Regular church attendance is probably not convenient for anyone. Consistent and whole-hearted participation in the divine liturgy, an active work of service and attentiveness to God and others, a demanding labor beyond passive observation as an audience, is not something that people lapse into at any stage of life.
Church attendance requires forethought and preparation of body and soul, however arduous or trifling. Typically, it involves going to bed the night before at a certain time and waking at an hour sufficiently early to allow for some form of personal grooming, nutrition, and hydration, and a commute. Regular church involvement also requires some broader scheme of financial budgeting in life so as to be able to regularly offer the church material support, and prioritizing time spent at church or with church folks on one’s personal calendar. There are many circumstances that can make consistently being bodily present for congregational worship difficult, from chronic pain to mental and physical disabilities, to struggling to find a faithful church nearby, not to mention the immense challenges faced by Christians living in countries which prohibit openly gathering in Jesus’ name.
Nonetheless, certain seasons of life can prove especially challenging for regular church involvement, and perhaps none more so than that experienced by parents of small children. Newborns, infants, toddlers, and young children are in general almost entirely helpless, reliant on the mercy of others for literally everything in their lives, from nourishment to cleanliness to affection. Mercifully, young children can suffuse the most otherwise mundane or tedious moments with a sense of wonder, imagination, joy, and curiosity. Simultaneously, they universally make almost every activity take more time than would be the case otherwise, and perhaps none more so than getting ready for church.
Especially if one’s children are not sleeping well at night, sleep-deprived parents who struggle through the work week can find it particularly exhausting to pack all of the things their children will need on the way to church or at church, get them ready before then having to change their clothes for the third time that morning, and buckle them in their car seat. That is not to mention the tremendous amount of energy parents can expend in caring for and managing their children while actually at church, from keeping them preoccupied in the pews to holding and bouncing them for prolonged periods of time.
Why undergo this massive labor, and do so at least once a week, or perhaps more? Are there not enough chores to be done around the house, or errands to run around town? What could be so wrong about sleeping in late—it is the weekend, after all!—or even having brunch—you deserve it!—with friends that you rarely have time to see? Besides, given the proliferation of church services being livestreamed during the pandemic, why is the massive headache of weekly church attendance worthwhile when you can just stream your church, or any church in the world of your preference, at home or anywhere you want to be? That is not to mention du jour church scandals; if corruption and abuse have undermined the church’s moral credibility, why even bother at all? Not a few have concluded as much; a recent survey indicates that “one in three young adults say they go to church less than they used to pre-pandemic, a bigger portion than other groups.”
It is not possible to adequately address these complex problems in a short essay. But I want to briefly suggest why church involvement is worthwhile, and contend that by remembering the true significance of what God does in and through the divine liturgy, we can reimagine preparation for church as an act of devotion.
In his classic For the Life of the World, Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains that “the liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the kingdom… it is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.” Here, Schmemann is not merely observing that in many traditions the liturgy begins with a procession, but he is making the obvious but rarely understood observation that the church’s liturgy begins with us practically getting out of bed, taking care of ourselves, and physically traveling to the place where our congregation gathers—all of which Schmemann characterizes as a sacramental act:
The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive fifteen miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place, an act which is the very condition of everything else that is to happen.
Describing this journey, Schmemann notes we each bring something with us from our world, and the body we are joined with is more than merely the sum of our individual parts. What makes this accretion of individuals from widely varying walks of life distinctive is that in the eucharistic liturgy, God becomes especially present in our midst in a way unique from how God is otherwise present everywhere at all times:
For they are now on their way to constitute the church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the “natural” world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place” (1 Cor 11.20) to bring their lives, their very “world” with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life… the purpose of this “coming together” is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it “better” – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
Going to church necessarily means leaving the place or places, where we otherwise would be, behind. Participation in the life of the church necessarily traverses the dividing line between the church and the world. Though God is present everywhere, though our ‘secular’ world is at its heart an image of transcendent realities, and though the church is a pilgrim and wilderness community that is sent into the world, the Christian life is created and sustained by God’s disruptive action in Jesus Christ, which delivers us from the present evil age and sets us off in the way of the cross, journeying towards the New Creation. So, Schmemann notes:
The liturgy begins then as a real separation from the world. In our attempt to make Christianity appeal to the man on the street, we have often minimized, or even completely forgotten, this necessary separation. We always want to make Christianity “understandable” and “acceptable” to this mythical “modern” man on the street. And we forget that the Christ of whom we speak is “not of this world” (Jn 8.23; 17.16), and that after his resurrection he was not recognized by his own disciples…. 
The particular form of separation from the world, the break which happens when the church gathers to worship, can easily be misunderstood. In the gospel according to John, Jesus prays and describes how his disciples are to remain within the world and given the Holy Spirit, though Jesus will be removed to be with the Father (Jn 17:11). Since the church remains in the world, what is the place we go to when the world is left behind in our worship gatherings? Not a few of our churches meet in a physical place, and consist of people, outwardly unimpressive, or outright disappointing—let alone that the church’s worship and witness sometimes occurs in secrecy and whispers, held under a shadow of persecution and existential danger. Why, then, is it worth getting out of bed on Sunday mornings? There are certainly far more entertaining and comfortable options for instant gratification or self-actualization in our consumerist society than consistent participation in the church’s liturgy. However, the “place” of worship, where we gather with others around the Word and sacraments, is not reducible to only the physical room where the church gathers and our outward experience therein.
