Too often church is a stopping place when it is intended to be a starting place.

Barbara Brown Taylor has beautifully articulated the purpose of Church writing,

Gradually I remembered what I had known all along, which is that church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in this world. By offering people a place where they may engage the steady practice of listening to divine words and celebrating divine sacraments, church can help people gain a feel for how God shows up–not only in Holy Bibles and Holy Communion but also in near neighbors, mysterious strangers, sliced bread, and grocery store wine.

~Barbara Brown Taylor, from Leaving Church

Church is intended to be a training ground for seeing, a place where we learn to pay attention and, in paying attention come to experience the sacred presence at the heart of all existence. We come to church in order to learn to be open.

We do not “do church” in order to build the church. We “do church” in order to go out into the world with our faculties heightened and attuned to the subtle hidden realm of the Spirit who stalks all of life waiting to be perceived by those with the peace, stillness and openness to be aware.

We gather in church, not because church is the place where we get saved, or rescued or healed, but because church is the training camp in which we learn to discern God’s saving and healing work in the world. We do not create God’s saving work; we simply become aware of its presence and action. Church is the place where we practice those subtle skills of the Spirit that enable us to perceive where God is showing up in all of life. Church is the training ground for bringing down walls.

We desire to discern God’s saving work in the world in order that we might cooperate with that work wherever we see it unfolding.  Church is the place where we practice the “ministry of reconciliation” God has entrusted to us. (II Corinthians 5:18)

Church fulfills its function properly when it invites us to open our hearts and soften even in the company of people we find difficult and painful. This is why we don’t get to select who we go to church with. Church cannot do its work if it is only made up of like-minded, sympathetic, compatible compatriots. Church does its work best when it is made up of uncomfortable, challenging people around whom I would normally choose to close my heart and from whom I might usually distance myself.

Church can only work when it includes awkward people because awkward people create the friction that makes it tempting to close our hearts. If church was always comfortable, “safe,” warm, and non-threatening, it could not be the training ground in that heart-opening that equips us to perceive God’s presence in unlikely places.

We pray, sing, listen deeply, exchange a sign of peace, and share in sacraments as an expression of our intention to open our hearts to the deep place within ourselves where we know that, despite all appearances to the contrary, we are one with all people. The disciplines of church are intended to enable us to let down the barriers that create the appearance of separation. We go to church so that, when we go back out into the world that seems so often fragmented and broken, we can discern and support the onenness and unity that is the reality of all creation.