Ever hear the term “Sunday best?” That phrase is the surest way to make me throw up in my mouth.
You see, I’m a pastor’s kid, meaning a church essentially functioned as my childhood permanent residence. In my 27 years, I’ve been to more churches, youth groups, singles groups, small groups, life groups, e-groups, men’s groups, you-name-it-groups, than I could possibly count. I tried to do the math... Let’s just say it’s a very large number. Think national debt-sized.
In attending these 20 trillion church functions, I’ve encountered some amazing, life-giving, life-changing places… so I've seen the good. But I’ve also seen the bad and the ugly. I’ve sat through services and small groups that were cringeworthy in their surface-level shallowness, appalling wastes of time where people phonily spoke in feel-good platitudes, leaving me wondering why the hell I had even bothered to get off my couch that evening.
That’s the “Sunday best” I’m talking about; it’s not a dress code as much as a mentality. We activate Model Christian mode from 10-11:15 am every Sunday, preventing our true selves from being seen, while also sub-communicating that we don’t want to see your raw, unfiltered self either, thank you very much.
Because of the pervasiveness of this mentality, it’s no coincidence that my generation - the generation that has more information at its fingertips than the rest of human history combined - has applied its “prove it” challenge to the church, and found it, in most cases, sadly and deeply wanting.
Don’t misunderstand me: the Jesus the church is supposed to stand for has not been found wanting, nor has His message of grace for a hopelessly flawed humanity. They’ve just been found conspicuously missing.
In their place is all too often a horrifying amalgamation of moralism, self-help, and well-dressed judgment. This appalling cocktail is what springs to mind when I hear “Sunday best,” and that’s why I’m so disgusted by it.
“Hey, how are you?”
“Blessed and highly favored!”
This disingenuous way of life is pervasive in our society... my generation, in particular, is irrevocably fixated on perception. We’re obsessed with other people liking our photos, liking our posts… and really, liking us, or at least liking the image we project to the world.
We’ve all felt how hard it is to be authentic in a church setting. The building is pretty, the smiles are out, hands are outstretched in worship; it’s easy to feel pressure to fit the environment. And, with so many around us projecting their Sunday Best superiority complex, it’s not socially acceptable to portray struggle, no matter how real the struggles are. It’s terrible.
This summer, I sat with ten or so other guys in a “Singleness Matters” discussion group, discussing how to use our present season of singleness effectively, and how to avoid the pitfalls of it. Five or six guys shared their thoughts, and I was floored that not one of them mentioned eradicating porn as a step in this process. I found this absurd - statistics would indicate that 8 of the 10 guys in that circle interact with porn on a monthly basis, and one study found that porn obsession factors into an astounding 56% of divorces, so it was all too relevant - but we can’t bring it up because we’re crippled by our fear of showing weakness… Vulnerability is our waking nightmare.
Yet vulnerability is the secret ingredient to deep and meaningful relationships. The churches I mentioned above, the great, life-filled ones, were the ones where the people knew each other and let themselves be known. Though it may work on Instagram, the cruel irony is that in real life, projecting a filtered version of ourselves is not actually the way to be well-liked. Sociological expert Dr. Robert Glover states it beautifully; “Humans are attracted to each others’ rough edges.” How freeing.
The church I grew up in used to spend every Sunday evening together, eating and socializing. Pretenses weren’t a part of the way we did things; we genuinely shared life together. We’d all pitch in to make dinner, then clean up. Then after dinner, the board games came out, and it was always the guys against the girls; let me tell you, there is nothing that will show you people’s true colors like hardcore male vs. female competition with some serious bragging rights on the line.
If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s this... you don’t build trust with fellow churchgoers by having a few 7-second conversations in the church foyer as you rush into service - you build trust sharing side-splitting laughter as your small group leader frantically gestures, trying to get his teammates to guess “trained seal” in a heated game of Cranium.
These moments are why getting out of that church building and into each other’s everyday lives is so vital to developing real relationships, and actually getting on your way to becoming a real church. This is why small groups, service opportunities, missions trips, and retreats are all such powerful bonding vehicles; when people are rubbing elbows in these kinds of circumstances, they can’t possibly maintain that facade, so they let their guard down. People show their unvarnished selves, and the entire community is better for it.
The most meaningful times I’ve had with my fellow churchgoers have included getting sweaty and dirty: digging behind our pastor’s house to lay down a patio, painstakingly weeding a Special Olympics course, polyurethaning 140 bunk beds at a special needs camp.
A group of people merely coming together for 90 minutes weekly is not a church. Churches are not stagnant… they are active bodies, moving and working to bring the kingdom to earth. When a church does together, they grow together, and stay together; when they begin to focus inward and stagnate, they begin to die.
I’ve been a part of both churches that were thriving and churches that were dying. In churches that are thriving, Sundays aren’t for reconnecting with people you saw a week ago, they’re for continuing the conversations you’ve been having all week. In churches that are thriving, you’ve worked, laughed, prayed, cried, eaten (and maybe even all of the above) with the people you see in church on Sunday. In churches that are thriving, you don’t breathe a sigh of relief as your reach your car, exhausted by the effort of keeping your guard up; instead, you leave refreshed, knowing that you’ve just been seen, known, and loved for who you are. You leave knowing that if your car breaks down, or you can’t make rent, or that addiction rears its ugly head again, the people in there have your back. And most of all, you leave knowing that they’re just as much of a mess as you are, but you’re all sinking in a massive, unending ocean of grace.
Hallelujah, we are free to struggle.
Be free to struggle this week, and give others that freedom, too.