Why go to Church? What makes the weekly discipline worthwhile

By on December 19, 2022

I am currently rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and one thing that has struck me afresh is his story of being taken to church as a child. He grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland, and he was taken to the local Anglican church, St. Mark’s, Dundela, where his grandfather was the priest.

Even as a child, he was disillusioned with the church. For one thing, his grandfather used to weep in the pulpit, particularly over what he perceived to be the evils of the Roman Catholic church. As Lewis grew older, he realised that one of the main reasons people attended the Anglican church was to demonstrate to the wider society that they were not Roman Catholics. You can see why a child might be disillusioned. Wouldn’t you be?

There are other less-than-ideal reasons for going to church.

 

Going to church for aesthetic reasons

These are people who just say, “Well, of course, I don’t believe a word of it. But I do love the musty smell of these old buildings, and the feeling of peace I get when I walk through the door. And I’ve always had a liking for organ music.”

I suppose this is spiritual in the broadest possible sense. I suppose this person might one day become curious whether that feeling of peace is more than just a psychological oddity. Or maybe a sermon, or an organ prelude, or a prayer will be “a means of grace.” These things do happen, thank God.

 

Going to church to get brownie points from God

This is the person who says, “Well, I do believe in God, so I go to church to make sure I stay on the right side of God. Because God likes people who go to church—right?”

I guess this answer is an improvement because at least it involves God. But the attitude that going to church gets you brownie points with God, which will somehow work to your credit on the Day of Judgment? Well, that’s just sad. Whatever happened to the unconditional love of God, to which God invites a free response?

 

Going to church because of the community

Ask churchgoers why they go to church, and four out of five will say, “I love the strong community.” Someone at my own church once mused, “In this church, you will never have to carry a burden alone.” That’s a wonderful testimony.

Yet community can be found in many places. I know a group who regularly cycle together, and they take care of one another in a way quite similar to that of a church. Caring community is a beautiful thing, and essential to human flourishing, wherever it happens. Community is always a gift of God, but it’s not unique to churches.

 

Going to church for spiritual sustenance

This is the person who says, “I am a spiritual person, but there’s very little in my daily life or in the culture around me that feeds my spirituality. I need church to restore that spiritual dimension of my life.”

I have much sympathy for this point of view. It’s a good reminder that much of the world operates on a horizontal level and doesn’t pay much attention to the vertical dimension. As with community, though, church is not the only place I can find a space for spiritual reflection. Many would respond that it is much easier to worship God, or at least feel spiritual, out in nature, without all the hassle that comes from involvement in a church.

 

Better metaphors

Someone has said what the church needs is not better arguments but better metaphors. It’s a shrewd observation, and Lewis knew this too. In his BBC broadcasts in the 1940s, which later became Mere Christianity, he explains church to secular listeners in pubs across Britain by using a wartime metaphor that must have resonated deeply at that time:

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.”

The image probably wouldn’t connect as well today. For a start, what’s a “wireless”? A metaphor that I have found connects better with people both inside and outside the church is that church is a school—but that too needs explaining.

It begins with the Gospel, Jesus’ announcement of the coming upside-down kingdom of God, where the values of the world are turned on their heads, and the world is turned right-way up. Then Jesus calls disciples to work with him in creating the kingdom, apprentices who slowly learn from him how to think, speak, and live in a kingdom way. One writer has suggested that baptism is—among other things—the way we register in the school of Jesus, the way we announce our intention to live as apprentices of Jesus.

Where does that leave church? Try thinking of it this way. At its heart, church is the gathering of the apprentices of Jesus. Like all apprenticeships, the majority of learning takes place on the job, as we watch the master artisan at work, and try to imitate them. But equally, there are times when the apprentices benefit from coming together. That’s church—the coming together of apprentices, to encourage one another, to discuss how they’ve got on with the lessons of the week before, to confess where they messed up, to learn more from Jesus, to take part in the family meal, and to be sent out for another week of apprenticeship.

I’m glad if people come to church for any reason—for the beauty, to please God, for the blessing of community, or for rediscovering the spiritual. But there is more, far more. Church helps us connect us with God’s purposes for the world in Christ. And that’s a source of deep satisfaction, for the simple reason that it is what human beings were made for.

 

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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