Friday, August 01, 2008

Why go to church?

I recently joined a dating website, and while many aspects of people's profiles have been interesting to me, one thing I've noticed in particular is how people describe their religious beliefs (when they do at all). Often it's a "I grew up such-and-such but don't go now except on holidays," but I've seen quite a few who say outright that they just don't believe in organized religion because they don't think one should be required to go to church in order to achieve salvation--or something to that effect.

Huh? Now, perhaps I didn't pay close enough attention to what tradition they said they grew up in, if they said at all. Maybe they all come from the same one, and that's where they get that idea.

I, however, am of the mindset that church is not for God. It's for God's people. I know there are many out there who will strongly disagree with me, call me a product of the "Me" generation, raised to be a consumer with all my wants and needs catered to. There's validity to that point, but perhaps that's another post.

What I'm saying is that I just don't believe in such a self-centered God who would require that everyone come and pay homage--aka worship--every week to stay in God's good graces. This is certainly how weekly services started, and obviously there are still many places that promote this, or people wouldn't be making these statements against it.

So why go to church at all then? Well, to be honest, there are plenty of Sundays I've asked myself that same question, and found plenty of things I needed or wanted to do instead of attend a church service. (In seminary, particularly my first year, I admit that after a week of classes and homework, the last thing I felt I needed was another day spent talking and thinking about God!)

But I think what it comes down to is community. Most of us live, work, and interact in places where living a Christian life is not a central focus. It is something that for the most part remains within the walls of our home, if not even further hidden in our own hearts and minds. In my experience those with more conservative beliefs tend to be more open about their faith, while those in more liberal traditions keep it to themselves. Think about how a typical day might go:

1. Get up, get ready for work-- Maybe there's some time spent reading the Bible or saying a prayer, but it's more likely it's rushing around to get out the door.

2. Travel to work--This may involve public transportation and/or a stop for coffee, maybe not. In either case, is the barista asking you how you'll be living out Jesus' message this morning, or are you discussing with the guy next to you on the subway how you feel God is calling you to a new place? Didn't think so.

3. Work-- If you're particularly close to co-workers, you may have at some point breached the subject of religion, or had it done for you somehow (Ash Wednesday is usually good for that). Even then, it's usually broad mentions of choir practice or an event, rather than theological discussion. Otherwise, religion (and politics) are usually taboo.

4. Travel home from work--See #2.

5. After work-- Gym, activities (kids' or your own), television.

6. Go to bed-- Perhaps you said a prayer before going to sleep. Good for you.

Hm, not much time for God in there! Perhaps, if you're like me, there are a thousand moments during the day when you turn to God. A quick prayer for someone's health, a petition for help in a stressful moment, a "what would Jesus do" reflection after being cut off in traffic, etc. But those are all internal and personal.

Church gives us the opportunity to follow Christ with others. We are not alone. It is a place to be held accountable, to be supported, to question and doubt and believe. That hour on Sunday is perhaps the only time in our week when we get to remind ourselves of the larger community of believers to which we belong. It is an opportunity for God to be not simply a fleeting internal thought in the midst of life's chaos, but the focus of our attention and outwardly expression in words, songs, prayers, laughter, and tears. The church began because individual believers gathered together in each others' homes (under threat of persecution, no less) to share their journeys.

I went to church for the first time in quite a while (since before I graduated if you don't count the two weeks I led the service) this past Sunday, a Catholic mass that preceded the baptism of my friend's baby boy. When a misunderstanding surfaced and it seemed we wouldn't get out the door in time for Mass, I became unusually upset. I needed church, and had been looking forward to it all week. We made it, a little late. The liturgy was unfamiliar, but God was present in that place, and it felt good to be surrounded by others on the journey. After the priest presented the four children to be baptized, he held them each aloft a la Rafiki in "The Lion King." I got tears in my eyes at the joy I felt as we welcomed these children into the community. I could feel the hopes and prayers for their lives and their relationship with God palpably.

Ah, THIS is why I go to church.

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