Staying Home From Church is a series of posts challenging Christian understandings of what it means to “go to church.” This series was inspired by an article posted on The Gospel Coalition website called “ 5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain.” While it was posted back in 2019, it only recently came across my social media feeds and with mixed reviews.
You can check out previous posts from this series at the following links or jump ahead in the series with the links at the end of this post (updated as following posts go live).
In this post, we’ll consider the article’s third point: our presence can be an encouragement to others. We aren’t merely buffered individuals; we’re porous. Our lives — our choices — ripple into the lives of those around us.
Porous and Buffered Selves
Porous and buffered selves are terms used by Charles Taylor to describe different understandings of how individuals relate to one another. To oversimplify, many conservative Christians have a surprisingly buffered view of the individual. There’s a clear distinction between “me” and everyone else. This is highlighted when people emphasize their separateness from others: “my actions and choices are my own, and most of the time, they don’t have any real impact on the people around me.”
Porous isn’t necessarily the opposite of buffered, but it suggests that there’s no hard boundary between “me” and “the other.” Who I am is impacted by others, and who they are is impacted by me. This is a gross over simplification, but hopefully you get the gist: in a porous world, everyone has an affect on the world around them, and everyone is affected by the world around them.
If you’re familiar with the idea of Ubuntu, that’s a similar premise to Taylor’s porous self.
All that to say, it’s worth giving serious consideration to how our choices will affect others, and we can apply that sort of consideration to “church.” When you choose to stay home or you choose to attend, there’s an inevitable impact on your congregation and other members, whether they realize it or not. The author of the article essentially makes that argument, although in a more definitive way.
You Might Encourage Others
In some of the previous posts, I’ve emphasized the word “can” at certain points. I think it’s prudent to do that again, here. Your presence can encourage others. Or, you could say that your presence might encourage others. There’s potential. As I said, it’s worth considering that potential.
If I were going to be more definitive, I’d say that your decision is going to affect other people’s lives. That’s a lot more vague than where the author ends up, though.
“…sometimes you encourage other believers…you encourage your minister…you contribute simply by showing up.
“Seeing a young, exhausted parent continue to come to church…is a massive encouragement to the rest of the congregation.”
Susan Rockwell, “5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain”
The author begins with the potential for encouragement by using the word “sometimes.” I can see how the other two statements might imply that same potentiality: just like you sometimes encourage believers, “you [also sometimes] encourage your minister,” and “you [also sometimes] contribute simply by showing up.” If that’s what the author meant, then I agree.
The second portion, however, isn’t presented the same way. Your presence is a massive encouragement to the congregation. This is the same sort of presentation as we saw in the point about setting an example, where the author claimed the decision to not attend church would necessarily send the message that God isn’t a priority.
I believe humans are porous, so I believe it’s important to consider the potential to encouraging others with our presence, but we should be careful to avoid the assumption that our presence will encourage others.
The Weight of Expectation
We should also realize that speaking definitively about outcomes is often a way of manipulating others. By stating what will happen, the author takes away the question of possibilities and replaces it with the weight of expectation.
The author is arguing that you should continue going to weekly services because it will encourage others, which implies that encouraging others is good. Now that you know something good will happen, the implied question is, “Will you do what’s good?” Do you see how that puts the weight of expectation on you as an individual?
You’re no longer part of the consideration. The question from last week, “Is it good for you,” no longer matters. They’ve implied that encouraging others is good and will definitely happen, so if you don’t go, you’re blatantly choosing not to do what’s good. If they’ve done their job well, your decision to stay home will now be accompanied by the shame of having fallen short of their expectations of goodness.
Queue the subconscious or passive aggressive shame dialogue. “Surely Jesus wants me to do what’s good.” “Surely love desires good things for others.” “I’m being selfish by choosing to stay home.” “I know what’s good, but I’m choosing not to do it.” “Knowingly choosing to not do what’s good is basically sin.” “I’m a sinful person.” etc.
This is why considering potential rather than guaranteed outcomes is important. It leaves room for people to make choices without the toxic pressure of shame or the expectations of others. It lets you ask the question “is it good for others” without throwing out the question “is it good for you.”
This Is Personal
This idea is especially personal for me for two reasons.
- I know what it’s like to be invisible.
In the intro to this series, I briefly mentioned my undergrad experiences with “church” attendance. The core of what was missing was a sense of belonging rooted in actual relationships. I was there, week after week, but no one knew me. People weren’t intentionally or consciously sharing the experience with me, nor was I sharing with them. For all intents and purposes, I was invisible.
