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Why go to church?

June 2, 2016

I live in a community where it is still common when meeting someone new to say, “So, where do you go to church?”

Still, like other parts of the country, church attendance is declining. People find other ways to spend their Sunday mornings: Sports, family time, community festivals or civic events, or simply sleeping in – the popular activity my church organist is referring to when he glances over his shoulder, spots empty pews and says, “Well, looks like we might have a few people attending The Church of the Holy Comforter today.”

I am a pastor, but I have not always attended church regularly. I grew up in a churchgoing family, and as a child it was expected (demanded) that I hold down a pew every Sunday. But when I was liberated from the rule of my parents, I underwent a lengthy period of what I then called “freedom.” Most of those years, I worshipped at The Church of the Holy Comforter.

Then, after I was married, I finally reconnected with weekly worship, though it came in a different Christian tradition than the one in which I was raised. Involvement in the church eventually led to full-time ministry.

To say that going back to church changed my life for the better would be quite an understatement. Everything changed. Over time, I saw myself and the world around me in a new light. Some people call this process transformation.

Perhaps one of the most persistent questions asked by Americans these days is: “What’s in it for me?” So here, based on my experiences, in no particular order, are six things that are in it for you if you come to church:

  1. When you are sick, or a loved one dies, people actually pray for you. Can you imagine? They ask God to make you feel better because they are worried about you. Church people bring food to your house. They visit and tell you that they care about you. When my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, one church member after another showed up at our home to pray for him and wish him well. When my son was in the hospital and we were away from home for a week, two people from church arrived at different times because each wanted to be the first to mow our 2-acre lawn. I know there are negative church experiences out there, and they are real and regrettable. But the behavior I am describing here is something I have seen all my life, in big or small churches, regardless of denominational affiliation. I don’t know how I would have made it through tough times without the church.
  2. Holy Communion. John Calvin said we should have communion as often as we meet. Calvin was pretty “old school,” but what he said about the Lord’s Supper still works today. Whatever your views are about what happens when we take the bread and the cup, the body and the blood, it is something mysterious and special.  The only way I can say it is to tell you that I have never experienced God in any similar way as the way it happens at the communion table. It’s just super cool. People are reconciled to each other and with God through something God does when we share the Lord’s Supper. Jesus wanted to make sure that his followers did not miss this transformational experience (Luke 22: 19-20).
  3. The critical opportunity to spend time with people who are not like you. Tom Long says if you are not worshipping on Sunday with people whom you would not ordinarily associate with during the week, then you are not really at a church. God is a God of Surprises and has a way of surprising us by putting us with people who do not necessarily look like we do or believe all the same things. When we are open to what God is doing through others, such relationships are one way we experience spiritual growth. Many of us tend to try to create God in our own image. Our god is too small. When we catch a glimpse of a God who is bigger than our personal preferences, it is life-changing. (If you are looking for a church, I encourage you not to settle for a place where everyone seems to look like you and agree with everything you believe.)
  4. Sabbath. Jesus said the Sabbath Day was made for humanity, not the other way around (Mark 2: 23-27). As the church lost its authority in society, it also lost touch with the meaning of Sabbath. This is a gift we desperately need to reclaim. More than ever, we require Sabbath: slowing down, setting aside our ever-growing to-do lists and carving out time to worship God. Something special happens when we practice Sabbath-keeping. Our minds, bodies and souls are placed in proper alignment with the God of the Universe. We are renewed, and our Monday-Fridays are enriched, as well.
  5. Potlucks. This is closely related to No. 2. People bring food to church for you to eat, and you are invited to do the same. You get to share your favorite family recipes in a meal following the service and sample everyone else’s longtime favorites, as well. I call that a win-win situation. By the way, if you are at a church in my part of the country and you do not find fried chicken, white gravy and mashed potatoes on the table for such an event, double-check to make sure you are at church. What’s in it for you? a full heart and a full stomach!
  6. Finding a purpose. Being part of a church means becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. In church, we find people who can help us discover what role we have to play in God’s work in the world. At church, we become equipped to minister to others, sharing the Good News that God brings into the world through Jesus Christ. When we serve each other in response to what God has done for us in Christ, we find our purpose. This does not mean that we begin living trouble-free lives. It does mean that we are doing what God created us to do – and that is what real freedom is all about. When we focus on serving God and serving one another … what’s in it for you? Abundant life.

 

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