I’m not entirely sure why, but I have been wondering why people go to church services. That’s not intended to be a negative question – it’s not ‘why on earth do people go to church?’ – it’s a genuine enquiry. I have not done any empirical research into this. What follows is the usual random bloggerel that comes from my mind as I put fingers to keyboard. And while I am offering excuses / caveats, let me also so that this is neither a definitive list, nor an exclusive list: you may have other reasons not listed below, and may find that more than one apply to you.
Some people go to church services because they enjoy the spiritual experience. I would like to think that this applies to most people who go. They enjoy worshipping God through songs, prayers, and so on. They feel blessed, encouraged, inspired, lifted, brought closer to God, [insert your positive experiences here]. They go because it is one of the ways in which they have an encounter with God. They go because there is a mystical way in which Jesus is made present with believers when they gather together. They go because he speaks through sermons, readings, songs and so on, and perhaps when we are gathered with others who have a similar outlook we are more attuned to his Spirit.
Some people go to church services because of the people they meet. They look forward to being with friends who share their faith. They go to church to share in the same worshipping experience with those friends (perhaps similar to going to the cinema with friends). They look forward to conversations before or after the service (or during it in surreptitious comments). They find encouragement simply from being with other Christians.
Some people go to church services hopefully or even desperately. Perhaps they long to recapture a sense of intimacy that they had with God in the past. It might be that they long to have a relationship with God like one of their friends or a family member but it doesn’t seem to happen for them. God seems to be out of reach and distant. Prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling and come back unheard, never mind unanswered. Church services and even their Christian faith seems like it has become a routine, a ritual, rather than built on a relationship with Jesus.
Some people go to church services out of curiosity. They wonder whether there is anything in this Christianity lark and church services are a bit like the shop window into which you peer to get a sense of what’s inside, or like a trailer for a film or TV programme in which you can get a feel for whether or not you will like it. It’s been said that investigating Christianity is a bit like a stained glass window. If you look at a stained glass window from the outside you can get a sense of the shapes, colours, themes and content (especially if there is a light on inside the building). But you can only really experience the window in all its glory once you are actually on the inside. That makes it a bit difficult if you are an enquirer, a searcher, and investigator because you can’t fully experience what it is all about from the outside, and if you come to faith then you are ‘inside’. But coming to church services gives a sense of the shapes, colours, themes and content of the Christian faith – why rational people follow someone who lived 2000 years ago.
Some people go to church services out of habit. They go because they have got used to going. It’s what they do on a Sunday. They go because it is a bit like a child’s favourite toy or security blanket – they can’t bear the thought of not having it and perhaps worry that they might grow out of it. These people might feel that they are half-way between the first group who are encountering God and those who are investigating him. They feel a bit like a spectator at a football match where the team they have always supported is playing but where they wonder at the passionate singing and chanting of the core fans and ask why they don’t feel that any longer.
Some people are a bit like the habitual attenders, but they don’t realise it. They attend because they have got into the habit of attending, but leave dissatisfied if they have not song enough of their favourite hymns or songs (or have sung too many of those they dislike). They leave unhappy if the sermon is too long (or too shallow, or too deep). They disengage with what is happening in the service long before the final ‘amen’ in the service because they don’t feel that their needs are being met. Or they are disgruntled because things have changed and are no longer the way they used to be: the things that they held dear are disregarded by others.
Some people go to church because they have to. They are dragged along (reluctantly) by parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and go to keep them happy or stop being nagged by them. They are not there out of choice and feel resentful that they have to spend an hour or more being bored each week when they could be having a lie in, going shopping, playing sport…
And there will be plenty of other reasons. The poor people who lead services and preach each week can’t hope to please all of them, or perhaps any of them. And when we realise that, it’s good news. Because we don’t lead a service or preach with the aim of pleasing people. We do it as an act of worship to God. And because he is gracious, loving, engaging and wants us to get to know him, in the act of us worshipping him we find that we can be drawn closer to him, hear from him, encounter him, and engage with him*.
I believe that God always wants to do this. He can do it too – regardless of the style of service. He does it in the most formal liturgical service and the free-est swinging from the chandeliers worship-fest. What makes the difference is not the content of the service, but the attitude of the worshipper. If we go as consumers or critics we will most likely leave as consumers or critics. Consumerism works on the basis that we are never satisfied, so don’t be surprised if consumers of church are dissatisfied. Criticism works on the basis that we know better than what we are critiquing, so don’t be surprised if critics remain critical in the long term, even if they occasionally have a positive experience.
For those who go to church hoping that this time something will happen, that faith which has gone cold will be warmed and the spark of intimacy with God will be rekindled into a flame, I believe there is hope. The evidence of the Bible is that God responds to the tiniest mustard seed of faith. He is looking for the same as you. But perhaps you also might consider that there are other ways of developing your relationship with him. Emotional responses are not false, but they are not the only way of experiencing God. We are all wired differently psychologically, emotionally, physically and spiritually and God personalises his engagement with us to fit who we are and how we are. You might encounter God more easily in nature, in serving others, in reading the Bible, in quiet reflection, in rituals and symbolism, in activist protest against injustice and in other ways too. That is not a jettisoning of the Christian faith, it is still an encounter with Father, Son and Spirit; it is still based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But God is in far more than Sunday services, so why don’t you see if you can find him elsewhere too?
Church services are probably not the best place for investigators / enquirers to find out about Jesus. Even the most seeker-sensitive services are still services. They can leave with the sense that the Christian faith is about singing hymns / songs, praying, listening to someone preach for a while, and then do it all again the next week. They best place for investigators / enquirers is in your home, at the pub, at work, where they can ask their questions and seek to find answers that will help their understanding (which goes hand in hand with the growth of faith).
If you come to church resentfully you will probably leave in the same frame of mind. I recently observed someone who had been dragged to a service. It was obvious from their body language that they were not happy about being there. They looked like they would much rather be somewhere else (anywhere else!). Now don’t get me wrong. I know that God’s Spirit can break through in any way he chooses and at any moment. But he doesn’t force his way in and it seems to me unlikely that he’s going to be able to do too much when someone is there in body but in their mind and heart they are somewhere else.
There’s nothing wrong with coming to church to meet with other people. That’s part of the purpose of church – we are together as followers of Jesus. But if that’s the only reason, has it become just a social club? Is God necessary? If not, perhaps you need to ask yourself why? You might find the answer in some of what I have written above. And don’t just talk to people about what was on TV last night or where they are going on holiday or Mrs Beamish’s bunions. Talk about what God said in the service. Talk about what he is doing in your life. Ask people to pray for you, and offer to pray for them.
If any of the above resonates with you, then I pray that God will help you to find him where you are. He’s there. He’s waiting. He’s longing. And sometimes he’s hiding because in the searching for him we find out more about ourselves.
And, if it is not contradicting all that I have just written, if you sense that your relationship with God is not what it was, what it could be, what it should be, what you want it to be, then don’t give up going to church services (or any of the other Christian disciplines). An athlete who has lost her competitive edge will not regain it by giving up training. Instead she will work all the harder in training and compete as hard as possible for as the actions are rehearsed and become natural and ‘automatic’ the edge is honed and passion is rekindled.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*Of course this is not limited to acts of worship in a church service. If we offer our lives as an act or worship the same happens. But that’s another bloggage!