Reflection October 7, 2018
"Why Bother With Church?" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
When I was a child, I attended church virtually every Sunday. It was expected of us. Often the entire grade school was in attendance. And also, in my earlier denomination, if one missed a Sunday service (unless sick or traveling), one committed a “mortal sin.” If one died with a mortal sin on one’s soul, hell was that person’s final destination!
Talk about an incentive for attending church! This obligation still stands: “The Sunday Eucharist (worship service) is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave (mortal) sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994)
I sometimes wonder what would happen to Catholic churches if this grave/mortal obligation were rescinded. Would the Catholic churches empty as precipitously as our Protestant churches have emptied over the past few decades?
In high school, I attended prayers and Catholic mass each morning every day. We attended two masses on Sundays. In college, we were also expected to attend daily services but I became more lax in those turbulent times (the 60’s - after all!)
In reality, I must say that most of the services I attended, even as an altar boy, were dreadfully dull. I understood the importance of Eucharist/communion but I was appalled by the shallow theology and tepid preaching accompanying the services. It struck me that many of the priests celebrating the services were often just going through the motions. This was and is a harsh judgment on those mostly good men.
God forgive me but I wondered as a young man and wonder still why adults would put up with such “baby food” from so many pulpits. For some years, I wrote sermons for a sermon company connected with my first publishers.
I’d write a sermon that would then be mailed to those who had subscribed to the sermon service. I fear many pastors and clergy use these “canned” sermons rather than engaging with the Scripture in a deep and intimate way. One Sunday I sat in a church in Saint Louis, listening, word for word, to a sermon I’d written. Afterwards I complimented the priest on the sermon!
Some of my classmates believed the main reason behind my ordination was so I wouldn’t have to continue going to services that failed to touch me. And, please understand, I’m in no way praising my ability or lack thereof when it comes to leading worship and preaching.
But, here’s the thing, I don’t have to listen to someone else leading worship and preaching. And, as I’ve noted more than once, the primary person I’m trying to convert in my preaching is myself! God knows I’m in need of constant conversion!
But why come to church? I’ve seen way too many Christians sitting in church with unhappiness oozing from their very pores. Why come to church if one is unhappy to be there? Why come to church if it feels like an overwhelming obligation? Why come to church when it’s more fun to sit at home, drinking coffee and reading the paper? Why come to church when the kids require lots of preparation for attendance? Why come to church if one is not, at least slightly, transformed?
Now, please note, I’m NOT saying: “Don’t bother with church!” But I think we need to “reboot” our understanding of why we come to church. We come to church not to be entertained. We come to church not because God will “get” us if we don’t. We come to church to be “pulled out” of the shallow shell of our self. We come to church to merge with an organism larger than our tiny self.
As James Poling and Donald Miller assert in Foundations for a Practical Theology of Ministry: “The heart of Christian life for the individual is shared life with other believers.” We gather with fellow believers in order to get “pulled out” of our narrow sense of self. In isolation, we wither away, becoming focused primarily on our problems and personal life-challenges. Isolation is not good for the heart but it is deadly for the soul.
Here is a vital description of the early church: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul …” (Acts 4:32) Our brother Paul urges a church community to make him “completely happy by having the same thoughts, sharing the same love, and being one in soul and mind.” (Philippians 2:2)
Many come to church because they wish to “get” something for the expenditure of their precious time. But we should come to church to participate in the WE of church - not the isolated I under-girding our solipsistic, narcissistic society. We need to be regularly “pulled” out of the prison of the isolated self.
Church, ideally, allows our sense of self to expand - to grow. We’re drawn into a communal dimension that nourishes what is best in us: the luminosity lying at the core of our hearts, the sacred light shining from the sanctuary of our souls.
It’s easy to come to church for the WRONG reasons. It’s hard to come to church for the RIGHT reasons. There are too many unhappy Christians in church. Their unhappiness dims the communal light binding a congregation together. We gather together for US. We do not gather together for ME.
The prominent Lutheran theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, writing about the work of God’s Spirit, argues: “It is therefore part of the nature and operation of the Spirit to bring about a community that will transcend and overcome the isolation of individuals.” I come to church to become part of a WE, to immerse my ME into a sacred US.
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643