by Kathleen Staudt
A recent NPR story about Americans’ widespread claim that they believe in God but not “institutional religion” has left me feeling impatient (read it here) and I’m trying to tease out why. Part of it is that this is just more of the same discussion that we’re having within the church about what needs to change to attract the next generation -- too often I think it goes to “how do we get more people to come to church?” i.e. it remains about institutional survival. Further, I’m starting to think that when we listen to those who are offering critiques of the church from the “spiritual but not religious” perspective, we are listening to at least two different streams of thought -- both important, but worth distinguishing because they’re different audiences for our witness, if we decide that witnessing to the gospel is ultimately going to be what we’re about. On the one hand, there are those who have left the churches they grew up in or attended for many years because they are disillusioned by the controversies, the fighting, the focus on institutional politics rather than on God. Those are the people who say, rightly, that they are not hearing in church the transformative gospel that Jesus proclaimed, the Gospel that calls us to change and grow for the sake of a broken world. They can say that because at one time or another they did hear that gospel, probably in church -- but they now see churches that seem to have lost their way.
On the other hand, there are the Seekers and the unchurched, people who were not raised in any religion and who are curious about what Christianity is all about. Some of these folks wander into churches and encounter the gospel in something they hear, or in the experience of worship -- but many others I’ve talked to have been just puzzled: they have basic questions about why we do what we do, why we use the words that we do, and often no place to take those questions. I’m wondering how many of us have a good answer, if someone who is disillusioned, or unchurched or puzzled by religion asks us: “What’s the point? Why Church at all? (I should note that a young person, Jacob Nez, has already opened this discussion on the Café with his “Why are Youth in Church” - read it here: so that gives me courage to pose the question positively for all of us).
Why do I keep going to church?
What is it, for me, that makes the desire to worship so strong that it doesn’t matter whether services are sometimes boring or people in churches are fighting? I wonder if this is the place to start, rather than looking at marketing strategies or polling or tweaking of our Sunday practices: What is our testimony, those of us who do keep showing up, week after week, for worship? Why church at all? I’m asking that of myself
In an interview reported by Barbara Bradley Haggerty, a churchgoer says that the church “puts skin on God.” “Putting skin on God” - I like that. It expresses what I hope is true: that it is possible for human beings to draw near to be touched by, a mystery that is beyond our full comprehension and in our gathering to lend a human face, a story to that Mystery that we experience as also reaching out to us. That’s the main reason I go to church, I think, even in a culture where it seems fewer & fewer people do so. I want to spend some time each week around people who have glimpsed the same hope, and who express that hope by gathering together, in words, song, bodily movement. Even when it’s inconvenient or I don’t feel like it, even when some of the people irritate me, showing up regularly in this way does me good. I would even say that over the years it has been a transformative practice for me.
The stories we tell, the words we use, the prayers we say in church, if I listen to the words, proclaim that there is something greater than me or even than “us”, the particular people gathered on a given Sunday. When we gather for worship, we are putting ourselves in the presence of something bigger than all of us, and yet people down through the ages have written prayers and hymns to try to touch this experience. I’m a word-person, so in any given week I always listen for words that may speak to me. Often nothing speaks; sometimes what I hear offends me or puts me off -- but I remember that these are words that have spoken to others, that are speaking to people who are at worship with me now. And they are speaking of something that is ultimately beyond our words. And there is something powerful about our gathering to listen to these words together, even as we may hear different things on any given Sunday.
For me the practice of going to church is a way of saying, to myself, to God, to the world, “I want to be part of the Better Thing that is still happening, even beneath and within the brokenness of the world around us. And I know that in order for this to happen, I need to keep growing and changing.” The Biblical images of leaven in the world, a lamp shining in the darkness, a treasure hidden in a field, all speak to this intuition. The teachings of Jesus and St. Paul call us to be transformed into people who will be a blessing to the world. It’s the churches that have to hold up that vision. That many churches don’t is not a sign of the demise of Christianity, though it may be the sign of the need to shake off some ways of “doing church” that have become entrenched and dysfunctional.
It is also true that a little time spent in governance and leadership in church be very discouraging. And it is a tough time in history to be someone whose livelihood depends on the church as it is currently structured, so it is no wonder that many clergy are disillusioned and angry, though many others are rising to the challenges. We can get so anxious about institutional survival and so embroiled in our own power struggles that we wind up wounding each other and losing track of what we’re doing here. I do understand why so many people leave the church and decide they can live the teaching of Jesus better outside it, undistracted by the human ugliness that is so particularly distressing in many church “families.” And yet for those of us who stay, the hard work of listening to one another, holding one another accountable and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation is part of what helps us grow in faith. Life in community, with all its messiness, is part of the answer to “Why Church?”
Why this Church?
In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, our Sunday worship is centered on the celebration of Eucharist or “Holy Communion” and that celebration speaks, for me, beyond the limitations of words. It invites each one of us, whoever we are, whatever we look like, however we are feeling today, to come forward and join with everyone else present, and be fed so that we may be energized to bring blessing to the world. The experience of receiving communion with a community of people not necessarily at all “like me” or in the same place in faith, life or culture also raises the possibility of a God who is bigger than any one person’s preferences or beliefs. I sometimes experience that mystery, as an overflowing sense of love and presence, when I receive communion. Sometimes.
Even more, the Episcopal/Anglican tradition appeals to me because we have always paid a lot of attention to the mystery of the Incarnation, which to me is the most exciting idea that Christianity brings to the table, in the conversation among world religions. (I appreciated Bill Carroll’s post about this on a recent Episcopal Café here.). Frederica Harris Thompsett has called us the “church of Christmas Eve,” and it is perhaps not an accident that even people who do not have a church tradition may be drawn to a Christmas Eve service in an Episcopal Church, or a service of 9 Lessons and Carols during the Christmas season. We celebrate, not just at Christmas but always, the joyful mystery of a God who becomes human, shares our suffering and our joy, and understands our humanity, and calls us constantly to renewed and transformed lives as companions and friends of God. Other Christian denominations also preach this of course -- it is the heart of Christian faith. But the Anglican focus on the mystery of the Word made flesh keeps us always rooted in this world, seeking transformation rather than escape, and holds out the hope for the presence and participation in our lives of a God who knows our brokenness and offers Resurrection. And who never gives up on us.
All of this, I know, is holding up an ideal that is far from the reality. But my point is that in addition to looking at what is driving people away from church, it might still be useful to ask those who are still in church, “What is it that sustains you about the regular spiritual practice of church-going, at a time when so many people seem to be leaving or disaffected?” How do you answer the question “Why church?”
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.