Fasting From Church

In my last post, I gave three reasons for fasting. Pretty standard stuff really. You can probably google “why to fast” and get similar responses (although I haven’t tried, that post was entirely off the top of my head/bottom of my heart). My point is, fasting has been around a long time and has a proven track record as a very useful spiritual exercise across a variety of faith expressions.

But the same cannot be said for what I’m posting here. My previous post was really more of a prelude to this one, helping me get my thoughts in order (I think by writing) and give you some context for where this is going. I did google various appellations of “fasting from church” but I couldn’t find where anyone has done this or framed it in these terms. Makes me a little nervous to be out here on my own. This might go incredibly bad. But it sure seems like the thing to do.

This year for Lent, the church I pastor, Vineyard North in Wake Forest, NC, is fasting – from church. Each Sunday after Ash Wednesday until Easter, we are giving up our normal 10:00 AM Sunday service and devoting that time to serving our town. Sound crazy? Yeah, well maybe. But we figure the best time to serve non-church people is while all the church people are in church. So far we’re making arrangements to spend some quality time at an assisted living facility right down the street from us, to tutor kids who need help with math, science, grammar, etc, and to do household chores for our neighbors living close to the church. We’re also already planning to make these sustained, ongoing things, not just a one-time or short-term flash in the pan.

Now, a church focusing on serving its community isn’t really news. A lot of churches do a great amount of good in their communities, including a number of churches right here in our town of Wake Forest. Doing it on Sunday morning is a little different, but still, not unheard of.

But calling it a fast? Like church is something we need to fast from? What’s up with that?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

The way I see it, our reasons for fasting from church track with the reasons I gave the other day for fasting from food (convenient  right?). So here they are again with a fast-from-church connotation:

1. Fasting is taking a deliberate break from something that is good but tends to get out of balance.
Too much of a good thing and all. Food is good, necessary even, yet we fast from it to restore its proper place in our bodies and lives. I think it’s the same with church. Church is good. I love church. The worship. The preaching (I only like my own once in a while, but I like doing it!). Communion. Praying for people. Hanging out before and after. Playing with the kids. I love it all like I love a really good brunch buffet.

But just like food, the Sunday service can get out of balance. When a church expends so much of its energy and resources putting together a Sunday service, to the exclusion or limiting of other things, that is out of balance. That’s too much dessert and not enough vegetables. All the things we typically associate with “church” are only one part of what church is/should be about. Fasting from our routine is a good way to restore that balance.

2. Fasting enhances awareness of spiritual reality.
With regard to church , this one feels the most counter-intuitive but I’m convinced it is true. Why? For one, Jesus promised that in serving others we would meet him in those we serve (check out Matt. 25.31-46). As odd as it may sound to some, it can be easier to to find Jesus outside the church than inside.

I think fasting from church can lead to greater spiritual sensitivity because it breaks two bad tendencies we church-goers have at the same time. We have a tendency to expect spiritual things to happen at church. That’s where we pray for people, where we talk about God, etc. We also have a tendency to expect spiritual things not to happen outside church. Church becomes the box where our spiritual stuff goes, safely not interacting with our ordinary, workaday lives.

I think this dulls our sensitivity both at church and outside. We think the Spirit may move during a worship service, but we’re used to that. Good, but no big deal. And we’re pretty sure the Spirit doesn’t move outside the church setting, so why even bother paying attention to that?

See what I mean? Fasting from our routine, our spiritual status quo, can break through our desensitized state. Which is good for us both when we are at church and when we’re not. Especially when we’re not because outside the four walls of the church is where the Spirit is most active. The same should be true of us. See, Jay-Z and Kanye are wrong. There is church in the wild. The Spirit is just waiting for us to show up.

3. Fasting shows solidarity…
My point the other day was about the difference it makes in how you think about people who are hungry once you’ve experienced what that actually feels like. I tried to explain what real hunger feels like, but I can’t fully express it in words and I still have no idea what it feels like to be that hungry and have no prospects of food. Even during my longest fasts, food is always readily available. I can only imagine the desperation, but I can identify at least in part with their suffering.

“Suffering” seems like too strong a word to carry over though. The neighbors whose yards we rake probably won’t be suffering all that much. The kids getting tutored will only be suffering the standard amount that goes with algebra, verb conjugations, and chemistry. That’s real suffering and I don’t want to minimize it, but common really. I hope the folks at the assisted living facility aren’t suffering too much more than the dull ache of loneliness. Which is bad enough, but not as dramatic perhaps as people starving. And I don’t want to presume that just because someone is not in church they are spiritually suffering. Such thinking would come from a really high, self-righteous place. I’m scared of heights like that.

But I do think fasting from church gives an opportunity to show solidarity with people we might not otherwise even meet. Hanging out with people, serving them in real, ordinary ways, choosing to be with them instead of staying in our bubble, that shows solidarity. I hope it sends a message that we value these people more than our church routine. That we would rather be with them – raking their yards, puzzling over quadratic equations, and listening to their stories – than be in our building without them. I hope they receive that message. I hope we receive it too.

So our church is fasting from church. We’re going out to find church in the wild. I’ll let you know how it goes. Oh, and if you’re in the area and looking to do this church thing different, contact me. Let’s talk.