How to Walk into Church When You Can't
With COVID-19 sweeping the globe and resulting in unprecedented closures and cancellations of church gatherings, it might seem pointless to read How to Walk into Church any time soon. After all, fewer people are walking into church buildings than ever before in our lives.
Yet, it may be that, in this societal moment when believers are not gathering together as usual, the message of How to Walk into Church is more needed than ever. The act of entering a church building, often taken for granted, is on the collective forefront of our minds. Additionally, Lord willing, we will be walking back into church buildings soon and this is an opportunity to alter our habits once it resumes. Further, with many churches wisely making use of livestreaming capabilities during the pandemic, it’s critical that churches proclaim the necessity of the regular gathering of the saints, lest people continue to substitute livestreaming for church in a post-pandemic world.
Tony Payne’s book How to Walk into Church is brief. It’s not a profound treatise on ecclesiology, nor an in-depth survey of church culture; it’s a simple exhortation for believers to carefully consider God’s purposes for church gatherings, as well as to evaluate one’s own church-going habits. It’s a little book that has big potential to shape a culture of familial, Christ-like love in local churches. How to Walk into Church is a great tool for new members’ classes—it could also be a righteous punch in the gut for longtime believers for whom walking into church has become a ‘business as usual’ rut of routine.
The book nicely balances biblical explanation of the nature of the church with some extremely practical admonitions. There are a few sentences in Chapter One that, by themselves, are worth the price of admission. Payne writes:
But if you were to understand what the Bible says about church—about what church is, and why we go there, and what we’re supposed to do while we’re there—then there is one particular way of walking into church that you would want to master... It is this: we should walk into church praying about where to sit. (p. 11)
That seems simple, but, judging by the imaginary seating chart in most sanctuaries, few people seem to be praying this way. I’m sure there’s some sociological data out there that explains why so many people sit in the same place in church week after week, and I suppose routine is not all bad. Even so, there are some pew cushions in our church with custom rump imprints because the same people have been sitting on them for decades. Even when a guest accidentally disrupts the invisible seating chart and season-ticket holders are forced to shuffle a few feet one way or the other, our typical patterns of who we talk to before and after church are often quite robotic.
Praying about where to sit does more than mix up the seating chart; it enculturates the biblical truth that the church is a family in Christ. It also reinforces the truth that meeting together is not just a group counseling session from the pulpit but a means by which the whole body can “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). Payne adds:
When we pray about where to sit, we’re also putting ourselves in the right frame of mind towards each other. We have started to think about church as being about someone other than me. (p. 12)
I also appreciate how Payne explains that regularly gathering as a faith family is “desperately necessary” (p. 29). He pointedly states:
Christians need their regular meetings, like alcoholics need theirs. We need to get together with all our fellow reformed rebels and say, “Hi. My name is Tony, and I’m a forgiven sinner whose confidence is in my Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.” And, like alcoholics, we need mentors and coaches alongside us saying, “Keep going. Don’t go back to sin.” (pp. 29-30)
What a humbling perspective this is for those who come into church feeling strong and viewing the worship service as a weekly dose of life-coaching. We gather together weak, in need of the Lord’s mercy and in need of one another’s encouragement and presence.
There are numerous additional tidbits of truth that make this brief book well worth an hour of your time. The thought of an entire congregation showing up having prayed for how to love and encourage one another is thrilling. When believers come through the doors ready to love and serve one another, there’s no need for a fog-machine or a catalytic vision-caster to keep the doors open. The love of Christ is contagious and when Christ’s love is palpable among the body, believers won’t have to be cajoled into showing up. In a day of consumeristic Christianity and sickly church attendance habits, How to Walk into Church may be just what the doctor ordered.