Why bother going to church?

by Kristin on November 17, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by [jRa7]

Jason and I go to church pretty much every Sunday. Sometimes I wonder why we do.

I’m not saying it feels like a waste of time—that deep down I’m wishing I was home, instead, with a muffin and The New York Times (although that sounds pretty nice, too). I’m wondering what particular aspect of church motivates us to go.

Is it out of habit? We both grew up going to church regularly, so maybe that’s just what we do on Sunday mornings.

It could simply be that we’re social, and we like the idea of a weekly gathering of a variety of people, coming together to think, sing, support each other and drink coffee.

What I really wonder, though, (and am sometimes afraid to honestly ask myself) is this: Do we go because we can clearly see that we’re growing and changing, living with more grace and forgiveness and becoming “better people?” Is there any evidence of that? Or maybe we don’t really see the growth and change in any tangible way, but we sense that it might be there, gradually building in us, so we go to church based on that hope.

Ultimately, I’m sure we go to church for a variety of the reasons I mentioned, plus some I haven’t thought of. But somehow I still end up wondering, from time to time, what’s the point?

Doing justice is one really good answer

To be truthful, I haven’t always gone to church. In 2005, after leaving one that made me question the whole idea of church, I floated for several months, wondering what was next. When I finally decided to visit the fellowship I’m a part of now, I was drawn to their commitment to what we call “mercy and justice issues” in the community and world.

I’m sure it was attractive to me, in part, because I had grown up in a justice-oriented family and church. But there was something else, too. In a subconscious way, I felt like I could be safe with a group of people focused on brokenness—the imperfections of the world and its people. And having a mission like this helps church “make sense” to me. It’s a big piece of the “why we bother coming together” puzzle.

Sure, you can point out that you don’t have to believe in God or that Jesus is the son of God to gather together and help people. And that’s true, but that’s not my point. I don’t go to church because it’s a base for doing mercy and justice. I go because I believe in God, and I believe gathering as a fellowship is an integral part of living out that belief. The question I’m left with is this: What do we do with that belief and with each other once we’ve gathered together? How do we make it real in the world?

Helping people and welcoming people

I’m beginning to catch glimpses at my church of why we should bother gathering. Recently we began hosting a weekday soup kitchen in our building, which has been feeding over 100 people a day. More and more of the people who frequent the soup kitchen have also started joining us for worship on Sunday morning, sitting here and there among us, mostly in the back, but still heartily singing the songs and leaning forward to focus on the teachings.

I need to pause here and be clear that I’m not always thrilled with my church—I always love it, but I don’t always like it, if you know what I mean. We do a lot of things right, but we fall short in many ways and nothing is perfect, not even our mercy and justice efforts.

This past Sunday, though, I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of some heaven-on-earth. After the service there was a fellowship potluck—not to feed “hungry people,” but to be a family together. I looked around our fellowship hall and saw all kinds of people with all kinds of needs (including me, and my own needs), sitting and eating together.

That’s when the soup kitchen goes that extra step and becomes real—not just when we’re willing to “help” those who need help, but also when we’re willing to invite them to share our space and spend time with them. And that’s an example of when church becomes real, too. That’s one answer to the question “Why do we bother?”

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    I just wrote two posts along similar lines lately. I like how you connected the pot luck with the social justice angle. That’s something worth considering in our communities.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Gen

    “Do we go because we can clearly see that we’re growing and changing, living with more grace and forgiveness and becoming “better people?” Is there any evidence of that? Or maybe we don’t really see the growth and change in any tangible way, but we sense that it might be there, gradually building in us, so we go to church based on that hope.”
    –Well, I don’t go to Church anymore, but it was always my impression that the community of believers sees going to Church as part of the stimulus for making them better people, for helping them to grow and change.

    I’m really glad you ask questions like these. Not enough Christians know why they do what they do. Not enough agnostics know why they do what they do. I once had a professor who told me that “thinking is attacking your own thoughts.” That’s always stayed with me, this idea that you’re truly thinking when you question your own motives and re-assess your beliefs.

