Why Go to Church?

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In Saturday’s paper, on the “Viewpoint” page, a local writer, Michelle Daniel Chadwick, contributed an essay on going to church that was entitled “Feels Good, Good for You.”

It started out so well –

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. For Catholics and many other Christians, Lent is a season of self-reflection and repentance, when we examine our lives and seek to draw closer to God as Easter approaches.

I read on wanting to hear more about this “season of self-reflection and repentance” when people “seek to draw near to God as Easter approaches.”  But to my great surprise, the rest of the essay was not about God at all!  Instead it was about me and about all the good that going to church could do me!  Here’s the gist of what that author had to say –

I have many fond memories of going to church as a child. My father would always put his arm around me during the service and carefully mark the pages for each hymn so that we would be ready at a moment’s notice to join in the singing. Throughout my life, church has been a refuge and a source of strength and encouragement when times were difficult, and a source of joy when times were good. As funny as it sounds, church to me is almost like the bar in Cheers, where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Friends from church are the ones who supported me when I was struggling and comforted me when my mother passed away. Almost every week, as I listen to the readings and sing the hymns and responses, I feel peace, comfort and encouragement. Many other times I have felt the sharp sting of correction when I realized how I needed to work on my own temper, harsh words or judgmental attitudes, and I would leave resolved to do better as a wife, a parent and a friend.

I have happy memories of leading bouncing children in singing during Vacation Bible School, and letting my own children drop leaves over the bridge of the creek next to church for “leaf races.” Because they also went to the school associated with our church, almost every aspect of our lives — sports, scouting, music lessons — centered on our faith community. Of course, neither the school nor the church was perfect, but it was, for the most part, a safe and warm place to grow up.

…I’ll admit, it isn’t always easy to get to church, especially with children. I can’t begin to count the hours I sat in church with a crying baby or squirmy, bored children. Many times we were late, and at least one of us had something wrong with our hair or our clothes. But I also have wonderful memories of the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, all three of my kids forming a group hug with me during the sign of peace, and singing the hymns loud and clear. It’s a place of peace and joy — why not come in and stay awhile?

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of this.  In fact, I could easily and enthusiastically say all of the same things about my experience of church too.  It’s not what this essay in Saturday’s paper said, but rather what it didn’t say that troubles me.

Calvin Miller in one of his books (The Table of Inwardness – IVP – 1984) wrote –

We serve Christ while we worship Narcissus. Our slick religious tabloids abound with articles like, “God Saved My Business!”  Books (and records and tapes) on Christian aerobics, Christian cosmetics and Christian diets abound… “Christianity is best because it is the fastest way to personal gain.”

Sometime ago a book entitled “I Prayed Myself Slim!” told the story of an obese Cinderella who had been trapped in her own body. In a fit of spirituality, she took her overweight condition to Christ, and he began to help her lose weight.  In a fit of spirituality, she took her overweight condition to Christ, and he began to help her lose weight.  Overnight she was transformed into a beautiful princess, desired by the most exciting bachelors in town.  God had rescued her from her fate as a wallflower and cast her gloriously into the fast lane of life!  Naturally, she gave all the credit to God.

Perhaps the young lady should have asked, “Does God want the credit?” The issue is not whether or not God can deliver us to our best selves, but whether or not God’s main agenda is to create Cinderellas.  In fact God wants us to glorify his Son and escape the prison of self.  Yet a new Christian egotism insists that a Christianized self is an adequate center for life. (25-26)

There is a real struggle that rages in the soul of the church between the objective truth with which she has been entrusted and the subjective appeals that she routinely makes in her marketing strategy.  Sometimes it’s described as doing church “from above” and doing church “from below.”  Doing church “from above” means that you start with the reality of God and the centrality of Christ’s claims. The best example of doing church “from above” that I’ve ever come across was the late Diogenes Allen’s response to someone who asked him why he should go to church since he felt no religious needs?  And Dr. Allen, who was for many years the Professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, answered: “Because it’s true!”  That’s doing church “from above.” It’s not about how it makes you feel, or about the immediate benefits that it delivers.  It’s about who God is and what God wants.  Doing church “from below” is about who we are and what we want instead.  It’s my felt needs and satisfied feelings that matter most, and what it sounds like is the essay from Saturday’s paper with its appeal for church going because it “feels good” and is “good for you.”  I’m not arguing that it doesn’t or that it isn’t.  What I’m saying is that even when it doesn’t feel good, and isn’t meeting my immediate and urgently felt needs, a compelling case can be made for going to church.

