Why go to church?

By Ian Willis

I turned 81 four months ago. When I look back over my “four-score-years-and-one”, I’m struck by the changes that have taken place in this country during my lifetime. For instance, in my youth our bread and milk were delivered daily by horse & cart. No driving to a onestop supermarket then. In any case we didn’t have a car so we walked everywhere — to the shops, school, church and the railway station.

About the biggest change that has come over Australia in those 81 years has been the decline in religion. When I was a boy almost everyone in our neighbourhood belonged to a Christian church, and we all knew who went to which one.

At my school nearly all my classmates attended nearby Sunday schools, of which there were nine to choose from—two Anglican, two Methodist and one each of Baptist, Church of Christ, Congregational, Presbyterian and Salvation Army. There were also two Catholic churches, but they didn’t run Sunday schools and in any case there were few Catholics at our State school because they mostly attended the parish schools next door to their churches.

It’s different nowadays, isn’t it? Even if we actually know who all our neighbours are, which many of us don’t, most of us have no idea what their religious beliefs are or what churches they might belong to. What we do know is that when it’s time for us to go to church, most of them are sleeping in, doing housework, gardening, shopping or heading off to their leisuretime pursuits. That is, they’re unchurched and lead non-religious lives. When their children marry, it’ll be in a non-church setting like the botanic gardens or beside the lake; their grandchildren will be unchristened; and when they die they’ll be buried from a funeral parlour not a church. Not the faintest whiff of Christianity at all, then, for most Australians in 2019.

All this brings me to consider why we surviving Christians, many of us elderly and in our declining years, bother maintaining the faith. Why do we continue going to church when so few of our friends and family members do?

There are good reasons, all negative, why the unchurched wouldn’t want to attend church. Consider these:

I can’t speak for you, but when I consider why I go to church, I immediately come up  with five main answers. I attend church because of:

  1. habit, custom & tradition — regular church attendance is a habit I formed 33 years ago; since then it has been my custom to attend church on Sunday wherever in the world I happen to be; and also there’s a family tradition of being church attenders.
  2. community, culture & society — by attending church I feel I belong to a worldwide community of believers; I greatly value the Christian culture I’m part of through being a church member; and I strongly believe that Australian society would be much improved if it was Christian rather than secular.
  3. duty, responsibility and obligation — if I want to call myself a Christian, I believe my duty is to belong to a congregation of fellow believers; it’s my responsibility to attend its services of worship regularly; and by being one of its members there’s an obligation on me to support it in its various activities and to help provide the funds to enable it to fulfil its mission in the world. There’s no escaping such obligations if you’re a church member!
  4. emotions, thoughts and feelings — I feel at peace with myself by knowing I’m a church member; by being a church member I can keep my thoughts focussed on the Christian life; and the sense of belonging to a church is a reassuring emotion which wasn’t mine before I became a Christian.
  5. theology, Christology and ecclesiology — this is the ‘religious’ and ‘educational’ part of church membership. Theology is what we hear preached in church. It’s a set of systematically developed teachings about God which we also assimilate through the prayers, scripture readings and hymns we share in church. Through theology we learn more about God and God’s will for humankind. Christology, the study of who Jesus is, is something we most commonly learn about in church, as the preacher teaches us about our right relationship with Christ. And we also learn ecclesiology, which means understanding what the church is, what its mission in the world should be, and how this relates to us personally.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realise there are other and more important reasons for attending church that aren’t included in the five I’ve just enumerated.

The first is that we gather together in church because that’s where we meet Jesus face-to-face. We believe his promise in Matthew 18:18-20: “Assuredly, I say to you, where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

Of course, you don’t only meet Jesus in church. You see him out and about every day of your life! He’s the destitute person living in squalor and begging for a handout at the entrance to the supermarket. He’s also the vulnerable, abused child who had the misfortune to be born into the wrong family circumstances.

It is also in church that we meet Jesus together as a community of believers who have gathered purposely to worship the living, present Jesus. Meeting Jesus together is a wonderful shared experience.

Another important reason for being here is that by being congregation members, we also become a part of the living body of Christ. As St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12: “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body….Now you are the body of Christ.” The body of Christ is a living organism.

