"So why do we go to church?"
That was the question I asked as I read the USA Weekend magazine feature piece, "When the spirit moves you" (Cathy Lynn Grossman, April 2-4, 2010.) The article, coinciding with Passover observances and Easter celebrations, seemed appropriately timed. After all, that's when many people go to church or synagogue, when many of us feel, or are more conscious of feeling, spiritual.
The point made was that the sense of holy is not confined only to the holy days and seasons: "Any moment - any time of the year - can be one where you listen to God and God listens to you." On that, I was in full agreement.
Then came this:
You need not follow traditional holiday rituals, bow your head in a house of worship, sit on a meditation pillow or study a book of holy writ - however soul-stirring these religious actions are for millions of believers.
Ouch! I wondered if this explained the low attendance at the Easter sunrise service I attended earlier that morning! Had people read this and decided it wasn't necessary to go to church?
So why go to church? I often hear this question or its variations: "Isn't it the same if I stay home, pray and read the Bible?" "Isn't God also there when I walk on the beach or climb the mountain top?" "Doesn't God care more about inner attitude than outer worship?"
It's hard to argue when there is biblical support. The apostle Paul wrote, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16), suggesting that God is where we are. We don't need to go to any church to find God. And the prophet Hosea called the people to "steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6), giving credence to the idea that worship rituals are unnecessary.
Still there are answers, even biblical ones. There are many good and persuasive reasons why we should go to church, many based on Jesus' promise "that where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20). We could list the reasons here, but there is, I believe, something more basic that is lacking. The USA Weekend article raised the oft-stated point that "fifteen percent [of Americans] don't identify with any religion - twice that of about two decades ago." This tells us that for all the good arguments we have for going to church, we are not, in fact, actually making them.
The reality is that church today is an option, not an obligation. That being the case, we must make the case for church. We need to do this constantly and consistently, every time we gather. Even at Easter and Christmas, or especially at those times, we can offer compelling reasons for making church a committed part of our spiritual lives.
For example, I consider preaching a privilege that must be earned by my making the case that there is a message (e.g., the good news) that you, the worshiper, will want to hear. If I cannot make a strong case in every sermon, why should I expect you to listen, to care, or even to come to church? I hear many sermons where much is said and many stories and jokes shared, but little or nothing offered about why any of it matters in my life or even why I should be listening at all.
The pulpit is one of the few places today where someone can talk without interruption for a significant length of time. But preachers should never, for that reason, automatically assume they command the listeners' rapt and undivided attention. In the rhythm of sermon preparation, a preacher would do well to pause every so often and ask, "So what?"
It's not just preaching. Making the case, explaining why we do what we do, is something that should be a conscious part of everything we do, or else it feels like an empty chore or meaningless ritual.
· When we stand up to sing, pray or receive communion, we can acknowledge God's presence and honor the purpose and center of worship;
· When we make the invitation to the offering, we can explain the good it does, the ministry it funds, and the mission it enables.
· When we gather for Bible study, Sunday school, or a congregational meeting, we can be creating opportunities to embody and enrich the sense of God's Spirit moving, shaping and transforming our lives.
In ways like these and others, we are making the case for church - not, of course, for the sake of church itself, but for the hope that through such joyous and regular fellowship God's presence, power and purpose are coming alive for each person.
The Rev. Charles C. Buck is the UCC's Hawaii Conference Minister.