A Tale of Two Mornings
As the fog of sleep slowly recedes, I roll over, snuggle into the blankets, and let out a contented sigh. Saturday morning. There’s something about those words that sends a little shiver of pleasure down my spine. A lazy morning in my jammies, pancakes on the griddle, soccer in the sun, children laughing in the yard. I know the reality is often quite different: Saturdays filled with grumpy chores, rainy soccer, and burned pancakes. But that doesn’t stop the warm glow slowly spreading from my ears to my toes as I think those precious words: Saturday morning.
Then the fog clears a bit more and I remember: that was yesterday.
My eyes snap open.
Sunday morning. I’d love to tell you that those words send a similar shiver of pleasure down my spine. But I’d be lying. If I do get a shiver, it’s more like the feeling you get when you suddenly remember that your in-laws are coming over for dinner. Not quite terror, but certainly not joy. More like resignation.
It’s amazing how quickly a state of relaxation can disappear. Still in bed, though not as snuggly as before, I begin thinking about what will happen once we get to church: songs I’ve sung before and sermons I’ve heard before, small talk I won’t enjoy with people I don’t really know, ministry responsibilities that sometimes feel more like obligations, and, worst of all, bad coffee.
When I thought it was Saturday, I couldn’t wait for the morning to begin. Now I’m trying to ignore the thought slowly inching its way into my consciousness: maybe we should just skip.
Two mornings, two very different responses. And, for a long time, that is precisely how I felt, unable to look forward to Sunday morning with the same eager anticipation that I did Saturday morning. If we were talking about just one, isolated incident, I wouldn’t have worried so much. We all have tough mornings, and sometimes they come at the end of rough weeks. But that wasn’t the case. I felt this way far too often. Something was wrong.
The Slow Drift toward Burnout
I hadn’t always felt this way. In the past, going to church was one of the highlights of my week. Meaningful relationships, great music, and powerful preaching, those kept me coming week after week.
Eventually, though, each began to lose their pull. We’re all broken people, which means we create broken relationships. So, at some point, relationships will become a source of tension more than a point of connection. It’s almost inevitable. And, as great as the music and preaching might be, those alone aren’t enough. Give me five minutes on the internet and I can probably find better music and more powerful preaching.
For a long time after I began to wonder whether I really wanted to go to church, the one thing that kept me in the game was ministry. There’s something powerful about helping other people, whether it’s teaching Sunday school, leading worship, or just setting up chairs. But going to church just to serve others is a recipe for burnout, as I eventually discovered.
A Church That Transcends Us
My problem, though I’m sure I had more than one, was with my vision of the church. I saw the church as a means to an end, and that end was my own spiritual growth. If I said that a service went well, what I really meant is that I enjoyed the service or that it helped me in some way: Did we sing the songs that “move” me emotionally? Did the sermon challenge me or teach me new things? Did I have good conversations (i.e. no small talk)? If I’m completely honest, even my ministry was about helping me feel needed, important, and gifted.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. The church should help us grow as Christians. But that’s not its fundamental purpose. When we make the mistake of thinking that it is, we run into problems. We begin to assess the church based on whether it’s helping us grow. And, if it’s not, then why should we bother going? Talk about a waste of time.
But God’s people have always had a bigger calling: manifesting God’s glory together. In the beginning, God created a people. He saw one person alone in the garden, one person living in perfect intimacy with him, one person enjoying perfect spiritual communion with God himself, and he declared it “not good” (Gen 2:18). It’s not that an individual relationship with God is bad, just that it’s not enough. He wanted more. So he created a people, his image bearers. And he gave them the amazing vocation of manifesting his glory together.
Even after we rejected that calling and fell into sin, God’s plans don’t change. He summoned Abraham and promised…a people. And Israel, despite its flaws and failings, continued to have the vocation of being God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory together. Through the prophets, God promised…a people. God declared that a day will come when he will again fill his people with his Spirit to indwell and empower them for this tremendous calling. When Jesus came and poured out the Spirit, God created…a people. The Church. Same God, same calling, same purpose: manifesting God’s glory in creation together. And, in the end, when God’s plan finally reaches its climax in the New Heaven and the New Earth, what will we see? A people. Manifesting God’s glory together forever.
That’s the church.
The Image of God at Church
Sunday morning. Those words should vibrate through my soul. It’s not the day or the time, of course. But for me, this is when I gather with God’s people to manifest God’s glory together, fulfilling a vocation that God gave us at the very beginning of time, anticipating the consummation of all things when we will manifest God’s glory together forever.
If everything’s working correctly, I should still enjoy church. And worshipping with God’s people should help me grow. Those things are true. But they’re not enough. God called us for more.
My church was too small. I had reduced it to me. I never would have admitted it; I didn’t even realize it. But it was true. As I’ve come to understand better what it means to be made in the image of God, though, it has reoriented my vision of the church: God’s people, his image bearers.
[We’ve been exploring what it means to be made in the image of God. In the first half of our series, we focused on what “image of God” means in the Bible. Now we’re turning our attention to whether the image of God matters in the everyday world. The short answer is yes. The long answer will take a little more time. Follow along.]