It’s made up of billions of cells, each of them an individual Christian. 3 Together they’re the church universal—the body of Christ. By attending church we affirm our membership of a great world-wide organism. Conversely, if we remove ourselves from the church and cease communicating with its other members and with Jesus in services of worship, part of us dies because we lose contact with Jesus. That, we can be sure, grieves him deeply.

But for me, and you I trust, the major reason for attending church is that through joining a congregation we experience the redemption that Jesus offers to wayward sinners like us.

It’s true that redemption is of God, not of the church, and is granted by grace to the penitent sinner who trusts Jesus and seeks forgiveness. The theologians call this ‘justification by faith through grace’; but while the church doesn’t bestow redemption, it does provide a worshipful setting in which it can be achieved.

Saying this another way, we might agree that we come here Sunday by Sunday to:

Does a Christian need the church for all that to happen? Again, I can’t speak for you, but in my own case I know that not much of it would happen if I didn’t attend church regularly. The church, this church, Tuggeranong Uniting Church, provides for me a framework to ensure that it does happen.

Let’s now consider some of the pluses of being a regular church attender. Chief among them is that being a church member is a rich, rewarding experience. It certainly has its frustrations which, for me at least, has sometimes made me doubt the value of being a church member. But they’re passing perturbations; and I always end up recommitting myself to my TUC membership. The Christian path is steep, winding, narrow and difficult. It isn’t for the fainthearted; but for those who tread it, it is its own splendid reward.

I keep coming here because during my 33 years of being in the TUC Parish Directory, I’ve come to realise that we the members of this congregation matter to each other. We love God and wish to love God more, of course; but we love each other too. We pray for and visit those who are ill or housebound. We grieve and attend the funeral when one of our number dies. We rejoice when a little child is baptized here or someone chooses to be married here. We 4 applaud when one of us experiences a success in a chosen field. We tolerate each other’s eccentricities and divergent views. That’s because we’re a family in Christ; and, like members of biological & social families, we help each other out and see each other safely through life’s tribulations and crises.

My final point is really the starting point. We come here week in week out because of God. God is the starting point and the finishing point — the Alpha and Omega of our Christian pilgrimage through life. In that journey we must encounter Jesus, the Son of God, Christ the crucified and risen Saviour. In following Jesus towards his promised goal, we are a church. A church is not a political party, a social club, a lobby group, or a cultural movement. It’s not Care Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Amnesty International, the Smith Family or the Refugee Council. Fine institutions like these do provide Christians with many opportunities for putting into practice their Christian beliefs in the everyday world; however, although they’re worthy of the support of Christians, they’re not churches but wholly secular institutions — and they don’t offer redemption.

As a Christian church, we begin and end with faith in Christ crucified and risen. We are a community of believers different from the common herd and all other institutions because we try to be faithful to Christ, whose influence pervades all our private and public lives. That’s what the church is all about; and that’s why we go to church. Our attendance here is our collective statement of faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, the Alpha and Omega who redeems us. With God’s grace and guidance, may it always be so!

My final point is this: a church is a faith community, not a building. I’ve shown you pictures of churches large and small, ancient and modern, near and far; and the people who attend them will dearly love the historic buildings in the pictures. But the truth is that a church building is not the church. It’s an empty shell waiting to be filled with the vibrant community of worshippers who go there seeking redemption from Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Saviour. Thanks be, that we Christians may do so!

Finally, as we think of why we come here, we offer this prayer:

Gracious God, our friend and guide, give to your church a new vision and a new charity, new wisdom and fresh understanding, new energy for proclaiming you to the world, the revival of her brightness and the renewal of her unity; that the eternal message of redemption brought to us by your Son, Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen, may be hailed as the good news of the new age, through Him who makes all things new, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (by Percy Dearmer, 1867–1936, Anglican priest, historian & hymn writer)
Photo of Ian Willis

Written by Ian Willis

Dr Ian Willis is a long-term lay preacher at TUC. He has a deep commitment to prayer and regularly gives his time to pray with preachers and worship leaders before worship services each Sunday. Ian is also a writer and historian.

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