion at church. When I arrived on Sunday to prepare the room, another teacher was setting up for their lesson. There had been a change in plans. It was somebody’s responsibility, probably several weeks prior, to communicate this to me. But they never did. So all my prep time was for naught.
I’m rarely inclined to quit an assignment at church, but I sure was then.
This was not the first time I’ve been stung at church by another’s mistake. Similar experiences are surely ahead. But a faith that brings our jagged edges together is also a faith whose model is a man who, in the midst of unimaginable betrayal and pain, forgave the men who crucified him. The church is a laboratory where we practice patience and forgiveness — rare virtues in 2022.
This is the tension pastor Warren describes in “The Purpose Driven Life.”
“Other believers will disappoint you and let you down,” he writes, “but that’s no excuse to stop fellowshipping with them. They are your family, even when they don’t act like it, and you can’t just walk out on them. Instead God tells us, ‘Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.’”
“This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “when they see the love you have for each other.”
Seventeen years ago, I had a disagreement with a missionary companion. My preferred recourse was to turn inward, away from his presence, and seethe in silence. He urged that we talk it through face to face. His path was more painful in the short term. But he was right. Our souls do not heal and progress when we hide from each other.
Again, I’m brought back to that same page from pastor Warren.
“Reconciliation, not running away, is the road to stronger character and deeper fellowship,” he writes. “Divorcing your church at the first sign of disappointment or disillusionment is a mark of immaturity. God has things he wants to teach you, and others, too. Besides, there is no perfect church to escape to. Every church has its own set of weaknesses and problems. You’ll soon be disappointed again.”
If we are too much alike in our gatherings, we are more a pillar of salt than the salt of the earth. A culture too dependent on virtual experiences, online shopping and siloed social media is a disembodied, monolithic monster on its way to disaster.
If you have stopped frequenting your house of worship, whatever your faith tradition, please reconsider. Enrich those of us still here. Joseph Smith once said that the eternal destinies of the living and the dead are tightly linked. He said, “they without us cannot be made perfect — neither can we without (them) be made perfect.”
I believe it’s the same for believers at church. Those who no longer come need to know that the rest of us are incomplete without them.
So, if your health allows it, come back. Let’s live with the real while striving for the ideal —together. Maturity is living with the tension.
Samuel B. Hislop is a writer in Utah