I’ve never really loved going to church. Of all that entails the religious life, the least interesting to me is the act of actually going to a building with lots of people and sitting through lessons and sermons. Sometimes the services can be engaging and even beautiful, but often they range from dull to ordinary. But the older I get, and the more I reflect on the benefits of a church-going life on one’s family and community, the more I realize that more is at stake than my personal whims.
According to recent research, an unprecedented number of Americans have stopped attending church or affiliating with any religion. I believe the choice to abandon religion is not only bad for our spiritual life, but damaging to our national civic life.
I want to address some common excuses for not attending church. I’m familiar with these excuses because I’ve used them (or wanted to use them) many times. But truth is a stubborn nag, and I’ve never been able to pull off these excuses for very long before they fall apart.
“I don’t need religion to be spiritual.” This is like saying “I don’t need schools to be educated.” It’s absolutely true, but it misses the point that spirituality, just like learning, is best fostered in a supportive community with structure and accountability and guidance. Theoretically, the world’s knowledge is contained in books and online resources, and can be studied all alone in the woods. Yet imagine if, based on this fact, we were to abandon all the schools and universities. Without the discipline and guidance that comes from structured education, worldwide learning and literacy would plummet. Similarly, it’s easy to dabble in spirituality–a little prayer, a little meditation, a little yoga–but a more earnest pursuit of the Divine is greatly enhanced with the discipline and ritual that comes from a community of fellow seekers.
“I have doubts; I’m just not sure I believe in all that stuff anymore.” Welcome to the club. Very few churchgoers blindly and zealously gobble up all of their faith’s claims. Doubt should no more keep us away from church than illness should keep us away from the hospital. Yet this is an imperfect comparison because it suggests it’s the role of church to “cure” us of doubt. In fact, doubt is part of faith. Faith, which has often been compared to a seed, arises from a place of doubt and uncertainty like a plant rises from the soil. Church isn’t a place to go once doubts have been resolved; it’s a place to work through them.
“I cannot support my Church’s stance on social and political issues.” At a time when society is dividing itself into like-minded tribes, I can’t think of a better antidote than intentionally going to a place that challenges our particular worldview. Maybe your political or social cause is good and just. But maybe, just maybe, you aren’t quite as correct as you think you are. Even if you are right and your church is wrong, maybe your voice of dissent can provide a needed balance to those who have become too comfortable in their own stained glass echo chambers. Attending a church does not require or imply endorsement of its stance on every issue. It does mean, however, that you are willing to give priority to local community over divisive national issues.
“I had a bad experience at church.” This is a tough one because the cases range from trivial (someone was rude to me) to tragic (sexual or physical abuse). Without addressing every possible issue, I can only say, give it another chance. People are human, which means in addition to being capable of love and kindness, they can also be rude and abusive. Such people exist in all institutions, secular and religious. While we want to think of church as a refuge from such things, often it is a kind of proving ground where the universally spiritual ideal of forgiveness is put to the highest test. And your story of healing could benefit many others who share similar experiences.
“People at church are hypocrites.” Fair enough. But are you sure that you aren’t a hypocrite, too? Do you live your ideals perfectly? If so, then your standards are pathetically low. Anyone who claims to consistently live their ideals is either a liar or has incredibly low ideals. Yes, people should be held accountable for egregious forms of hypocrisy, but most religious folks are just doing the best they can and falling hopelessly short in the process. But it’s better to be in the game trying to do one’s best than sitting on the sidelines, sneering at those who try to be good but fall short.
“People at church are judgmental.” Before you harshly judge supposedly harsh judgers, ask yourself: Is it possible that you have something you feel self-conscious about and are therefore hypersensitive to any tiny little thing that could possibly be construed as judgment? (That person just looked at me funny. I know what they must be thinking…” Of course, judgmentalism is a real thing; that’s why all the great religious figures have preached against it. But in my own life, there have been many times when I thought I was being judged only to discover that it was my own extreme self-awareness that was at play. If you actually are being judged, then think of yourself as giving another imperfect person a chance to embrace difference and question their stereotypes.
Research points to many social and psychological benefits of regular church attendance. However, I’d like to point out a few less tangible and less measurable benefits—positive things that church does that are in short supply these days.
The Big Questions
Church is one of the last few places where, in an earnest and systematic way, people engage the big questions of life. What is my purpose? What is truth? What is beauty? What are my obligations to my neighbors? If you hope that such questions can be engaged in a secular setting such as a university humanities department, I have bad news. Most of them gave up on truth a long time ago. In fact, to even talk about “Truth and Beauty” would seem embarrassingly quaint and old fashioned in most philosophy or English departments these days.
In a day of soundbites and memes and “hot takes,” church invites us to study ancient texts that connect our lives to people who lived thousands of years ago and struggled with questions similar to ours. Church sits you down on a bench and invites you to look inward to ask yourself the big questions. It invites you to assess how you are doing, and resolve to do better. Could this be done privately? Of course. But seriously, in the busyness of life, how often do we get around to it? And what about the insights you gain when asking and answering those questions? Maybe your ideas could benefit others in your faith community.
Perhaps most importantly, church helps point our attention to transcendence and mystery. We live in a world that doesn’t much like mystery, and that is too bad. Have we become so arrogant as to believe that science is really on the cusp of having it all figured out, that once we have the Theory of Everything in the bag we can explain it all from beginning to end and close up shop on mystery? It takes more faith than I can muster to believe that our little three pound brains are capable of comprehending ultimate reality. Mystery keeps me humble and works against naive materialism. It’s true that some religious fundamentalists reject mystery for the easy comforts of certainty; so do dogmatic atheists. But the vast majority of religious folks have a healthy reverence for mystery and doubt. Church reminds me that we understand only a small fragment of the big picture, and promises an eternal unfoldment of wonders and glories our minds can scarcely imagine.
I am not advocating for any particular religion here. If memories of your childhood religion give you the heebie jeebies, then find something that works for you. By “works for you” I don’t mean one that is easy or that perfectly mirrors your worldview or that makes no demands upon you. I mean one that challenges you to reach outside your comfortable bubble, one that calls upon you to make sacrifices for something greater than yourself. Think of it as an experiment. Give it a solid year. And if on your way to church you see me loading up the fishing boat, you can accuse me of hypocrisy. You wouldn’t be wrong, and I might just set aside a couple hours and join you.
Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers , story of one soul’s redemptive journey into the afterlife. Please follow new posts on this blog by submitting your email at the upper right on this page.