Why Go to Church?
Commentary by Walter Hesford
One recent Sunday morning I mentioned to my family that I needed to leave soon to go to church. “Why,” asked a visiting step-son, ”are you afraid you’ll go to hell if you don’t?”
I have found my step-son’s assumption that folks go to church so that they’ll land in heaven rather than hell quite common among non-church goers. Perhaps this assumption comes from the presence of hell-fire-and-brimstone preachers on street corners or from the seeming monopoly fundamentalists have on popular media. It sure doesn’t come from the actual church-goers I know.
What, then, are our actual reasons for going to churches … or mosques, synagogues, temples or other faith-community gathering-places? Currently for me, there are three reasons.
First, I go to church for fellowship, to belong to a community. This might sound non-religious. Certainly fellowship is available in many secular organizations. But in how many of these can me-with-the-terrible- voice sing loud without being told to shut up? And how many organizations offer such a cross section of old coots and young ducklings, progressive seekers and confirmed conservatives, all who care for each others’ welfare?
“How’s it goin’ out in the country?” “Well, a raccoon got into our compost heap — must have been after those apples.” “You can put apples into a compost heap? I didn’t know that.” “You never know what you’ll learn by comin’ to church!”
That’s a conversation I had with a fellow in overalls across the aisle as the organ began tuning up. After church over coffee we might discuss anything from the weather to the sermon, though doubtless more the former than the latter. What’s most important is that we show up. Communities are hard to sustain, as evidenced by the fact then they are everywhere shrinking and disappearing.
Like many churches, ours continues to offer our worship service on Zoom as well as in person, a practice begun during the height of the pandemic. This allows those who can’t come physically to church to continue to be part of the church community. Once in a while I’ll stay home and worship via Zoom just to wave at and say hello to folks I miss.
A second reason I have for going to church is the worship service itself. Though I agree with those who say that that they can have spiritual experiences in nature, or, for that matter, in parking lots, houses of worship can provide the opportunity for phenomenal dances with the Spirit. In “The Heart of Christianity,” Marcus Borg suggests that worship services can be what are called “thin places” in Celtic Christian tradition — places where the spiritual and physical world intertwine. This may occur for some in music, for others in the Word, for others in traditional rituals such as communion. Through various worshipful ways, what is sought after is not the afterlife, but this life, whole and holy.
My third reason for attending and belonging to a church is that it gives me the chance to be of service to others. I am by nature a self-serving and solitary sort; I could while away my days in retirement reading books, sipping wine. Through my church and denomination I can help feed the hungry, clothe and house the poor, provide refuge for those in exile and advocate for equity and justice, locally, nationally and globally. I’m sure may FāVS readers belong to faith communities that are doing the same.
In a Moscow-Pullman Daily News opinion column on Oct. 14, Ryan Urie writes that he and his fellow atheists are feared by Christians. He thinks that the deep reason for this fear is that atheists may well be right and this explains the decline in organized religions. Urie implies that many Christians have a fear of a god or a hell that scares them “into behaving ethically,” and that this fear no longer fills the pews.
What I fear, rather, is what will happen if organized religions are not there to be there for those most in need. Look around Spokane, look around the Palouse, look around the world, and you will see the vital importance of sustaining faith communities so that they can sustain their neighbors, as their loving ethic calls and enables them to do.