Three typical forms of church services.

Is church a struggle? Maybe you’re not at the church best suited to your personality.

Not all churches are alike. Obviously. But when you ask Christians what they like best about their church, they’ll emphasize a few things which they particularly like. The preaching. The music. The solemnity—or the informality. The friendliness. The kids’ program. The decor. The way they do our rituals. The amiability of the preacher. The ministries and programs. The coffee—for once it’s not Folger’s! (’Cause Folger’s is rubbish. But it’s cheap, so it’s what people serve whenever the person in charge of the coffee, doesn’t personally drink coffee.)

Practices vary from church to church. Even within the same denomination; you can have one church which focuses a whole lot on one area, and a sister church—even in the same town!—which focuses on another.

But the main focus of your church’s Sunday morning service (or Sunday or Saturday evening service; what have you) sets the tone for the sort of church you are. How do you know it’s your main focus? Simple: If you skip it, the people of your church act as though you didn’t really “have church” that week. The service wasn’t a proper service; it’s almost as if it doesn’t count. You could skip one of the other forms of worship, and it might be missed, but the main focus must be done. Must. Always.

Typically one of these three. ’Cause yes, others exist. Snake-handling churches, fr’instance.

So in a sacrament-focused church, holy communion (or Eucharist) must happen. You could skip the music, the homily, and maybe even scriptures and prayer—but probably not, ’cause scriptures and prayer are sacraments too, if not officially. But don’t you dare skip Eucharist. Otherwise it’s “not church,” ’cause the service was improperly done.

Same in a teaching-focused church. Whether it’s from a pastor in a pulpit, or from a teacher sitting in a circle with the people of the church, there had better have been a lesson, or it’s “not church.” You can skip communion; some of ’em only celebrate it once a month, or only on Easter and Christmas. Music’s optional too… which is why I find it tends to not be very good in such churches. When I was growing up, Mom had no trouble with being as much as 45 minutes late for the service, ’cause “we’ll only miss the music.” But we’d better not miss the sermon.

And the music-focused church: The people would be outraged if they didn’t get to sing. Ever been in a church service during a power failure? In teaching- or sacrament-focused churches, if the instruments require electricity, they figure, “Fine; we’ll sing a song or two a capella, then ‘get on with it’”—meaning the real part of the service, the message or the sacrament. But in a music-focused church, people won’t settle for an abbreviated songset. They’ll try their darnedest to make the musical experience as significant as the electrified experience. And blame the devil for the power failure—“Satan tried to stop us from having church!”—and pointedly make even more joyful a noise as their voices and acoustic instruments can produce. And y’know, they’ll succeed.

Which focus is best?

Which of the three areas is most important for a church to focus its services upon?

Wrong question. And you’ll find each of the churches answer with their favorite. “Sacraments are a must.” “Preaching is paramount.” “We’re commanded to make a joyful noise to the Lord.” Yeah, Christians are too biased to be of any help here.

But really, practices should never be our main focus. Jesus should be.

Good religion is when a practice encourages a growing relationship with Jesus. Bad religion is when it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter which of the three emphases our services take. Doesn’t matter whether it’s exciting, thought-provoking, feels profound, or is even filled with the Holy Spirit: If it doesn’t help us follow Jesus any, it’s dead religion. Period.

The reason there are three different focuses, is because there are three different types of people. Churches are people, remember? Some people worship best through sacraments. Others through lessons. Others through music—either performance or appreciation. And some of us are a mixture. I like good teaching; I like good music. (I also like a good sacrament from time to time, but admittedly not as much.)

True, you’ll get some hardcases who insist everybody oughta like what they do, ’cause they’re convinced it’s the only church for everyone—that it doesn’t matter if God made humans with differences; conformity is more important than freedom in Christ. Or worse: They personally don’t care for their style of worship, yet still insist everybody oughta worship as they do, because Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, Lk 9.23 so it’s okay if church is miserable: We gotta suffer for Jesus. It’s a seriously sadistic view of God, and says all sorts of things about their lack of joy. But I digress.

Put the wrong sort of Christian in the wrong sort of church environment, and you’ll get dead religion. The worship won’t speak to them. They’ll struggle to adapt to it, and often they just can’t. Even when they know Jesus personally, and the Holy Spirit is growing ’em in every other area of their lives, the church is always gonna feel cold and dead to them.

