Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why People Go to Worship

The question came up in a recent conversation, as so many pertinent questions often do. Why do people go to worship? Why do they really go to worship?

There is a plethora of answers, probably almost as many as there are people who show up in the pews on a Sunday morning. Everyone has an agenda of some sort that they bring with them, or an agenda that prompts them to attend church.

I know for a fact, that there are those who go just to be with people they know and like. They jump at the opportunity to be with folks who share their values, not to mention their opinions and biases. For them, it’s a good place to be. There may be other attractions, but this one seems to dominate in their thinking.

Others don’t go the church as “church” in the usual sense, but to a particular church. In a way, this is an extension of the previous category, just more precise and calculated. For instance, there was a woman who informed me that she and her family were transferring their membership to another church because that’s where her husband’s boss belonged. Enough said.

Still others go to Sunday worship to be entertained. They wouldn’t use that word, of course, but that’s what it boils down to. A good choir and musicians providing stirring music, a preacher orating inspiring sermons, along with a lovely setting, conspire to present a theatrical experience which they like.

There are still some who go to church services in order to “feel good”. Comfort is what they seek, confirmation that they are doing okay and God is happy with them. Any challenging word breaks the mood and is difficult to appropriate.

The list may be lengthened as you wish, but there is one group of people, maybe even including a few of those mentioned above, who deep inside have a different answer to the question of why go to worship. They go with an expectation of another kind of experience.

First of all, people go to worship because they expect to meet God there.

God is not confined, of course, to the churches’ worship spaces, nor limited to Sunday mornings. God can be, and often is, encountered in the unlikeliest of places at the most unusual times. Nevertheless, when the community of faith is summoned and gathered for the announced purpose of encountering their God, it is reasonable that the people will expect it to happen.

The other side of this is the assumption that the worshipper will be changed by the encounter. The person who leaves worship will not be the same as the one who entered. Transformation, major or minor, can and should be anticipated by all.

This attitude of expectancy makes a great difference in how people experience the liturgy, and what their participation in it means.

For example, the Confession, acknowledgement of sin and acceptance of God’s forgiveness, becomes a rite of release. The baggage of guilt and shame that people often drag around, that also drags them down, is removed. In God’s forgiveness, they know release from that bondage. It can be like being born all over again, or like a new baptism.

The Greeting of Peace also changes from a howdy time for friends greeting friends to a sacred time of acknowledging the peace of Christ that heals us and makes us one. It is an “aha moment” of recognizing that this is not a random collection of individuals, but a gathered people who belong to Christ, sealed in the Spirit, dedicated to God.

The Word, proclaimed in the reading of Scripture and preaching, becomes a conversation, not between the preacher and people, but between God and the people, preacher included. Attentiveness is high, because this is intensely personal. The worshippers expect words to nudge their lives into new directions. They assume that some change is the order of the day.

Prayers become not so much requests for Divine activity, but commitments by the worshippers to be active. We may celebrate and give thanks for families in our prayers, and that becomes a promise to treasure those gifts of life. Praying for the poor and outcast and others in need becomes a pledge to act out ministry to the ones prayed for. All prayers give a fresh focus on doing the faith that we pray and proclaim.

Coming to the Lord’s Table is not considered merely a pious ritual, but is a mystery of grace to be shared. Here the worshipper’s expectation is based on the promise of Jesus himself to be present. It is a reality to be experienced even if it defies explanation. And the bite of bread and sip of wine are food for the journey of discipleship with the Risen Lord.

Why do people go to church? One would hope this anticipation describes the primary rationale propelling men, women and children to church each Sunday. One would hope….

How would you answer the question? What do you think people in your church would answer?

1 comment:

  1. I am reminded of an older man I used to consult, who was nearing 100 years old and full of wisdom, who said that most people do not know what they want. I suspect that is true of church goers as well. We are a culture that is surveyed constantly. We can scarcely purchase anything before we receive an email survey wanting our feedback on the experience of purchasing (mostly) and the product purchased (less so--once the sale is made the seller is less interested it seems). Where matters of faith are concerned so few have words to articulate what happens on a Sunday morning, or even if they know they want to meet God may not feel comfortable saying so. It seems to me that, as leaders of worship, it is up to us to immerse ourselves deeply in the tried and true practices and content of worship and music to offer the best vehicles and resources for prayer and praise, always listening to the people to ascertain whether these vehicles and songs/words are ones that lie easily in their mouths so that the prayer and praise can be voiced. Involving the people in the preparation of liturgy and music is one way to do the listening as well as to offer education, through the choir, congregational hymnsings, worship committee planning sessions, etc. Then we give the process to the Spirit to do the work in the hearts of all of us, to provide inner motivation that tells us if we do not go to church we will be missing something, and if we go, we will know we are much the better for having gone.


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