Have you ever asked a Christian, or wanted to ask a Christian, “why do you even bother going to church?”
I bother going to church, and I’m hoping I can answer in a way that makes sense. Speak up in the comments if it doesn’t.
What the Church Is
To answer your question, I need to start somewhere else—with what Christians think the church really is. You already know it means more than a building to us. Most obviously, it looks like an organization or an association—a group of people with the same interests and intentions. And that’s true, as far as it goes.
The Body of Christ
But when Christians look at it, we see more than that. We see something called the “body of Christ.” Does that sound mystical? Good, because that’s basically correct. We believe that there is a supernatural reality behind the very ordinary-looking group of people—that in some way we don’t really understand, we are connected to Christ and to one another in a strong, deep relationship that is more like the way cells in a body relate to one another than like anything else we can describe. We support one another and depend on one another, and we all draw life from our Head—from Jesus himself. Sounds like a great metaphor, right? Except we don’t think it’s just a metaphor. We believe that it’s a reality.
And it’s just one reality—there is no Lutheran body or Methodist body or Baptist body. All Christian believers are part of one and the same body, which is headed by Christ. No matter how weird we may seem to one another, or how we differ in age or in race or in gender or in culture, we are all one in the same body. And so what hurts one part of the body, hurts all of it. What benefits one, benefits all.
I’m aware this sounds crazy, but we do believe it is true. And so you have the answer to your second question—why Christians bother with “going to church,” with attending weekly worship services. Why do we do it? Because we believe that we are giving and receiving something more than the obvious. We aren’t just singing less-than-great music in a drafty building where we drink watery coffee afterward. We aren’t just listening (or falling asleep) to the sound of somebody preaching about Jesus. We aren’t even just meeting with our friends and relatives, great as that can be.
We are meeting with the rest of the Body, at least the bit of it that is in our area. And we are doing this to receive certain gifts from the Head, Jesus, and from one another.
What kind of gifts would those be?
Well, first of all, there are what we call the sacraments—that is, special actions Jesus commanded us to do and he promised he would bless us through them. So we have baptism, which is where we dunk or pour water over somebody. We do it because of Jesus’ promise that baptism makes us God’s own children through trusting in Jesus. We believe that we receive everlasting life and forgiveness for all the wrong we’ve done when we are baptized. Not because of what we do, but because of Jesus’ promise.
We also have the Lord’s Supper, which goes by the names of “communion,” “mass,” or “the Eucharist” in various parts of the Christian Church. We eat bread and drink wine together as Jesus commanded us, and we believe his words when he promised, “This is my body, given for you… this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” It is a special way that Jesus comes to us, connects us to him, forgives us, and strengthens us. Maybe the easiest way to understand it would be to use the metaphor of a blood transfusion. Jesus is giving us his very life to live inside us.
We receive other gifts as well. The church is where we usually have the chance to hear God’s word—that is, to hear what God has to say to us through the Bible, both in preaching and in Bible study. It’s also a place where we can hear that same word in conversation with other Christians, and in private consultation with a pastor or elder, if we are troubled.
The local church is a place where we normally find community. And I’d probably better stop right here and say that I know there are bad churches—churches that are troubled, churches that have lost sight of what God called them to be. In those churches you might NOT find community, if the church is sick enough. If you’ve been hurt by one of those, I apologize and I’m sorry. I wish that kind of thing never happened. But as long as the church includes imperfect human beings, we are going to hurt people. Again, I’m sorry, and we are trying to do better.
But back to community. In a healthy, functioning church, the local part of the body of Christ meets together to support one another and to act as a group. Is someone sick? They will normally find care and concern, as well as help like rides to the doctor’s office, babysitting during chemo, or casseroles for nights when there’s no time to cook. Has someone lost a job? People tend to start keeping an eye on possibilities in their own workplaces, hoping to find an opportunity to suggest. Even people who just need someone to listen are likely to find a sympathetic ear in a healthy church. Together, the whole group becomes more than the sum of its parts. Just the comfort of knowing that there are people who care about you—people who would notice if you weren’t there—is a great thing. Though there are definitely churches where this doesn’t happen, this is a normal expectation for a Christian community, and it should be happening in every church.
Another reason we meet together as a body is for growth. All of us are learning what it means to be a Christian, to live as a child of God and to carry out the responsibilities he has given us. That means we need to grow—to learn, to practice what we learn, even to get specialized training in some cases. What kinds of things can you learn at church? Some of the things I’ve learned are these:
- To sing and to read music;
- To speak in public without being terrified;
- To pray;
- To deal with tough questions like why there is evil in the world;
- To get more comfortable with Bible reading;
- To forgive people who have hurt me;
- To apologize when I’ve hurt other people;
- To deal with boredom constructively;
- To organize community events;
- To de-ice a parking lot;
- To serve as a lifeguard;
- To prepare meals for large numbers of people;
- To tutor school children;
- To help people with paperwork, including financial and basic legal forms;
- To build friendships with people from other cultures.
Obviously this is a random list of things to learn. Someone else’s list might be completely different. And yet these are things I needed to learn based on my own strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities I have to serve other people. Since everybody will have different needs, what they learn will also be different—and yet just as useful, to themselves and to the larger community.
The final thing Christians seek in church is a way to serve God both individually and as members of a larger body.
Christians believe that service is an essential part of our lives. The same Jesus who said, “I came not to be served, but to serve and to lay down my life as a ransom for many,” expects us who follow him to do the same. That means that as we mature in our faith in Jesus, we start taking on responsibilities that suit the gifts God has given each one of us. Some of us find joy serving in very humble ways—setting out the coffee and doughnuts, de-icing the parking lot, washing dishes and emptying the trash. Some of us have gifts that make it possible for us to serve in academic ways—teaching, preparing materials for other people who will learn, doing research of various sorts. Many of us enjoy service that lets us be around a lot of people—visiting sick people, listening to those who are lonely, caring for people who are grieving, minding children or vulnerable adults. Some have artistic gifts and use them in music, painting, sculpture, poetry, writing, gardening, and architecture. And then there are those without whom we’d all quickly be uncomfortable—the ones who know how to work the building systems, who unclog toilets and fix air conditioners and heaters.
The people who benefit from this service are not all within the church community itself. Most churches have several outreach efforts intended to benefit the neighborhood or larger world, including things like a food pantry, after school program, vacation Bible school, or elder care efforts (such as painting and repairing the homes of older people who need such help). Individual Christians tend to have their own “thing” as well—one woman tutors new refugees, while another man fixes cars for those who need repairs and can’t afford to pay. A third couple makes it their priority to reach out to people who are lonely. Each does whatever God has equipped him or her to do.
A Place to Be God’s People
To sum it all up, church gives us a place to be God’s people—whether that’s by receiving God’s gifts (his words and sacraments) or by serving others or by just spending time together. The church is a really imperfect group of people, and it’s easy to pick holes in any congregation you know. But God still works through the church in spite of our mistakes and mess-ups, and he forgives us and uses us for good.