Recently, in two separate conversations, I had someone my age state that if they had not grown up in the church, they probably would not be interested because of the church’s disappointing history and Christianity’s current image in our culture. Moreover, both people said they understand the often-touted ambivalence toward Christianity in younger generations. For me, their frustration with the “church” and the disconnect many have with Christianity, brings up the age-old question: “Why should I go to Church?” Or more importantly, “Why do I need to go to church?”
This response is for those struggling with church involvement and all of us when we encounter the disenfranchised. For now, let’s equate “going to church” with participation in worship and the communal life of a congregation. Of course, you really can’t “go to church” because the church is not a building but let’s set that aside for now.
The main reason we go to church boils down to what we believe the core Gospel is and the fundamental problem addressed by that Gospel. Biblically, our problem is the unholy trinity of sin, death, and the devil. The person and work of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s ultimate answer to these problems. Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead to make us just/innocent (Romans 4.25). In Christ Jesus, we have the forgiveness of our sins (Mark 2:9, Acts 2:38) and in Him, death has lost its sting (I Corinthians 15:55) In Him, the separation we have from God caused by the unholy trinity is overcome, and we are reconciled—reunited with God (2 Cor. 5:18). The church, through Word and Sacrament, hands over the goods of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Handing over God’s gift of grace and mercy in Christ is the core purpose of the church, whether people feel they need it or not. Our Lutheran Confessions clearly state this purpose. We go to church to receive these goods and to strengthen the church’s ability to give them to others and future generations. Simply put, we go to church to connect to Christ and thank God for all the blessings that come from being “in” Christ.
We also go to church to be made into Jesus’ disciples (followers). Our need for community arises here. We need others in our Christian walk and we go to church to be empowered by our sisters and brothers. The flip side of this is also real. We participate in the church to support and empower others in their journey as well. We need each other. Each of us, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:7, has a gift for the “common good.” Being in a community is vital to a vibrant relationship with Christ.
Finally, forming disciples also involves morals and values. The church has something to say about ethics, right and wrong behavior, and the passing on of these values is an important reason we go to church. The 10 Commandments and Jesus’ summary statement to “love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself,” are at the core of the church’s moral and ethical work. Participating in a church not only helps us stay grounded in these values but also gives us a community and vehicle to live out Jesus’ call to love our neighbor. Check out our Love in Action web page to see how SLC is engaging in this work. Being in a church community shapes us into servants, and we then enter our mission field as we live out our values in our homes, neighborhoods, associations, and work as citizens.
What about all the contemporary social issues? It’s here that I see people being frustrated with “the church.” People want the church to fight for policies they believe will improve our world. I’ve heard frustration about this from many different sides of the political landscape. Why should I go to church when it is not standing up for social policies and actions in which I believe? This question gets into the relationship between church and politics, and I’ll write more about that soon. For now, I would caution that it is a mistake for the church to merge with any particular political ideology.
Nevertheless, a big part of the problem here is more a matter of perception than reality due to the overly negative publicity in the media. It seems to me that for every positive story I hear about the church in the media today, I hear ten negative stories. Past misdeeds are put under the microscope, while the positive contributions which dwarf the negative, are ignored. Abolition of slavery? A Christian movement. Women’s suffrage? A Christian movement. Racial civil rights? A Christian movement. Largest social helping agency in the U.S.? Lutheran Social Services. The Red Cross? Started by Christians. All the shelters and soup kitchens serving the poor? Christians mostly created them and continue to run them. Then, one must also remember that individuals, shaped by the church, are “out there” working for justice but the church itself isn’t seen as doing anything because individuals are doing the work. In other words, the church is behind the scenes.
Nevertheless, in my view, going to church is ultimately is not about joining up with a group that agrees with my convictions on social issues. If others or we are frustrated with what the church is or isn’t doing, perhaps we should reflect on the church’s ultimate purpose. I hope my words are helpful in your reflection.