  • Cheryl

    I think I go to our church because it’s a place that builds me up in many different ways, and also gives me lots of opportunities to build other people up. I feel very taken care of there, like I’m part of a family who loves me. And that makes me want to turn to the person next to me (wherever I am, not just in church, but at the grocery store, the library…my own house) and do the same. I like being inspired to do better AND presented with so many opportunities to put that inspiration into practice.

  • http://www.sundayschoolrebel.typepad.com Sam

    Such a good post. It’s hard, when you are a church going person, and you go because you love it, how to explain it to others who don’t quite get it. I honestly believe that Church is not a place to go and hear the good word only. It’s a place we learn how to BE the good word for someone else. Not that we ever take the place of Jesus or God, but that we learn how to embody Him this side of Eden. Your church sounds like it’s really doing this, and I am awed. It takes so much guts to open yourself so fully, to not just give and do good works, but to experience life alongside those who need help. Because we all need help, don’t we?

    And that’s another thing. What has kept me in church is pure love – knowing that people loved me there, they cared for me, they wanted the best for me. They have caught many tears, but thankfully there’s always been more laughter than tears. Knowing that people will take the time for you when you need it – that’s fellowship.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    ed, I really enjoyed your post about communion and making sure Jesus is central to what we’re doing as a church. The post was not just thought-provoking on its own, I really enjoyed how it worked as a pairing with what I wrote today. I love it when that happens!

    Gen, it’s interesting that you say “…it was always my impression that the community of believers sees going to Church as part of the stimulus for making them better people…” yet you don’t go to church any more. I’m curious, are those two statements connected in your mind? I guess what I’m asking, is did you sense that growth and change wasn’t happening—in you or maybe in the people around you? (Seems like a reasonable conclusion and response!) Also, you’re absolutely right: None of us thinks enough about why we do things. That’s something most of us have in common, no matter how different our belief systems.

    Cheryl, it makes me really glad to hear you talk about feeling taken care of at our church, and how that, in turn, gives you the inspiration and energy to take care of others. That’s a really powerful example of being a church. I’ve often had a similar thought about marriage: If I know my husband is always looking out for me and my interests, I don’t have to focus on advocating for myself. It frees me up to look out for others.

    Sam, you’re right—sometimes even when you think through it and have a sense you’re going to church for a good reason, it can be hard to explain. Your distinction between a place where you *hear* the good word and a place where you practice *being* the good word is spot on. And this is purely beautiful: “…to experience life alongside those who need help. Because we all need help, don’t we?” Indeed.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Gen

    Well, while the two ideas are connected, I wouldn’t say that one issue was the only thing that drove me to leave the Church at large. To answer the question, though, I absolutely did not feel that going to services was making me a better person, nor did I see that happening much around me. In my mind and experience, being a good person and going to Church were not connected at all. The people I know who seemed to become better and kinder and more fulfilled over time, myself included, did not become this way through Christ, or through any organized faith, for that matter. I know there are people who feel that the experience does in fact improve and enlighten them–that’s wonderful. I know there are also people who feel that they need religion to spur them to self-improvement, that it wouldn’t happen without fear of death, community influence, etc. I get that, too–I think the people who admit to that have admirable self-awareness. But it didn’t work for me, so I left to find more effective ways to fulfill myself, to find community in a group of people who didn’t use Christianity as the main thing bringing them together. I hope that answers your question!

    Btw, I laughed when I saw the “Christians against Christians” t-shirt, but then again, I’m snarky to begin with!

  • Karen

    This is going to sound like the party line, but I sincerely believe there are SO many reasons God gives us to “go to church” — which I’ll define here as Sunday worship but of course means more than that. Christ asks us to gather regularly for communion, which connects us to past, present and future, to Christ and to the saints around us, is a means of God’s grace to us, and most of all reminds us of why we are Christians and whom we follow. Then Hebrews 10 offers a nice summary of “Why church?”: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So yes, mutual accountability — both in growing in Christlikeness and, yes, even though Christianity is not about intellectual consent to propositions, we still meet to align our ideas about God with Scripture, the Spirit, and the Christian community, to avoid falling into subtle sins such as works-righteousness and such. And probably the biggest reason: we were designed to be relational beings, to be in deep relationship with God, and because since Pentecost the Spirit dwells in each Christ-follower, we can meet God among them.

