Needtobreathe is one of mine and Emily’s favorite bands. Back in August of 2015 they were in Indianapolis at the Klipsch Music Center (now called the Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center). As a surprise birthday present my wife got us tickets. It was the first time for both of us to see the band live. The warm, clear August night was perfect. As the sun set over the amphitheater, we sat on the lawn and listened to our favorite band as the melodies rang out in the open sky.
One of the more popular songs from their album at the time was “Multiplied.” Needtobreathe is one of those bands whose music appeals to the mainstream as well as to some Christian audiences. The chorus of this song specifically resonates with the Christian faith:
God of mercy sweet love of mine
I have surrendered to Your design
May this offering stretch across the skies
And these Hallelujahs be multiplied
I can hardly find the words to describe the experience as they performed this song live. It was beautiful as, quite literally, hallelujahs stretched across the open August sky. There was something almost sacred as strangers from all different walks of life and all different faith backgrounds joined in a collective chorus of praise.
I think our Western culture often underestimates the mystery of joining together around a unifying purpose as a corporate community. We’re so individualistic sometimes that we often reduce all spiritual realities to an individual experience. Our individual relationships with Jesus certainly matter. But there is something profoundly sacred about a shared experience in which the holiness of heaven collides with earth. For that moment, saint and sinner alike share in the divine collision. Albeit, they may interpret it differently, but they experience it simultaneously.
Sometimes the sciences discover things that from a purely secular/naturalistic/materialistic perspective is explained away as a purely chemical and neurological experience. As if discovery and the capacity to explain the process reduces the mystery. We know where babies come from—we can dissect the biology, analyze the chemical and hormonal reactions, and even medically manipulate much of the process. However, the mystery that a person—a human being; a being with personhood and personality; a being that is introduced to a world in which their actions towards others and others actions towards them will actually shape the fabric of the future; a living being with a mind that can comprehend things like math and music; a living soul—cannot be reduced to a chapter in a biology textbook. Just because we’ve discovered it and can explain it does not mean we truly understand it. I would also contend that our discovery and explanations do not negate the reality of the unexplainable or the possibility of the spiritual.
So, every now and then I read something that affirms things my faith has long held to be true. Recently, I read a book by research professor, author, and speaker Brené Brown. She writes about how we are hardwired for community. Research has even discovered that moderate social interaction like shaking hands or making eye contact with people is enough to decrease the stress hormones in our bodies. Social Media can facilitate a degree of connection, but it is not a good substitute for face-to-face interaction.
She also writes about how collective experiences connect us to each other giving us a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Which seems to be a common human longing. The French sociologist Emile Dirkheim coined the term “collective effervescence.” The term describes the sacred sense and emotional experience of connection that we share when we participate in something that transcends us.
Often we find ourselves caught up in this collective effervescence during some sort of collective assembly. She quotes the work of current researchers on the topic:
It is consistent with the idea that collective assembly is more than just people coming together to distract themselves from life by watching a game, concert, or play—instead it is an opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than oneself; it is an opportunity to feel joy, social connection, meaning, and peace. Collective assembly has long been a part of the human experience and the current work begins to quantify its important psychological benefits.
In other words, gathering with a collective group of people for a unified purpose has a positive effect on our emotional and psychological wellbeing. Brown also mentions the power of music when it is experienced collectively. She quotes neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional…. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
I grew up during a time when people really questioned the “why” behind everything. Part of it is likely due to the postmodern mentality that characterized the era I grew up in. Religious rituals were among some of the things that were significantly brought into question. The idea of going to church because you just should didn’t make sense. Many people who were raised in church decided that it wasn’t essential for their relationship with Jesus.
There is a lot of research about why young people have left church. I resonate with some of the reasons people shy away from the “institutional church.” When Christ’s bride is functioning as she should, she is a beautiful thing and a beautiful force for good in this world. But, the church is full of imperfect people, and she can be real ugly sometimes. So, I get it. I do.
Checking off your “I attended church” box on your spiritual “to-do” list does not save you. It doesn’t change God’s love for you. It doesn’t earn grace. God loves you even if you stay home on Sundays. You shouldn’t just go to church to feel like a “good Christian.” In fact, I would say going with any of those motives in mind will actually undermine whatever value there is in going to church at all.
But, I have found for me there is value in the corporate gathering and the small group communities. Corporate worship involves all of the things that the sociological and psychological research indicates is good for us: music, in-person interaction, and collective assembly for a unified purpose. Corporate worship is an opportunity to experience “collective effervescence.” I value the corporate gathering because there have been times when we were singing a song about hope when I was in desperate need of hope. The collective whole was able to sing and declare truths that I couldn’t sing myself. But, just by identifying with the collective whole, I shared in the promise of hope—“collective effervescence.”
Small groups provide opportunities outside of our corporate worship gatherings for us to know and be known by others. Small groups provide the opportunity for us to practice confession and embrace grace. Both of which require vulnerability—which is another thing that research indicates is important for us embrace in order to experience a true sense of belonging. We are wired for relationship. We are wired for worship. We are wired to experience positive emotional and psychological benefits from gathering with other people and sharing in a common experience. We are wired for connection, but connection requires vulnerability. We are wired for love, but love is risky. So many things that are good and healthy are actually not easy.
So, maybe you shouldn’t go to church to be a “good Christian.” Maybe you need to go to church. Maybe you need connection. Maybe you need to share in the experience of encountering God. Maybe you need to sing songs and hear Scriptures read. Maybe you need to just look another human in the eyes and say, “Good morning.” Maybe you also need a small group community. Maybe you need other people in your life who can pray for you, support you, bring you meals when you’re sick, watch your kids so you and your spouse can go on a date, and challenge you to follow Christ more faithfully. Maybe you need church.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. – Acts 2:42
And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. –Hebrews 10:25
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. –Colossians 3:16
 S. Gabriel, J. Valenti, K. Naragon-Gainey, and A. F. Young. “The Psychological Importance of Collective Assemply: Development and Validation of the Tendency for Effervescent Assembly Measure (TEAM),” Psychological Assessment, 2017, doi:10.1037/pas0000434. (as quoted by Brené Brown in Braving the Wilderness, pg. 130)
 Oliver Sacks, Musicphilia: Tales of Music and the Brain as quoted in Braving the Wilderness, pg. 132