WHY DO PEOPLE ATTEND CHURCH?
From OurRock Newsletter, October-December, 2019 Issue
Why do people come to church? Why do people attend worship services? Or, perhaps the better question is: Why do you come to church? Why do you attend worship? Why do you show up Sunday after Sunday to praise the Lord? What makes you glad to come to the house of the Lord?
Certainly, the responses to those questions are personal and varied. It might be that you come to church for fellowship and social connection. It could be that you attend worship to simply praise the Lord. Perhaps you come to church seeking inner peace, assurance, and comfort from a world that appears to be spinning out of control and bent toward chaos. Maybe you attend worship for the assurance of the familiar. And it could be that you come to church to grow and to mature in the life of faith and discipleship. Maybe it is all of the above. The reasons why we attend church are deeply personal and often very private matters of the heart.
Nonetheless, I began reflecting on the question “why do people attend church?” while reading columnist David Brooks’ most recent book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. Brooks’ book is not a text about church or worship. It is not a book about faith either, although he does talk about his personal journey of faith. Brooks’ work, rather, is a reflection on what he identifies as two-competing worldviews, which offer to us two distinctly opposing ways to live and to be in the world. On the one hand, there is the individualist worldview, which is the dominant perspective among us. On the other hand, there is an alternative way of life, a path that is not widely embraced, but much more life giving. Brooks identifies this way as the relationalist worldview.
In the middle of his critical either-or reflections on these two competing and opposing worldviews, Brooks quotes Unitarian pastor Galen Guengerich who makes an interesting observation on why people attend church, why they come to worship. Guengerich says:
...We also need to learn the virtue of staying put and staying true, of choosing again what we chose before. In my view that’s one of the main reasons we come to church. We’re here not so much to make spiritual progress each week, though that is wonderful when it happens. Rather, we mostly come for the consistency—for what remains the same from week to week: the comfort of the
liturgy, the solace of the music, the reassuring sight of familiar faces, the enduring presence of ancient rites and timeless symbols. We’re here to remind ourselves of values that unite us and commitments that keep us heading in the right direction. We’re here to choose again what we chose before. (Brooks, The Second Mountain, p. 128)
As I have pondered Guengerich’s conclusion about why we come to church, a new thought occurred to me about a worship question that I am frequently asked:
“Why do we sing new and unfamiliar hymns? Can’t we sing the good, old, and familiar hymns that we all know and love?”
In the past, I have heard and received those questions as resistance to change. But, as I reflect on Guengerich’s conclusion, I wonder if what is really being said is something like this: “The reason that I come to church is for the assurance and comfort of the familiar. When the hymns are new, difficult to sing, and unknown, then something of the familiar (the reason why I come to church) is taken away from me.”
There is something about “the familiar” that is reassuring, comforting, and safe, especially, in our current cultural, political, and social climate where everything appears chaotic, out of control, and unstable. Coming to church provides us with a sanctuary, a sense of hope and security.
But, is the life of discipleship primarily about “choosing again what we have chosen before?” Is faith mainly about familiarity and comfort? Perhaps it is. To a certain point, I find myself in agreement with Guengerich. Worship, coming to church, is about affirming and choosing again what we have chosen before. No doubt about it. There is something that is assuring and securing each Sunday when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, make our confessions of sin, receive the assurance of pardon, recite the Apostles’ Creed, and sing the good, ole tried and true hymns. In those moments of worship, like me, you may feel that you are “leaning on the everlasting arms of Jesus...safe and secure from all alarms.” Worship, up to a point, is about “choosing what we have chosen before.” It is about the comforting, the familiar, and the safe.
However, there is more. There is another side to the proverbial coin. Coming to church is also about spiritual progress. It is about growing in grace. It is about maturing in the life of faith. It is about getting our lives in-sync with Christ’s life and way in the world. If worship is mainly about the comfort of the familiar, then it begins to feel empty and shallow. It becomes merely nostalgia, living in the past, and our growth becomes stunted. We become stagnant. The fourth century Christian mystic and theologian Gregory of Nyssa concluded: “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.”
Coming to church is also about spiritual progress. It is about change, growth, and redemption. As I think about worship as spiritual growth, I am reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.... Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-2, 4-5)
Jesus’ horticultural analogy is a powerful image about the life and call of discipleship. It is all about progressing, growing spiritually and producing the ripe, sweet fruit of the gospel.
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For some time, I have been concerned that we have forgotten that coming to church is as much about spiritual growth and progress as it is about comfort and familiarity. It is the reason why I emphasize repentance and transformation as much as I do in my sermons, even as I suspect you are weary of me talking about change. Faith, nevertheless, is about change. Discipleship is about growth, maturity, and progress.
So, here is the challenge for us: It is to hold in dynamic, joyful tension the two main reasons why we attend church, because they are both true. We gather at church Sunday after Sunday to do two things:
1) To chose again what we have chosen before;
2) To progress...to grow in the life of discipleship and faith.
We are all works in progress. None of us is a completed masterpiece. As you ponder why you come to church, I hope the words of the apostle Paul to his church friends at Philippi give you encouragement:
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6)
I hope to see you soon and often as we chose again what we have already chosen and as we grow together in faith...
Rev. Kevin Campbell