Friday, 15 April 2016

Why church?

Enjoying the sunshine after morning worship

Spending a part of Sunday in church is not the first choice of many in Great Britain today. According to statistics, weekly Church of England Sunday attendance fell below 1 million for the first time this year.

You can suggest anything with statistics, of course. Some have been quick to point out that this still represents more people gathering for a united purpose than at all sporting events combined across a typical weekend, for instance. And it is still the case that each week, additional thousands attend church for school related services, funerals or baptisms.

One of the most frequently heard responses from people who talk to ministers about their church going habits (or lack of them) is "I do believe but I don't go to church". There's nothing designed to create more soul searching than that response, very typical of a large group of disaffiliated people who sometimes used to go, but for whatever reason do not go anymore. It always makes me think hard - because if literally everyone felt that way, the only person there on a Sunday morning would

Can you be a Christian without going to church? On one level, yes. Not going on a Sunday probably won't shift your underlying conviction that God exists and even that Jesus is important (always a good starting point). Or possibly it will. 

But on another level, I don't think you can, easily. The bible doesn't know anything of private spirituality - the early believers held everything in common and met daily for fellowship, prayer, teaching and breaking of bread. They organised practical support for the poor in a society without a welfare state and took it as axiomatic that the proclamation of Jesus Christ was a public affair, affecting all aspects of life (e.g. Acts 2:42-7). So, though I rarely say it, my response might be: 'one sign that you love God, is that you want to be with the people of God...'

Obviously I have a vested interest in people going to church. The odd thing is that most people who say they believe but don't belong, would probably feel sad if the church disappeared. Even people who never go sometimes express a vague pleasure in the building being there, for funerals, weddings, carol concerts, school leavers services and any other number of things that need a large building with a holy feel to it. And property programmes invariably show the church spire on the horizon of that pretty place where today's couple want to settle down, if they can afford the right property (have you noticed that?)

So here are 7 reasons to go to church.

1) We're better together. Although the singer Jack Johnson got there first, it's a good slogan for church. Singing, praying, talking with others gives a sense of belonging to something greater and promotes wellbeing. Various studies have shown that religious people have higher life satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety than those with no religion.

2) You don't have to believe everything first. 
Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone in church has all their beliefs sorted. Encountering something living and powerful
comes first - you can work out the details later. This is generally how it went with the people who came across Jesus in the gospels.

3) Church is an antidote to individualism. 
Scientists have found a direct correlation between excessive individualism and levels of depression and anxiety in Western societies. And Britain tops the world leader board of individualism. 
Church literally means 'assembly' and carries the positive power of 'being in it together', with people across social and age divides, something very much against the flow culturally today.

4) To lay a foundation.
If you have kids, the window is quite small to lay down a foundation of Christian faith for them. Children will follow what their parents believe, up to a point, and after that will make up their own mind. Which is healthy. But if they haven't been exposed to a form of lived Christianity in the beginning, they won't really be free to make up their own mind - because they will have only experienced one lived option: non church going. All the evidence points to the fact that they will not find adopting faith half as easy in later life if a positive experience of church is largely absent from childhood.

5) The Church has longevity.
Most churches have been there for literally hundreds of years, outliving other public utilities such as local shops, pubs, halls and sometimes schools. If you're part of a school community, that's lovely for meeting people, making friends, getting involved and inevitably doing fundraising. But that phase will pass. Children get older and leave school. Secondary schools are not always places where similar strong personal connections can be made (they can be, but one hangs about in them less, inevitably). Once the University or leaving home stage comes, your community connections can weaken. There are now more people living alone than ever before and a lot of them are lonely. Belonging to a church can transcend all these stages, and what's more you can go to practically any country in the world and you will find a group of people meeting together as Church. And your spiritual connections go back through time as well. All in all, it's very connecting.

6) We have the stories.
In stained glass, in narrative, in enacting a meal and in
Stories in glass - St Oswald, Ravenstonedale
personal testimony, the Church invests in stories. To consider the notion of beginnings without Genesis; of freedom and law without the Ten Commandments; of dreams without Joseph and his amazing technicolour dream coat; to think about suffering without the man of sorrows, or new life without the idea of resurrection, is to be impoverished. And people who don't go to church do think about these things. In church we hand down and re-tell week by week the stories that give us identity and show us where we might be going. The good news is, we don't just tell stories: we live the story. And everyone's part of it.

7) It's about more than 'going'.
It's understandable that people who don't normally attend church do, however, appear on Sundays mornings occasionally, and for many different reasons. This is perhaps where going to church and being the church can seem in tension. Culturally, Christmas, Easter, Harvest (in rural churches at least), Remembrance, even baptism, can attract occasional worshippers. There's a feeling that they need an excuse to go. But most of the people that go every week are longing that the occasional worshippers get a glimpse somehow that church going is only the preliminary to church-being

People always say, if we didn't have buildings we'd still have the church. And essentially it's true. The first churches were in people's homes and only later did designated buildings start to go up. Personally I think God is non partisan about these things. We have buildings, we have people - let's rejoice in them both. 

So, church-going: we're better together; you don't have to have all the details sorted; it's an antidote to individualism; it lays a foundation; it has longevity and stories, and is about more than just going. Seven reasons to go to church. See you there.


  1. Thank you: whether full-on challenged or just given an uncomprehending frown - for example at work - the outcome is that I just don't mention my church activities any more, or disguise them as a village event - "the lovely thing about being Churchwarden at (insert festival)is that over the course of (x) services you get to see just about everyone", she gushes. Now I don't have to feel mute but can return looks and words with a confident explanation, relevant to today, albeit nicked from you!

  2. I'm new to going to church and it's become really important to me. But I had oh so many reservations about becoming a Christian - not least of which was that I didn't understand the whole of the bible and I thought I did. Other Chrisitians put me off too. Oh and Christianity is boring. In fact I have a whole series of posts called 'hesitant Christianity' exploring these. I'm there now (I got baptised on Easter Sunday) but there was a lot of resistance. But going to church is a wonderful thing and I would be deverstated if it disappeared.