This past Sunday morning I was part of one of the most important discussions I have experienced in my five-plus years at First Christian Church. It was a discussion about why we go to church. It’s my job to inspire people to come not to a building but together as a community in order to grow in their faith and worship God, but I have to confess that it’s often a mystery to me why people come or don’t come—especially here at FCC. Some people come every Sunday, but others come once a month or once a year. Some whom I had expected to get involved and become committed have not done so; others who were involved and committed have stopped coming. Sometimes people stop participating in the life of the church due to a dispute with another member or a disagreement over theology or practice, but more often something undefined (at least to me) occurs in their life and church does not hold the same priority for them. Others whom I was sure would never truly commit to a church like ours have done so despite my expectations. Maybe I’m just really lousy at determining who will be involved and stay involved. In any case, I was very interested in what people would say about why they come to church.
Before I share the answers of the 20 or so people present, I should explain the context of our discussion. We are using a study by the religion writer Phylis Tickle called The GreatEmergence. Tickle’s thesis is that every 500 years the church goes through a dramatic change in terms of authority. 500 years ago it was the Protestant Reformation which was, among other things, a debate about whether authority for the church should be found in church tradition or in scripture alone. 1000 years ago was the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches. 1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire and its enforcement of the state church. She argues that now we face another such radical shift, but now the shift in authority is moving (or maybe already has moved) to the individual’s experience and choice.
In other words, now when it comes to Christianity people are in general no longer concerned with what a particular denomination says (they will either go to a different church or just do what they think is right anyway—think of American Roman Catholics and birth control). They no longer subscribe to the idea that the Bible is their sole authority (if they care about the Bible at all, they shop for a church that interprets the Bible in a way that suits them). They may not even care about a traditional understanding of church at all (they may patch together their own religious practices). Technology, especially the internet, has made it possible for people to connect with others outside their own community who share their beliefs—even people on the other side of the world. (Tickle is not alone in pointing out these changes. For example, Diana Butler Bass’ new book Christianity AfterReligion says much the same thing.)
Folks in our Sunday morning study all pretty much admitted that their religious authority was their own experience. No one claimed that they held to a particular belief because the Bible or a religious official said so. All said that their life experience including their individual experience of God was their ultimate authority. Granted they made these honest admissions with humility; no one claimed to have a monopoly on truth to the exclusion of others. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised to hear people at FCC St. Joseph express such a point of view. When it comes down to it, I would say that more or less I feel the same way.
So, I asked, if you do not believe you are going to hell for missing church on Sundays and if you do not believe attending church is the only way to know God’s truth, why come at all? Here are some of the answers they shared:
· “The relationships at church matter to me.”
· “We can hold each other accountable so we’re not off on our own believing something crazy.”
· “I find support for difficult times.”
· “We can learn from each other and grow.”
· “It pleases God when we come to God’s house.”
· “We are all so busy that it’s nice to just come and make time for God.”
· “I experience an intimacy here that I haven’t found at other churches.”
· “Meeting with others face-to-face is more meaningful than e-mail or social networking.”
· “It’s an essential part of my week. When I can’t come, something is missing.”
· “We experience God through our relationship with one another.”
· “God is everywhere, but I experience God in a special way at church.”
Given that you can choose to be elsewhere on Sunday mornings (plenty of folks make that choice) and given that at FCC we do not declare “You must come to church or else!” why do you come to church? (A more appropriate question for some may be “Why don’t you come to church?”) I, as your minister, would love to know.
Grace and Peace,