I am a churchgoer, and though I have made many friends within my church community over the 10 years of my membership, outside of that community very few of my other friends and acquaintances from a now long life step inside a church with any more regularity than is required by an occasional invitation to a wedding or memorial service.
So do I consider these non-churchgoing people’s souls to be in some kind of danger, their lives somehow less capable of experiencing the fullness of love and charity, grace and communion and exultation?
No, I don’t. Not one whit or bit.
Salvation, such as it is, comes in nearly infinite forms of expression and experience. If hell is the ultimate destination for non-churchgoers, God’s minions are going to have to carve out a very large cavern.
So then why does anyone go to church?
Why do I?
I was talking with a couple of mainline Protestant minister friends of mine not too long ago who doubted whether the respective churches they serve would even survive another generation or two. Though Christianity worldwide continues to grow in absolute numbers as the global population booms, mainline churches in the developed world have been on the wane for centuries, giving steady ground against the long historical march of secularism begat by the Enlightenment and the emergence of science and the critical method.
Figures from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research indicate that more than 40 percent of Americans say they go to church every week, but only 20 percent actually do. The Hartford survey also suggested some 4,000 churches close their doors annually, and some 2.7 million church members go inactive. This is directly connected to data showing most denominations declining significantly in membership over the past half-century, with the notable exceptions of Latter-Day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, and non-denominational megachurches with an evangelical bent.
Catholicism and mainline churches on the more liberal end of the spectrum have bled the most severely. My own theory on this is that once the sands start shifting under one’s belief, every received dogma is called into question and the whole edifice threatens to crumble unless one comes into a different understanding of religion and different reasons to attend church other than to earn a spot in the sunny hereafter.
Today, many of the same people who would have dutifully shown up at church on Sundays and filled the pews with their nicely dressed and groomed children are heading off instead to yoga class or a TED talk, a hike or bike, the ballgame or concert, museum or street fair.
On the activist end, working for peace or the environment or any number of other political causes often takes on trappings identical to the religious quest, hooked to an equivalent sense of hope, devotion and self-identity. For some people, church membership and activism are inextricable (Martin Luther King is a prime example), but for others, activism is strictly a secular affair.
All of these events and causes—and countless more—serve many of the same functions as church, answering to at least similar longings for meaningful engagement, fellowship, focus, passion, joy, creativity, and the call of the natural world.
The latter in particular reminds us that church certainly isn’t necessary to achieve a spiritual state of mind, to come into a mood of veneration or contemplation. Sometimes when I am hiking or running early on Sunday morning, mists rising above redwood trees through which the sun begins to pierce in long bright shafts, my mind runs to the word “cathedral,” and I can picture no finer iteration of it than what lies before me here, to which I bring my attention, my adoration, my entire being.
And then, a few hours later, I am packing myself off to church, where, as good as our services usually are, they are not likely to match the intensity or sheer gorgeousness of my early morning encounter. So why bother?
What is the difference, ultimately, between singing a hallelujah spiritual in church and roaring along with the crowd welcoming Bruce Springsteen to the stage in what any observer would have to describe as fervid, religiously drenched, communal bliss?
Between holding hands for a rousing final prayer in church and jumping up to embrace our previously anonymous seatmates after the local hero hits the go-ahead home run in the playoff game?
Here are just three differences—not meant to be an exhaustive list—that strike me as I work through in my own mind why I continue to give my time and treasure to my church.
• Intention—There are countless activities to occupy us on Sunday mornings, not the least of them lingering long in bed surrounded by newspapers and books and steaming drinks. Yet we make a habit, a willful intention, of going to church instead, at regular times, the same day every week (though many are there other days, too, for meetings and all else that keeps the church world spinning).
If it’s Sunday morning we know where we’re (usually) going to be. The regular attendance, the building, the people, the structure of the service—all help to focus the mind and heart toward a particular consciousness. Concerts are episodic, and I am unlikely to meet up again with the comrades with whom I have swayed and danced in holy communion at the Friday Night Church of Bruce. With church, it’s about repeated, long-term intention: an intentional experience, with an intentional frame of mind, in an intentional community of shared values, with an intentional focus on being the best individual self we can be, within a larger whole. Very few other venues offer such a concentrated, consistent, and reliable source of community.
• Ritual—You don’t have to be an anthropologist to sense that we are a ritual-creating, ritual-needing species. Ritual invites us to stop, to slow down the hurly burly of our everyday, unconscious minds; to notice, observe, acknowledge, appreciate. Whether it’s new members or babies being welcomed, ministers coming and ministers going, youth matriculating or candles being lit for the ill or the deceased, ritual connects us to our collective human consciousness, to centuries-old traditions that combine with the people and practices we’re encountering this very day. Ritual reflects the continuum of this most mysterious enterprise called life. It helps anchor us with something shared and reliable in the face of that mystery.
• Expressiveness—Outside church, we may be shy about expressing the goodness of being together, settling for a quick clink of glasses and smiles all around before we dig into the salad. In church, we’re not so shy and far more elaborate in creating rituals (see above) and other opportunities to express our appreciation and connection to all those around us, to all that brings us together, and to all that is. As in many other matters, venerating life in one’s solitude is a fine and noble thing, and doing so in community is another fine and noble thing. Not better—just more of the good.
Ultimately, we head to church on Sunday for community, fellowship, reminder, affirmation, ritual, expression, connection, wisdom, and most always, at least at my church, really good music. It may be a high point of the week for some people sometimes, but it’s not necessary that it be so.
More important is this, I think: that Sunday church has to inform and underlie our Monday through Saturday. The ways we aspire to be in church have to become so woven into the warp and woof of the days and minutes of our lives—living in that spirit of veneration, gratitude, expressiveness and generosity—that the distinction between a church and non-church day, the essence of them, disappears, even as we still draw sustenance from the quality of our Sunday encounter and the relationships that we renew there.
Because really, to embrace and live into a sense of the sanctity of life is to eliminate distinctions between Sunday and Monday, religious and secular, church and concert hall, transcendence and immanence.
Being fully alive is a 7-days-a-week venture. For some of us, it is good when one of those days includes church. Others live perfectly well without it.
What the nature of church will be generations and eons from now is anybody’s guess, though I’m reasonably confident that whatever form it might take, ritual and fellowship will be right there in the middle, demanding their due.
A hearty peek into the church of Rev. Al Green, where I attend, unfortunately, not as often as I would like:
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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small country church photo near top of page by Brenda Anderson, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/curiouskiwi/
Photo of Stanford University Chapel by Trey Ratcliff, Austin, Texas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/
Photo of redwoods by Jon Wiley, Los Gatos, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonwiley/
Candle-passing photo by Earth Hour, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/earthhour_global/