Church wakes us from our busy routines and says, "Don’t forget!"
Everybody in our extended family were faithful churchgoers. Or so I thought, until one of my uncles declared to my ten-year-old self, "I can worship God just as well on the golf course as I can in church."
Hmm. I supposed that made sense. However, when I was 12 I had a question for him the next time he made that case. "Okay then, Uncle," I looked up and asked him, "do you worship God there?"
The late sociologist Kurt Bowen, in a book that deserves more attention, looked at various sociological measures of religious commitment and concluded something quietly startling about religion. "Attendance and commitment have such a high degree of overlap or similarity" that the former can serve as a reliable indicator of the latter (Christians in a Secular World, McGill-Queen’s, 2004).
Those who have the "habit" of skipping church are, by all accounts, on their way out – out of church and out of Christian faith in any robust sense.
Bowen isn’t taking a shortcut here, given that church attendance is relatively easy to track compared to other behaviours such as regular Bible reading and prayer, which normally can be studied only through the more dubious means of people’s self-reporting.
No, church attendance correlates highly with other observable behaviours such as volunteering and charitable giving. It also coincides remarkably with orthodox beliefs and traditional Christian values such as the importance of forgiveness and concern for others, even strangers.
PHOTO: HANNAH BUSING / UNSPLASH.COM
Is somebody a serious Christian? Then she (statistically almost always) goes to church. Weekly at least. And the reverse is also true. People do not, in fact, worship God on the golf course as well as they do in church.
Literary scholar Debra Rienstra, in another unjustly overlooked book (So Much More, Jossey-Bass, 2003), reminds us, "Christianity is definitely a team sport…. Belonging to a church keeps a constant pressure on our selfishness, keeps pointing our attention not only to God, but to others and to the world."
Going to church regularly exposes us regularly to the messages we need to hear regularly, messages different from (and at heart opposed to) the messages we get from advertising, politicians, entertainment media, even from well-meaning friends. It’s not that everything they say is wrong. It’s that the good things they say are mixed in with empty words, wrong words and even some poisonous ones.
Church wakes us from the confused dimness of our busy routines and says, "Don’t forget! Don’t forget God, and salvation, and the love of Jesus, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit and the world to come! Don’t forget that the Bible is divine revelation, and prayer is your lifeline, and repentance must be daily, and forgiveness and power are yours for the asking! Wake up! And stay awake!"
And church doesn’t have to be wonderful to be useful – critically useful – in these ways. God can – and does – work through anyone and any church connected with Him. Church just has to be faithful and vital, and lots of churches are.
The New Testament never commands us to go to church. It assumes we are going. In fact it assumes we are there. Much of it is in the form of letters to churches, the reading of which would be done only in churches. That’s why there is only that brief warning in Hebrews 10:25 about "not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing."
That last little phrase is ominous, isn’t it? It is, according to all the sociological data we have. Those who have the "habit" of skipping church are, by all accounts, on their way out – out of church and out of Christian faith in any robust sense.
No, merely going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. But going to church keeps you a Christian, and it is God’s main way of helping you mature as a Christian.
Golf courses? Or hockey rinks? Or soccer fields? Or ski hills? Or cottages? Or brunches?
Not so much.
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book is Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017). Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.