Ever been to a sermon-focused church where everybody just sorta sits there, and drifts off to sleep, no matter how good the speaker is? Those folks are in the wrong church. It’s not that they don’t appreciate teaching; it’s that they don’t appreciate lectures which take an entire hour to make three rather simple points. But if they love the monthly communion services, put ’em in a church which does communion every week and they’ll love it. And if they love whenever the worship pastor tries something new, put ’em in a church where the worship pastors run amok and they’ll love that. Won’t be long before they decide, “Y’know, I really think God’s calling me to this church…” and off they go. It’s not actually ’cause God called them anywhere. It’s because they’re different people. They’re sacrament- or music-focused. They thrive elsewhere.

So put ’em where they thrive. Don’t selfishly assume everybody’s only gotta follow God your way. Christianity has suffered long enough under that mentality.

Different intelligences.

My fellow teachers (or at least those of us who bothered to take any classes in educational psychology) will recognize the theory of multiple-intelligences comes into play when we’re talking about different Christians who thrive in different settings. Children process information in different ways. And Christians—whether kids or adults—likewise process information in different ways.

Whatever our learning style is, that’s our point of contact with God. Sometimes people know their style. Sometimes they don’t, but they realize they have certain preferences. And humans, being creatures of extremes, sometimes put all our attention on our preference.

Visual learners tend to pick beautiful church buildings because they love that sense of sacred space. Or they pick preachers who love lots of visually interesting slides. Or they go to music-focused churches who like to play with the lights and video imagery and decor.

Auditory learners either lean towards a church with fantastic music, or whose preacher has a really good voice, or whose building has the best acoustics.

Kinesthetic learners go for the sacraments. Of course. And the standing and kneeling, the eating and drinking, the beads, the crossing oneself, the activity of a sacramental church—the tangible reminders Jesus took physical form. Even though God is spirit and we can’t touch him, we can touch the rituals he gave us, and feel him through that.

Intellectual people gotta have a lesson. Gotta be taught something. If they’re not taught anything—the sermon sucked, or was too short, or didn’t tell ’em anything new, or they disagreed with it front to back, or they didn’t care to hear about that subject today—they feel shortchanged, even wronged. They need a lesson; they need a church who can give it to them. In some cases they’ve learned to get their fix elsewhere, like books or the internet. But they expect their church to teach them—or they’ll go find a church who will.

Emotional people gotta have music. ’Cause music is an emotional experience. They wanna feel, and sometimes they mistake feeling the music with feeling God; I’ve discussed that elsewhere. If they can’t feel anything in their church… yep, they’ll go find another church.

So they’re not your cup of tea. Don’t knock them.

Ideally, a church tries to accommodate everybody. With rare exceptions every church does have regular communion, music, and teaching. But as I said, humans are creatures of extremes: When we discover how one of these practices really makes us feel close to God, we overemphasize it to the point of pushing everything else aside.

I’ve heard many folks complain about how their former churches “did everything wrong,” but their current churches are just right. Doesn’t matter whether they’re an ex-Baptist Catholic, or an ex-Catholic Baptist: They think they’re right and the churches are wrong. Not that they’re different (and certainly not right), as are the churches.

Churches are different. Doesn’t make ’em wrong. Heresy makes ’em wrong. Fruitlessness makes ’em wrong. Stylistic differences are fine. If you’re not a fan of rituals, don’t go to a church which puts ’em front and center; but don’t mock them for doing so either. Plenty of Christians do appreciate rituals, and grow in Christ like crazy when they get to do ’em regularly. When a church is growing Christians, it’s God’s church. Don’t knock God’s church.

Likewise if you’re not a fan of big long sermons: Don’t trash the churches who are fans of big long sermons. If you’re not into music, stop grumbling about the music-minded Christians down the street. Don’t be jealous that their church is growing faster than yours; don’t blame it on their “superficial pop songs” when your church is honestly just as guilty of preaching feel-good messages. You concentrate on you. Follow Jesus.

Sometimes teaching-focused Christians wonder why on earth I, as a teacher, go to a music-focused church. Simple: I grew up in sermon-focused churches. My studies don’t actually inspire me to get any better at following Jesus. In a sermon-focused church, I turn into yet another brainy hypocrite, and God knows we have more than enough of those people in Christendom. But I like music. I may nitpick the words (and the sermons); I am a scholar after all. But the music inspires me to seek God, so I do.

If you find church to be a struggle sometimes—you don’t feel you’re making adequate contact with God, or think he feels too far away, or figure Jesus is too hard to follow—you might need to visit a church with a different focus. See whether that’s the real issue.