In the fall of 2002 I was privileged to be at the receiving end of a visit from George Carey (then Archbishop of Canterbury). Not me personally, but the seminary I was attending. There was a good deal of pomp and ceremony that went along with that visit, but one thing in particular stands out in my mind and that was a service of Holy Communion held at St. Paul’s, Bloor Street (Toronto). The place was packed, and I can’t remember everything that the good archbishop said – but I remember he made a sharp distinction that is vital to the Church’s life.
In the Church there is both tradition and traditionalism. The latter is the dead faith of the living, and the former is the living faith of the dead. When we hold to tradition we hold to something that lives within us, that breathes within us, that interacts with us. When we hold to traditionalism we hold to a corpse (not a nice image, I know) that does not interact with us, and the only life around it is our own (slowly being drained away).
When we gather on Sunday mornings for worship, we worship in forms that Christians have worshiped God in for millennia. The words we sing and pray, the tunes that these are sometimes set to, these things connect us with the Christians who have gone before – who have prayed the same prayers, sung the same tunes, and read the same Scriptures. If we let this tradition live in us, it is transformative. If we hold to it for the sake of holding to it, because it’s what we “do,” then we’ve fallen into traditionalism – in which case, let us pray for the Holy Spirit to blow afresh through the Church and soften our hearts to the life of the tradition; to renew us. Because we need renewal.
Worshiping God in the gathered community of the faithful is a primary way of renewal – a prime way of coming to experience the new life that Jesus speaks of – a central way that God brings about the reality of the second birth (born again, as Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3). Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered in His Name, He will be there also is a promise He comes through on. We gather for worship on Sundays – we “go to church” – because where God’s people gather together, He is present; because when God’s people gather to seek Him, He reveals Himself.
…and when God moves among us, our lives are transformed. He imbues us with new purpose, He bestows deeper meaning and purpose on the things we do: the things that are a part of the Church’s worship, yes; but also the things that are a part of the rest of our lives: taking kids to the park, visiting with family, working with others, long commutes, hospital visits, buying groceries, getting gas, reading, listening, watching – whatever we do, God transforms them. That’s why Sunday morning worship attendance matters.