Might my attendance have been encouraging in a less direct way? Possibly. My presence filled one more seat. As a preacher, I can understand how fewer empty seats could be encouraging. It’s hard, sometimes, preaching to a mostly empty room, but they could’ve had anyone filling the seat. The fact that it was me didn’t matter. The fact that I was a Christian didn’t matter. No one even knew that, because no one spoke with me.
Being just a number, a filled seat, or a data point — being essentially invisible — makes it difficult to hear someone say, “Your presence is encouraging.” It begs the question of why; why is my presence encouraging? If it’s encouraging for reasons that have nothing to do with me as a person, that’s even worse, because it’s an acknowledgment that I don’t really matter to the congregation. I’m just a number, a butt in a seat, a face in a space.
2. I’ve used this toxic argument on my wife.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I was still failing. Literally the day before I started writing this series, I was having an emotional discussion with my wife about how alone I feel on Sunday mornings. The difference between having her there with me, physically, and not having her there is intense.
We were talking about whether she was going to help out at her job during lunch on Easter Sunday. They’re short-handed, and Easter brunch is going to be a huge event. They definitely need the help, and we could probably use the extra money. It would be a win-win, but when I know she won’t be there, my anxiety rises. I started to feel like the worship service suddenly had a value: less than what she’d make working Easter brunch.
I struggle with where the line is between her presence being important for me and her presence being important elsewhere. And yeah, I know there are a lot of Christians who will say that Sunday morning worship (“church”) is more important than “secular” work or money or that supporting her minister husband is a priority, but the whole point of this series is to challenge our expectations of what it means to “go to church” or to “prioritize God.”
I’m realizing more and more as I write this series that I was putting the weight of that expectation on her in a toxic way. I had shared my feelings in an unhealthy way. Instead of giving her information so she could make an informed choice, I burdened her with the shame of expectation that twisted her love for me into a weapon against herself.
What I’ve realized is that I’m still struggling to break free of a toxic, self-sacrificial theology. You may be thinking something like, “But, Brice, isn’t the story of Jesus one of self-sacrificial love? How is that toxic?” In the intro, I said this:
“In fact, when we constantly empty ourselves without being filled, all of life can start to seem pointless. We can become completely drained, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Things that used to bring us joy start to become burdensome, and what used to be good can become toxic.”
I used to pour myself out constantly, because it was engrained in me from a young age that “it’s better to give than to receive” and “true love gives without expecting anything in return,” but they didn’t teach me about moderation and boundaries. They didn’t teach me about the drip line and limitations. They taught me that giving without receiving is good, but they didn’t mention that always giving and never receiving would leave me empty. They taught me that letting go of my own expectations is good, but they taught me that their expectations were actually God’s expectations. They taught me to pour myself out in love, but they didn’t mention that the loneliness of never-reciprocated love would literally cause me to die more quickly.
I don’t want you to fall prey to toxic forms of self-sacrificial theology. Yes, your presence at “church” can be an encouragement to others. Yes, my wife’s presence is an encouragement to me. No, neither you nor my wife should feel pressured or shamed into pouring yourselves out in unhealthy ways. Asking if it’s good for others doesn’t mean ignoring the question from the previous post: is it good for you. It means making room for both questions to be considered.
If you’re the only one who shows up on Sunday mornings, is it only your responsibility to be present for the sake of the minister, or is it also the minister’s responsibility to make concessions for their only congregant? If you’re not the only one who shows up, how much of the burden of encouragement are you taking upon your own shoulders? Isn’t there an entire congregation of folks who can encourage one another and the minister that week? Isn’t it fair to ask the congregation to also be encouraging to you in your absence or to be encouraging in your stead?
Too often, self-sacrificial theology puts all of the burden of love on the individual. The expectation is thrust upon you to be “the encouragement” for an entire congregation. If you feel that expectation, there’s a good chance it’s become toxic.
It’s Ok for It To Be Complicated
It’s ok for it to be complicated. Every time we address one of the points from the article, you’re given one more thing to consider. First, we considered your kids. Then, we considered you. Now, we’re considering others. You may be discovering, like I have, that there’s baggage associated with some or all of these points. You may also be wrestling with shame, guilt, or embarrassment. There may be expectations you’re trying to meet.
Will your choice to stay home from “church” affect others? Yes. Will your choice to attend “church” affect others? Yes. But, how much do those things matter?
You may want to be an encouragement and support for your congregation, like my wife wants to be for me. You may love your brothers and sisters in Christ deeply. However, in the same way that my wife should be free to decide what’s best for her and how she can best contribute to our family, our congregation, our neighbors, our communities, and her coworkers, you, also, should be free to decide.
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