By Austin Jacobs
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV).
When I was young, I memorized Hebrews 10:24-25 for the purpose of reciting it as an answer to the question “How important is church attendance?”
(I was involved in a Sunday School Program called Junior Bible Quiz, for which I am grateful in part because it allows me to draw on a small storehouse of memorized passages of scripture so many years later. However, as a sports-crazed elementary schooler, I figured that as long as I was learning scripture, I might as well have an opponent to demoralize in the process. Thanks to Junior Bible Quiz, I can recall important details of Old Testament stories and quote lengthy passages of New Testament epistles. Thanks to my insatiable desire for victory, for much of my childhood, scripture memorization was a primarily competitive enterprise.)
Why should we go to church? To stir one another to love and good works. I can still get on board with that answer. As a kid, however, I liked the way the NIV sounded for a different reason. I liked that it afforded me the opportunity to look down my nose at my peers whose weeks weren’t structured around church attendance.
By changing a simple inflection, I could communicate my sense of superiority over a friend who had skipped church to attend a baseball game, for instance, or an enemy who had the flu. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some people are in the habit of doing . . .” And I could earn 30 points for my JBQ team, to boot.
It seemed natural to me to assume that the “Day” that was “approaching” was always Sunday, and unlike some people, I was happy that it meant spending the morning—and usually the evening—in church.
In addition to disregarding common human decency, my answer to the question “How important is church attendance” overlooked context.
In chapter 10, the writer of Hebrews discusses perseverance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the writer of Hebrews distinguishes between types of perseverance. God doesn’t desire that we continue in our attempts to atone for our own sins. (“Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”) Christ, as our High Priest, ends this repetitive cycle with a definitive act of love, once for all. He endures violence to show us that the ways of violence—including those of self-inflicted striving—are ultimately ineffective.
The writer of Hebrews instructs his readers to persevere toward a different end. “You have need of endurance,” the writer says, so that “you may receive what was promised.” The audience is urged to persevere in hope, which is different than striving, time after time, to be made right before God.
I like the way David Foster Wallace writes about perseverance. In his novel The Pale King, he creates a character who attempts to prepare a group of aspiring tax accountants for the perseverance they’ll need to develop as professionals: “Learn it now, or later—the world has time. Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero's enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”
Persevering in hope is at times no less difficult than striving, but it is less destructive. Because even the right kind of perseverance can be painful, confusing, and downright boring, we should probably keep getting together to encourage one another.
The more I think about the contrast between destructive striving and hopeful perseverance, the more I am convinced that following the way of Jesus requires perseverance in the face of monotony. There are times when following Christ is neither overly painful nor extremely gratifying. Following Christ takes the shape of life, boring moments and all. Christian Wiman says, “We crave radical ruptures when we have allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb. But after those ruptures—the excitement or the tragedy, the pleasure or the pain—the mind returns to . . . the kingdom of boredom, which could be the kingdom of God.”
Attending church is important, although certainly not for the reasons my young self sometimes pretended it was important. Attending church is important only insofar as we’re attending to one another, which can happen in all sorts of places outside a building. Wherever we meet, we do so affirming that we can only help one another persevere the healthy way when we’re together.