Through the eucharistic liturgy we are ushered into the presence of no less than Christ himself who has ascended into heaven, the one in whom all the fullness of deity dwells bodily, in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Col 2:3,8; 3:2). A theological imagination for the church’s heavenly ascent is not unique to Eastern Orthodox theology, but a vision that gripped Calvin’s imagination in book IV of his Institutes, as Julie Canlis amply demonstrates in her 2010 book Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Schmemann astutely emphasizes that our ascent into the heavenly presence of Christ carries with it a missional impetus, that we are gathered there to Christ in order to be sent back out by and with Christ for the life of the world. Rather than some technique or program, it is the person of Christ himself that animates the life of the church, and it is to the person and work of Christ that our lives are to be signs and witnesses in the world:
The early Christians realized that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit they must ascend to heaven where Christ has ascended. They realized also that this ascension was the very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world. For there – in heaven – they were immersed in the new life of the Kingdom, and when, after this “liturgy of ascension,” they returned into the world, their faces reflected the light, the “joy and peace” of that Kingdom and they were truly its witnesses. They brought no programs and no theories; but wherever they went, the seeds of the Kingdom sprouted, faith was kindled, life was transfigured, things impossible were made possible. They were witnesses, and when they were asked “when shines this light, where is the source of this power?” they knew what to answer and where to lead men. In church today, we so often find we meet only the same old world, not Christ and his Kingdom. We do not realize that we never get anywhere because we never leave any place behind us. To leave, to come… this is the beginning, the starting point of the sacrament, the condition of its transforming power and reality.
Notably, on one occasion people brought little children into the presence of Jesus, and the disciples chided them; surely there were more pressing issues for Jesus to attend to than giving his time to little children. But not so!
When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 14–16, NIV)
Jesus physically touched them, invoked God’s blessing upon them, knew them, and they knew him. Accordingly, while corporate worship should not become disorderly or unruly, it is entirely appropriate for the sanctuary to be filled with the coos, cries, and manifold sounds made by little children. Such sounds are not merely made by “the next generation” or “the future” of the church; today, right now, the kingdom of God belongs even to them, and the sounds they make are the sound of God creating little Christians through the preaching of the Word of God, prayer, the sacraments, and all that the church does together. What are we robbing ourselves of, if our children grow up never having held a hymnal alongside us, never having knelt next to us at the altar rail to receive communion, never having beheld the profound sight of the primary authority in their lives—their own parents—kneeling before God, confessing their sins, and asking for forgiveness? Bringing one’s children to public worship is far from a panacea for disciplining young people, but it is surely indispensable, as perhaps the primary means by which God might sow his Word into little hearts that can bear fruit now or in time to come.
If the primary vision that our churches are commending to people are community, friendships, entertainment, or positive activities for our kids to be involved in, there are probably more competitive options in the secular marketplace than the religious goods and services that the church can offer. But the church can and must offer something distinctive and that is found nowhere else, namely, the God of the gospel. If we have ourselves been captured by Christ, and desire for our children to know how utterly captivating Jesus Christ is, that Christ is worth faithfully following even at significant personal cost to oneself, then consistent participation in the church’s liturgy is an irreplaceable necessity. It is the appointed means by which God has promised to work in our lives and grow us up into Christ.
Some caution—or, better, precision—is needed. As I have written in these pages before in an essay on the Eucharist:
Some ways of talking about how God is at work in all of life – finding the sacred and the ‘sacramental’ not only on Sundays but in the messiness and boringness of quotidian life – might have the potential to collapse all sacred-common distinctions, leading less to the elevation of common things as holy, than to the relegation of even the holy things as vulgar. While we might want to regard virtually anything and everything as a sacrament, surely in so doing we lose something in our ability to recognize the presence of Christ in the actual sacraments appointed by Christ himself.
In the present argument, I am not merely suggesting that general care for creation is suffused with transcendent meaning, suffused with God’s glory in a cosmos that participates in God, though that is all true. But specifically, preparation in body and soul to attend church is necessarily a physical part of the actual liturgy itself. To share in the means of grace appointed by Christ himself in the Word and sacraments, we must physically gather with the Body of Christ, whether in baroque cathedrals or austere abbeys, YMCA gymnasiums or underground hideouts.
Folding up the stroller and diaper bag into the car on Saturday night, praying, filling bottles with milk and little cups with Goldfish crackers, rounding up coloring books and board-books, setting out multiple sets of clothes (and back-up clothes), preparing breakfast, cleaning it up, dressing presentably and somehow getting everyone into the car, then driving however far to unpack everything, go inside, try to serve God and serve others while managing little ones, and then re-pack everything up and travel back home – the entire exercise indeed can be exhausting. But, at least for a season in the life of parents, it might just be how Christ draws us near to himself, transfigures us, and sustains us as a wilderness community sojourning through this weary world.
In the ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer, the weekly Post-Communion Prayer thanks God for feeding us with no less than Christ himself, and concludes with the petition “and now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” Cultivating faithfulness in these habits, understood as spiritual practices, might not render much instant gratification, but might be a means by which God sanctifies us and draws ourselves and our children deeper into the life of Christ. Parents of young children, and all who find weekly church involvement physically difficult, could strive to re-imagine the significant physical, mental, and emotional exertion that goes into preparation for weekly church attendance less as one more chore among others on our weekly itinerary. Rather, this labor is the beginning of our procession into the eucharistic liturgy, a preparation for heavenly communion with the saints past and present who are in Christ (Heb 12:22–24). As such, this work is a spiritual practice, an act of devotion, a gift and vocation from God, for our good and for his glory.