I’ve got a headache. A bad one.
I’ve taken some prescribed medication to deal with it, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work. You see, it might just be a placebo. Today I begin my participation in a ten day study related to migraines and meds. I’ve been handed a bottle that says, “Frovitriptan 2.5 mg tablets OR/OU Placebo” on the label. There have to be placebos in the mix to create the control group for the study.
Funny thing about placebos, though, is that they do work. At least, a little bit. It seems the act of doing something—anything—puts us into the positive frame of mind our body needs to do some of the healing work itself, whether or not what we’re doing has any real value at all. Placebos are about perceived value and the benefit we receive from perceiving it.
Has it ever occurred to you that going to church, many times, is a form of placebo?
It gives us the feeling that we’re doing something, anything.
It’s exciting, because other people are doing it too. We must be on to something, if all these people think it’s valuable.
We sing inspiring songs. We call this worship, but when our favorite tunes aren’t on the playlist, we get grumpy because deep down, it’s not really about God, it’s about the placebo effect we hope to glean from singing the songs. It’s about us. I’ve never heard anyone in the parking lot after church muttering, “God didn’t get a thing out of the worship time this morning.” I have, however, heard people mutter, “That just didn’t do it for me.” Do what? Produce the desired placebo effect.
There really is biblical precedent for sitting under a special someone’s biblical teaching (Acts 2, etc), but that’s not what the sermon really is, is it? No. The sermon is the preacher’s chance to produce the placebo effect by delivering something novel. If we can say, “I’ve heard all this before,” the placebo effect wanes. If, on the other hand, we mutter, “Man, I have NEVER seen it that way before,” the placebo effect soars—even though the point isn’t supposed to be what we’ve heard, but what we’re doing with what we’ve heard.
And the foyer? The foyer is a huge ingredient in the placebo effect. We chat it up, tell a few jokes, ask about work, sip a coffee, wink, move on. It feels great. We’re part of a community.
And we get in our cars and drive home, mentally checking off “attend church” on our to-do lists. The act of doing this brings us joy. Going to church helps. It works. Right?
All placebos work, to some degree. My headache seems to be fading. Could be the medication. Could be a sugar pill. Who knows?
Genuine church is not a building. It’s not a service. It’s not a program. It’s not a feeling. It’s possible to “attend” church all your life, serving in Sunday School and Boys Club and singing your heart out in the Easter choir—without being part of the church.
Genuine church… is community in Christ. Period. You can’t go to community; you either engage in it, or disengage from it. We are the church. The church is a family. You’re either in deep with fellow believers—sharing life, studying together, praying and worshipping and serving and holding each other accountable—or you’re not.
In my experience (and remember, I’m a pastor who’s been in ministry 20 years), merely going to church really does create a placebo effect that can inoculate people against the real thing. It does this by providing just enough joy and meaning to dupe people into thinking it’s working. Just enough that they don’t feel the need to join a small group or begin a living room fellowship.
Sunday services aren’t church. They gather the wider church, prepare the church, equip the church, inspire the church, and teach the church. So these Sunday services are often needed and can be an important part of our week. But church is the community that grows and results from this larger gathering. It’s what happens during the week. It’s my Christ-centered friendships and how we care for each other in our faith. Church is the gathered, not the gathering. You could say that every Sunday you attend a service. And sometimes, for some people, church breaks out.
Remember that Christianity began as a living room movement with no buildings, no central gathering places. Just churches (communities) gathering in homes. Historians are pretty much agreed that when Constantine gave Christians their own buildings in the 300AD era, Christianity lost something vital that we’ve never gotten back. Ironically, the church is more powerful and effective in places where Christians aren’t allowed to have buildings (think underground church in China and under other oppressive regimes).
Jesus is doing something with the organized church, with institutional church. He’s re-planting us outside the four walls. He’s inviting you to put community at the core of your life instead of thinking of it as one more thing to add to your schedule.
I invite you to be a part of this movement.