As I alluded to yesterday, being a pastor in beach town does have some (okay a few) drawbacks. If the sun is shining and a warm, well-shaped swell is coming in, and breeze is light and cool, the attendance tends to drop a bit. The beauty of the ocean, the heat of the sun, a chance to a have few unhurried moments playing in the sand with your kids. I hear the same thoughts from so many people I am not even surprised anymore: “I just worship God better on the beach with my family than in a pew with church people.”
Vacationing in mountain towns and living in a beach town means that I hear this kind of comment quite a lot. In my book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, I told of meeting a young couple who brought their new baby to be baptized.
My predecessor at the church had baptized their daughter some years earlier. They had attended church for a while and even considered joining it formally, but grew disillusioned during a time of congregational turmoil. Now, meeting with me and answering the baptismal questions, it became apparent that while the mother could affirm an undeveloped but sincere Christian faith, the father really could not. When I gently probed further, I found that the father was really quite skeptical of any organized religion. He told me that he had “found peace in family and the ocean.” But he also wanted his children to have a “traditional base” from which to operate.
Without directly saying so, he wanted his son baptized because he believed that we should start in a tradition and then grow into individual experiences of God and self that we find on our own. For so many people like this sincere Dad, the point of the spiritual life is to be connected to spiritual things, seeking spiritual inspiration and a connection to that which is so much bigger than themselves. And for many people this is exactly what happens when they become immersed in the outdoors.
I appreciate and understand their sentiments. I too enjoy nature and love to be with my family. Sometimes, those moments are so acutely blessed that I am awed and moved to tears. But that is not worship.
Worship is not what you feel when you look at the ocean or when you are enjoying a wonderful mountain lake. It’s not the way you feel smelling the cut grass of a perfectly manicured golf course or hearing the squeak of perfect dry snow under your skis. Many of us confuse worship and inspiration.
Inspiration is when God illumines our lives with his gracious presence. Worship is our response to those moments. If we truly want to honor the God who gave us perfect swells, clear trout streams, ski slopes, golf greens, beautiful children and loving spouses, we should enjoy those things six days a week and then give God the worship he commands on the seventh. Worship always includes gathering with God’s people and participating in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
In an odd sense, the only real way to honor the Creator of all outdoors is to get inside a church.