dude

It’s the most thought-provoking article that I’ve read so far this year.  It was written by Rod Rosenbladt, a Lutheran theologian, and it’s called “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church.”  He addressed it to “church alumni,” to those men and women who have left the church either mad or sad.  Rod didn’t contest the fact that churches do all sort of things that can leave people feeling mad or sad.  If you are doing church “from below,” this is when you put on your hat and coat and head for the door.  Like I often say, telling people that they ought to come to our church “because we’re such nice people” only works until we’re not, and sooner or later we won’t be.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we can’t be cruel or crude, short-tempered or insensitive.  And so, if all we’ve offered to folks is an idyllic vision of church life, when it collides with the church’s reality, disillusionment will follow.  People will leave mad or sad.  But doing church “from above” says that for all of its frailty and failures, the church still holds a treasure that people need.  This was Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 5:7 when he explained: “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.”

In Rod Rosenbladt ‘s essay “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church,” he described an epiphany he had one evening while listening to an interview with Bill Kinison, the brother of the late comedian Sam Kinison, on “60 Minutes.”

After Sam was in an auto accident on a lonely highway near Las Vegas, he lay dying.  Bill was cradling Sam’s head in his arms as Sam died.  Sometime later, the interviewer asked Bill about San’s hatred of Christianity.  And Bill looked at the interviewer and said, “What?  You think Sam was not a Christian believer? Sam died as a believer in Jesus Christ.  You’ll definitely see Sam in heaven!  Sam was never angry with Jesus.  He was angry at the church!”

Hearing this, Rod said that he jumped up out of his recliner and yelled, “That’s it!  There it is!  There is the answer – and from Sam Kinison’s brother!”  Our message is Christ and not the church.  And so Rod says that we can respond to those who are mad at the church with something like, “You’re angry at the church?  Boy oh boy, join the club!  So am I!” 

Rod writes –

I recommend that we “take the hit.” …I recommend that we do not defend the church as much as we defend the Gospel!  I recommend that we immediately “cop to” the horrendous things done by the church… But, since hearing Sam Kinison’s brother, I don’t want to leave the matter there… I want next to talk about the Gospel.  I want to talk about Jesus’ claims… I’m going to talk about the Gospel as if it can be believed in totally apart from the church!  You say to me, “Rosenbladt, that isn’t how Scripture presents the church!”  I answer, “I know.  But first things first! People need Christ, Christ as priest, Christ as having died for our sin, Christ as giving eternal life to sinners for free.” If a person comes to trust Christ and Christ’s sin-bearing death, that person might later on deal with passages about “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together…”  But not now. …The truth of the Gospel does not turn on Christ’s church, but only on Christ’s resurrection from the dead…”

And now we are doing church “from above.”   We aren’t trying to get people to church where hopefully they will bump into Christ and give some thought to receiving him as Lord and Savior. We are telling them about Jesus Christ from the get go, and when He has become their Lord and Savior, then the conversation about church has some context.

In Modern Reformation (May/June 2008) Jay Lemke urged the church to stop the “spiritual bait and switch.”

Many in the American church seem intent to communicate under false pretenses…We’ll bring people in with music, food, fun, and games; and we’ll make them think being a Christian is about whatever interests them. We’ll play on their felt needs, and we’ll do research to determine what “seekers” want in a church. We’ll stick our collective fingers in the air and then we’ll become what people what us to be.  Finally, after all of that work, once we have people in the church, we may eventually get around to telling them, “Oh, by the way, Jesus died for your sins.”

In my public relations world, that’s called the old “bait and switch.” But we in the church do it all the time. We tell people they should read the Bible because it will help them in their daily lives. While there is a sense of truth to it, that is like telling someone to read Moby Dick because it will help them with whale spearing. Whether overtly or subtly, we are telling people they should be Christians because it will make them better in their particular area of interest. The American church is playing a huge game of spiritual bait and switch. At some level, we must be ashamed of the basic message of Christianity, and we don’t believe that on its own it is powerfully interesting…  We are scared to give people the best message of all-because we believe we know better than God. (www.modernreformation.org)

It’s because the church makes a lousy substitute for Christ that I find doing church “from below” to be such a deeply unsatisfying exercise.  But when church is done “from above,” I find that because first things are first that I can affirm all of the good things about church that Michelle Daniel Chadwick affirmed in her essay in Saturday’s paper without there being any confusion about their source, or any great crisis of faith when the church fails to deliver on her promise.  The message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and the church is clearly among the things that needs saving.   DBS+

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why Go to Church?

  1. Dear Mr. Skinner, I didn’t realize what a thoughtful piece you had published commenting on my article. Thank you for your meaningful discussion!

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