  • Karen

    I also must say that our reasons for doing anything are because we want to love God and love others, and it’s not about how we feel about it or whether we want to. Often we obey even when we don’t feel like it, and that’s okay, because the discipline (using that term in its positive sense) is still an expression of love.

  • http://theboldlife.com Tess The Bold Life

    Very well put right down to the last word!

  • Chris

    Personally my perspective on “why go to church” has changed since coming to a more clear understanding of what’s meant when we call it the Divine Service: We go to church so that the Divine, God, may do Service to us. It’s not so much about relationships with other congregants – though the “gathering together” aspect is important – but about the gifts God gives us when we gather together. Namely the gifts of his Word, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the forgiveness of sins.

    When I come out of having attended the Divine Service I’m edified by having received those gifts, having sung praises back to God for those gifts and feeling eager to come back the next week for more.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Gen, it’s never just one issue that drives us to leave anything (a job, a marriage, a church, etc.), is it? And I totally get the disillusionment with Christians who are supposed to be new creations but have a way of screwing so much up (myself included). I do have a thought about this statement, though: “The people I know who seemed to become better and kinder and more fulfilled over time, myself included, did not become this way through Christ, or through any organized faith, for that matter.” It’s very common, in our society, to think of Jesus and organized faith as one in the same thing, but I think we really need to be careful about that, for many reasons. In this case, here’s what I think (my own, gut-level theology that many will find flawed): You can separate yourself from organized religion, just by choosing not to be a part of it, but you can’t separate yourself from God, who created all of us in his image and loves us whether we go to church or not. If that’s true, it means that any true self-improvement and enlightenment that happens simply cannot be apart from God. (I understand that I’m starting with a premise you and many others might not be able to claim, but I had to throw it out there. :)

    Karen, I agree: “…there are SO many reasons God gives us to “go to church.” I especially feel that pull as a relational being, created to be in communion with God and others. The intellectual/theological arguments for going to church are clear, but what I’m wondering is whether any of it makes a real difference in our lives and the world. I realize that’s a big, generalized thing to wonder, with so many different people and churches out there, some much more committed to growth and renewal than others. But still, I can look at it on the smallest scale: How does going to church change me? How does it affect my family life and my marriage? How does it bring more heaven to earth in my community?

    Tess, thank you!

    Chris, I don’t think I’ve heard the term “Divine Service” before, or if I have, it didn’t take root in me. Where did you come across it and how did you learn more about it? I love the idea that it’s “about the gifts God gives us when we gather together.” Do you see it as a place of giving gifts to each other, too? Or is Sunday morning worship meant to be a time of receiving—once we are edified we can then go out and give? Sorry—so many questions!

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Gen

    Hi, yes, I can see where you’re coming from with that, Kristin. In fact, if you didn’t believe God had a hand in every improvement taking place, everywhere, you probably couldn’t call yourself a Christian! (And being one of the more liberal/open-minded ones, you, of course, don’t find God and organized religion to be one in the same–neither do I). Of course, for me, God is a different thing entirely, more of a collective than a singular father figure actively listening to us and then doing what’s best for us, passing down specific rules which we must follow, and then handing out our due punishments and rewards. I’ve always felt that to be a very humanized projection of God. But I won’t claim to have any bigger piece of the truth than any of the other people on this board. I think it comes down to the fact that everyone needs to find a way to exercise spirituality/truth/God, whatever you want to call it, in a way that resonates for that person. For a lot of people on this board, going to Church services does that, and they can’t imagine that that wouldn’t be the “rule,” or the case, for everyone. But I do think that the person for whom Church is an alienating, distracting, or otherwise superfluous experience, should follow his or her conscience and not go, should seek out a better self through another avenue. Too wordy? Haha–when you’re paid by the word like we are, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

    Anyhow, this is a great discussion–glad you raised the point, and are willing to publicly delve into your own questions and uncertainties when so many won’t admit to having any at all.

