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You can't grow in spiritual isolation

2-26-07: Since I think this article could probably generate a lot of discussion, I'm also posting it on my blog at this link. Feel free to join in the conversation.

I'm sitting here writing this in my head as I'm stuck at work on a Sunday evening, wishing I could be at church and then home with my family. Of course, working for a newspaper unfortunately means having to work occasional (or in my case, frequent) Sundays because of the seven-day-a-week nature of the business. Not much I can do about that at this point, although my boss is certainly sympathetic to my desire to have Sundays off, and he schedules me off on Sunday whenever our staffing situation allows it. But as I've been sitting and stewing over the fact that I've had to work so many Sundays the past six months--I could probably count on one hand the number of Sunday evenings I've had off since last summer--I'm incredulous over what some people say about not having to go to church to worship God.

They've got a point. But...

They're missing the big picture.

Working as a newspaper copy editor has meant that I've been stuck working 3 p.m. to midnight for most of the past five-and-a-half years. The hours haven't always been fun, but the job has paid the bills. But the social and spiritual isolation of having to work second shift, and having to work a lot of Sundays, has left me wondering how in the world other followers of Christ can assume that they can be spiritual hermits and expect to grow spiritually, that they can worship just as easily on Sunday morning while fishing as they can sitting in a pew--all the while not connecting with a larger community of believers.

I'd love to have Sundays off. I'd love to be able to join others in worship on Sundays. I'd love to be able to go with my family to worship, to join them and other believers in a congregational gathering and then to spend the rest of the evening with them. And it's kicking my butt in a major way that I can't do this, not only that I so often have to work Sundays but that it's so difficult for me to connect with others in worship and in discipleship because most people DON'T work second shift.

And I can't see how people who don't connect with others in worship and discipleship can hope to grow spiritually. It's seemed almost impossible for me to do so, because of my work schedule--and quite frankly, it feels like the enemy is eating my lunch. I can--and try--to read my Bible every day, but sometimes I get really off of my routine--REALLY off--and I can go days or even weeks without spending more than just a casual few moments in the Word. And I can't stand it when that happens. And I know I'd do a lot better if there were others who could help hold me accountable. And I've seen how little time I could end up spending in the Word and in prayer without that accountability. And I know I'm not the only one who has fallen into this rut that slowly becomes a canyon if nobody else is around to help pull me out of it, before I dig myself any deeper into it.

And I can't see any way that anyone else can seriously think they can grow spiritually if they aren't connected to a larger group of believers who can help keep them from going down the wrong road or even off the road into a ditch. If anyone tells me that they can do it on their own, I'd say they've lost their mind. I'm barely keeping mine while trying to stay on the road myself.

Imagine that you're on a long trip, a spiritual journey with Christ, but there's nobody else along to help you stay focused and stay on the road. We've probably all been on long road trips where even if the scenery is nice, after a while, we zone out and our mind starts to wander. The less we focus on the road and where we're at and where we're going, the more likely it is that we can get in trouble. Maps have a definite, positive purpose--keeping us on the road and keeping us safe. But if we take our eyes off the map, and if we don't have someone else reminding us to keep our eyes on where we need to be going, chances are pretty good that we're going to have a lot of trouble staying focused. Sure, we might get where we're going, but there's no sense in getting there three days late if we were supposed to have been there three days earlier. If we get there at all. We all get tired. We need people to help us along and to encourage us. It doesn't happen if we don't have other believers around us. The writer of Hebrews wasn't just blowing smoke when he said that we shouldn't get into the habit of not gathering together for worship (Hebrews 10:25). He said this for our own good.

I've heard a lot of people say that one reason they don't go to church is because they don't like getting up early on Sunday mornings. I don't blame them. I've been working second or third shift for nearly eight years, and I don't even remember the last time I even woke up before 10 a.m. on Sunday except for family emergencies. My church has Sunday evening services, which are absolutely perfect for my schedule--when I don't have to work. If your schedule is like mine and you find it hard to get up on Sunday mornings, find a congregation that meets on Sunday evenings so you can get fed. Because if you don't get fed, or if you stuff yourself full of the equivalent of spiritual Twinkies, then you're pretty much useless. I've learned this the hard way in my own life when I haven't had people pull me back where I need to be. And I know I'm not alone.

But this is just a prelude to the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that Christ has commanded--not merely suggested--that we tell other people about Him and what He has done and is doing in our lives. (Matthew 28:19-20) And if we're not connected and we're not growing spiritually and bearing fruit, then we're going to be cut off and thrown into the fire with all of the other dead wood. (John 15:1-8) We don't have the option not to grow and not to bear fruit--and by extension, I don't think we have the option to be disconnected from other believers to "worship" on our own. I know firsthand it just can't happen effectively like that. And I hope that you'll listen before you go down that road. I'd love to join others for worship, if only I could get there. I hope you'll do the same. Don't fool yourself into thinking there's another way.