I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a Christian household, where going to church weekly, and often more than once weekly, was just the way we lived. It was a pattern that I neither questioned, nor particularly thought about. Most children don’t think about why school is Monday through to Friday, even if they don’t like school. And as a child, I never once thought about not going to church, or why church was on, nor did I imagine what I could be doing instead of going to church. Sunday morning meant church. And when I was older, Sunday afternoon and evening meant church. It wasn’t a chore, or an obligation, or a hassle. It was neutral, and even enjoyable. I never decided to go to church, nor did I decide not to go to church. I just went to church.
I have the privilege of being married to a strong Christian man, who is also committed to going to church weekly. He, like me, grew up in a Christian household, and going to church for both of us is like breathing, You can think about it, and concentrate on it, but mostly you don’t notice it. It is just part of life. Sure, we’ve made choices about which church to go to, and which service to be a part of, but the question has never been ‘to church or not to church’.
I realise that not everyone has this head-start in their Christian lives. Not everyone has had my upbringing, nor does everyone have a supportive spouse. I’ve been in groups where people have really struggled with the idea of going to church weekly for various reasons. And I don’t want to be legalistic about church going, or how often is acceptable, or anything like that. I think it’s fair to say, because of passages like Hebrews 10:24, that Christians, by pattern, by choice, like breathing, regularly go to church and meet together. It is part of what we do.
And for the majority of Christians in the free world, that is the way it is. But there are some Christians, for whom, for a number of reasons, regular attendance at church is not an option. And only when my son had cancer did I learn what life was like without being at church each week.
My son often had chemotherapy treatment over the weekends and I stayed with my son at the hospital Wednesday nights to Sunday lunchtimes. And it is a kindness from God that I didn’t fall asleep on the drive home from hospital each week on Sunday afternoons. I’m not entirely sure how my younger kids were fed on Sunday nights after the exhaustion from hospital stays. A result from these hospital stays, was that I missed church for most of a year. And there were six big lessons I learnt.
a) It is impossible to understand a sermon series when you only hear the sermon every three months or so. I think I heard sermons from two (non consecutive) chapters in 2 Corinthians, a sermon from Ephesians, and that’s about it. And the three sermons I remember hearing made little to no sense to me without a bigger context to place them in. (although I’m sure they were great sermons). Going to church regularly makes understanding the Bible so much easier. I did not understand that until I stopped going to church. In theory I could have listened to the sermon online during the week. And for those of you who are thinking that, then may I politely suggest that you’ve probably never looked after a child with cancer in a hospital without good internet service. There’s not a lot of spare time day or night, and you need to be attentive to your child, so headphones are not an option.
b) Church provides an opportunity to sing God’s words, and be reminded in song of the truths of Jesus. And without church, and especially if you are not at home, then you don’t have access to singing as a group, and being encouraged. One of the weekends my son and I stayed in hospital was the Easter weekend. I’ve never stayed with unbelievers over the best weekend of the Christian calendar before. It was so awful. Not only was my son receiving chemotherapy and feeling dreadful, but charities were dropping off easter eggs for kids in a ward who spent much of their days and nights vomiting even when their stomachs were empty. Apart from a personal visit from the hospital chaplain, there was no mention of God, no mention of Jesus anywhere, by anyone. My son and I read through the death and resurrection story in John’s gospel, but what I really missed was singing, rejoicing in song, being reminded of old favourite hymns, which would have been especially comforting and inspiring whilst living in the oncology wards and feeling like death was too victorious there. It may not occur to you, as it hadn’t occurred to me, but one of the greatest joys in life is singing God’s word, and remembering that word through song. It seems to me that singing is one of the key ways God writes His word on our hearts. And singing with fellow Christians, even when grief, sorrow and exhaustion makes singing difficult, is of inestimable value.
c) Living in an oncology ward is isolating, and missing church only adds to that sense of deep loneliness. I was very fortunate to have so many Christian friends message me throughout my son’s illness, with messages of Bible verses, pictures of my other children at events I could not attend, texts containing prayers that sisters and brothers in Christ were praying for my son, and our family. And all of those were fantastic, and kept me going day to day. But it is not the same as actual face to face conversation with my church family. Mothers with young children at home often talk about craving adult conversations. I have been there. Yet with a child living with cancer, that desire for conversation only increases. And it is not conversation with just anyone, it is conversation with a praying, caring, like-minded group of friends that becomes so vital to endurance. I did not know how much church provided that need until it was taken away from me for a year. It’s more than just a shoulder to cry on, it’s a sense of ‘home’ in relationship.
d) The fight before you can become all encompassing, and the temptation to become self focussed, or child focussed, increases unhealthily. My church family keep me grounded because I have the opportunity with church family to pray for others and realise that other people need my prayers too. It is only by regular attendance at church that I can find out how people are going, what things I can be praying for them, ask how the struggles of the previous week have been, and hear about how God has answered my prayers. Irregular attendance doesn’t let these conversations flow, and grow and have deep meaning. And it is in praying for others, and serving in prayer, that we can have such deep encouragement when we see God powerfully at work week by week.
e) Churches go through changes. Changes as people leave, as people join, as children are born, as people grow. And it is so hard to keep up with these changes when you miss church. I felt like there were so many new faces, so many names I’d forgotten, so many new babies who were toddlers by the time I got back to church after my son had died. And it is so hard to remember or meet new people when there are twenty new faces, which over the space of the year, were really only a few new faces at a time. And it’s not just the faces that change while you might miss church. Music styles can change, procedures can change, the familiarity that you have been used to, may change in the space of a year. It may have only changed little by little, almost imperceptibly to those who attended weekly, but the stark changes for the irregular attender can be confusing, disconcerting, off putting, and hard to adjust to.
f) Occasionally during the year of my son’s illness, he and I made it along to church. It was awkward for him. People stared at his bald head, especially little kids. People didn’t know how to talk to him. He felt like he was ‘the cancer kid’ and he found that hard. And I don’t think there was any way around that. He was bald, he was hard to talk to, his experiences were outside that of almost any other teenager, and he was ‘the cancer kid’. Yet, he and I still made the commitment to go along when he was well enough, because going to church is a way to encourage others. Nathan and I saw how encouraged others were when we managed to get to church. And when we missed church, we missed out on one of the easiest ways to spur our fellow church members on in love and good deeds. We want our church family to be there on the last day, when Jesus returns.
Sometimes people cannot make it to church each week. And church may not be an option, for a time. I missed church for a year, not by choice, by events outside of my control. What I learnt is that going to church is as important a part of my week as breathing is in every minute of each day.