  • Chris

    Kristin – Sure, happy to answer what I can.

    The term “Divine Service” is pretty unique to Lutheran circles and that is indeed the denomination I belong to.

    Wikipedia actually has a decent overview of the term. Much of it gets into specifics about the order of service but the “Definitions” section gives you the roots of the terms and how it’s a continuation of the historic Mass that traditional Lutheran churches continue to uphold: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Service

    To get a flavor for how these elements of the worship service sound, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod website has audio files you can download and listen to: http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=15581

    To your last question, that’s very much the case. We receive God’s gifts and are upheld in our faith through the right instruction in Law and Gospel as well as the gifts of the Sacrament. Then, as evidence of that faith, we serve others. Such service does not bring justification (“works righteousness” is a no-no since it’s all Law with Christ’s grace being diminished) but instead follows from a regeneration that is brought about through the Holy Spirit.

    Hope that helps. I serve on the Board of Elders at my church and we are deep into the study of the Lutheran Confessions and the historic liturgy, the former being where I’m drawing most of my answers from, if that helps explain where I’m coming from here.

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    “Go, Be the Church”. I heard this once while getting ready to leave church.

    Maybe the church building and the church service are types of catalysts to get one to be the church outside of the church – you know, kind of a play ground or test facility to see how one becomes the Church. Oh, I like that as it insinuates that one doesn’t *have* to go to church each week, but hopes that one acts as the Church throughout the week.

    [How one acts as the Church is a topic of a different post]

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Gen, thanks for explaining more about where you’re coming from, re: your own view of God. You’ve expressed it very well, you writer. :) And for the most part, I agree with this: “I do think that the person for whom Church is an alienating, distracting, or otherwise superfluous experience, should follow his or her conscience and not go, should seek out a better self through another avenue.” That’s what I did for a while, after all, when I felt aIienated by the church. I just hope that those people don’t decide to shut out God for good, just because one or two church experiences were frustrating or empty. Even church can be redeemed at the right place, in the right time.

    Chris, that helps a lot. Thanks for taking the time to share some background about “Divine Service.” I had to laugh at myself after I asked you all of those questions, because my husband and I are always joking about that site “let me google that for you” (www.lmgtfy.com)—I realized I could have done the research on my own! It was good to hear it from your perspective, though. Lots to ponder…

    Dave, I really like that idea—church as a “playground or test facility to see how one becomes the Church,” and the importance of acting like the Church throughout the week. Which leaves us with the question “Does it work?” Are we testing, trying and learning anything, and then applying it outside of the walls of churches? Or are we letting other things get in the way?

  • Jack

    So what happens when the church doesn’t “work”? One of the difficult parts of the church is that it is filled with so many different participants. “Go be the church” is great for the stoked, ready to rock, filled up optimists. Not so good for the lonely misfits who feel like they just received another burden to live up to.
    How does church really act as a group with fluid boundaries, made up of people in all stages of brokenness, of different ages, classes, races and all the other categories? It seems like it can’t possibly do that without something happening supernaturally. So I guess my bottom line is what happens when God doesn’t show up and we’re stuck looking at each other and got nuthin?

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jack, exactly! What happens when the church doesn’t “work”? Unfortunately, I think that’s often the case, and is probably at the root of why many people walk away from church and don’t look back. And coming to an understanding and acceptance of the diversity within the church—the many different types of people—is key, as you eloquently pointed out: “How does church really act as a group with fluid boundaries, made up of people in all stages of brokenness, of different ages, classes, races and all the other categories?” (Actually, I think that idea fits in well with my post about the imperfect Golden Rule, too.)

    But I’m curious about your last question, because I honestly believe that when we gather, in all our imperfectness, God *does* show up. We just aren’t open to him—we don’t want to hear what he’s saying, or change in the ways he’s nudging us to change. When we feel like we’ve “got nuthin,” then I think we need to make a radical paradigm shift of some sort, to shake things up force them out of our complacent rut. Easier said than done, I know.