Why We Go to Church

A few weekends ago, my husband and I took our two sons to Saturday afternoon mass and then left them with a baby-sitter so that we could go out to celebrate my birthday at a restaurant that does not have macaroni and cheese on the menu. Maybe it was the pre-dinner glass of rosé that got me talking about religion, but after our server brought us our salads (within which lettuce was the only ingredient our sons would have been able to identify), I spontaneously asked my husband, “What do you think about going to church?”

His response was one that is not uncommon these days, particularly among adults our age who are too young to be Boomers and too old to be Millennials (and thus forever without a cool generational moniker): “Really, I feel more connected to God in nature, when we go hiking in at a state park or biking along the Mississippi River. I also feel God is with us when we spend time as a family, when we light a candle and gather at the table for a meal or cuddle on the couch for a movie. I just don’t get that much out of going to church.”

I admitted that all too often I feel that same way. Encountering the beauty and majesty of the natural world leaves no doubt in my mind about God as Creator and does wonders for lifting my spirits and offering a gentle reminder that the world does not revolve around me. The swell of joy and overflowing love in my heart when my sons give me a hug or do something of which they are proud teaches me in a way that the Bible never has about God’s unconditional love for humanity. Yet in a life that seems busier with each candle added to the boys’ birthday cakes, we still carve out time to be at church (most weekends), even though we do not feel an obligation to do so in the way that our grandparents did. So why do we go to church? Here are a few of the answers my husband and I brainstormed while we were savoring spicy apple custard with a salty caramel topping (we seriously need to dine without the kids more often!):

  •  A social reason that we value going to church is that it allows us to be part of a diverse, intergenerational community. We appreciate getting out of our “parents with young children” silo and interacting with people at other stages of life. We appreciate that we can have interesting conversations with people of different political views about social issues to which the church is called to respond.
  • A familial or historical reason we value going to church is that our parents took us to church, and their parents took them before that, and so on back through the centuries. We appreciate the belief in God that our parents bequeathed to us and we wish to pass on the same gift to our children. We appreciate being part of a 2000 year old community, a community that is not confined to the here and now but that also includes the scores of believers who have gone before us.
  • An ethical reason that we value going to church is that we get regular exposure to an alternative worldview that challenges us to think about our lives and our actions in new ways. Even though we are only able to catch snippets of the homily in between whispered requests for a book to look at or a snack to munch on, we appreciate the ethic of love, forgiveness, justice, and peace that is preached. It reminds us that the values of commercialism and individualism that reign supreme in our society are not the values of Jesus Christ, and we need the weekly reminder to live by this standard of loving God and loving the neighbor as ourselves.
  • A theological reason that we value going to church is that we count our blessings as from God and feel that it is “right to give God thanks and praise.” In this way, church is not so much about us getting something out of it as it is about giving something back to God—not because God demands this but because we want to express our gratitude and to glorify God.

What reasons do you have for going to church? Do you go out of obligation? What do you get out of going to church and what do you give by going to church?

One thought on “Why We Go to Church

  1. Forty-some years ago, I surveyed students in my Catholic high school with similar questions. I remember that one of my questions was “what was your most meaningful Mass?” reflecting my experience that some liturgies were more personal, had better music, etc. but I think my answer at the time, on the cusp of my young-adult faith crisis, would have been, “I go because occasionally I feel like I’ve experienced God here and so I come back in case it might happen again.”
    These days I think my answer is just a little different. All the reasons you mention are good ones, and I would add that in taking part I contribute in various ways to sustaining that community. But the main reason I go to Mass in particular is that I believe we have a uniquely intimate encounter with Jesus, with the Trinity, in word and sacrament (and community), whether I “experience” it at the time or not. It is the air I breathe, my daily bread, and though I try to go where it will feel more “meaningful,” that is secondary to the Reality that is Life itself.

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