“Coming to Worship” . . . is different for most church groups these days than it was before March of this year – for some church groups very different, for others some relatively minor differences. And we could talk about how we are gathering for worship now, and what those differences are. But I have another more basic question today: Why . . . do people come to church? Why do people come to church? Why do . . . you . . . come to church?
When I started making a list, of reasons I’ve read or heard, stating why people should come to worship, and of reasons I’ve heard people give about why they actually do come and worship, it only took a few minutes to come up with quite a few. And as I kept adding to the list new reasons that occurred to me, for a day or two, I finally ended up with . . . wait, no, I’m not going to tell you how many. For those of you who like to keep score, you can count, as we go along today, and we’ll see what number you’ve come up with at the end.
Also listen, as we go, for which reasons match why you come to church, which ones describe you. And I’ll bet you’ll be able to come up with some more I haven’t thought of. Why do people come to church.
Some come because they just plain like it! Like worship; like the particular things we do in worship. They like to sing church music, and hear church music; they like the building, the high ceiling, the stained glass; they like the candles, the choir, the liturgy. These folks never have to ask themselves on a Sunday morning, “Well, am I going to push myself to get to church today?” any more than I’d have to push my nephew to play video games, or push nine-year-olds to go Trick or Treating. They are automatically motivated, because they like it. This is the attitude we just heard expressed in the Psalm: My soul longs to be in God’s house; how wonderful it would be to live there, like the swallow which built a nest in the corner – or in our case, the little beetles in the basement. I wish I could be one of the doorkeepers, just so I could hang around here. Some people just like it.
Others come out of a sense of duty or obligation. Whether they like the particular activities that day is almost inconsequential to them; you come because “after all God has done for you, the least you can do is give him one hour a week at church.” They may not smile the whole time they’re here, they may not sing or participate, they may even tune out now and then while they’re here, but they are here – that’s the main thing, for them. You come because you’re supposed to. This is the stereotypical picture of the stern Puritan in worship, and the picture some people have of Presbyterians – solemn, duty-bound, reserved. Our Deuteronomy passage touched on it: “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord require of you?”
Some people come to worship because they want to express their gratitude. They have the sincere desire to thank God for all God has done for them. This is the motivation that probably is most consistent with our Presbyterian theology: we aren’t here to try to earn our salvation, or God’s favor. Jesus Christ accomplished our salvation 2000 years ago, and coming to worship is part of our grateful response to what he did for us. And so people come to church to say “thank you.” The Deuteronomy reading also mentioned this one: The Lord chose you, the Lord made you prosperous; therefore love and fear and serve the Lord.
The other reason reflected in Deuteronomy 10 is that people come to worship to learn something – to learn what’s in the Bible, what Christians believe; to learn how to live a Christian life – Christian ethics. “Keep the commandments of the Lord your God. Love the stranger.” How do we know how God wants us to respond to what Jesus has done for us, unless we learn it somewhere? People come to church to learn things.
I found several quotes about what worship is for, in books I looked in; I’ll subject you to just one: “Worship is for the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity.” – Pope Pius X, 1903. Or to paraphrase: we come to church to praise God, and to move us in the direction of holiness, to make us better people. Not a bad summary at all.
People come to church because their parents are making them come. Right? Most of us have experienced that one, some time. This reason only operates up to a certain point in our lives – like when we’re 43 or so.
People come to church because there was no soccer practice that day, and so they were, quote “allowed,” for once. One article in the magazine “Presbyterian Outlook” was titled “God of the Holy Ball”: If you don’t make it to Sunday morning practice, many coaches make it clear, don’t expect to play much in the next game. So kids and parents cave in, and worship goes on the back burner. I remember a front-page newspaper article entitled “Whatever Happened to Sunday?” – to the day that used to be reserved for religious activities. The picture at the top: a girls’ soccer team on a Sunday morning, at a local soccer field.
We come to church for the sake of the kids, to teach them Christian basics, to get them brought up right, with a knowledge of right and wrong. We come to church because it’s something the whole family can do together, and there seem to be fewer and fewer of those things.
We come to worship because we want to praise God, and we find it easier and more effective to praise in this group than by ourselves. We come to pray with others – to pray for them, and have them pray for us and our needs. We come to be healed, of maladies physical, emotional, or spiritual. We come to profess our faith, to say what we believe – both for the encouragement of our fellow-believers, and as a witness to non-believers.
Sometimes we come to seek forgiveness or to hear the assurance that we are forgiven, or feeling a need to do penance for something we’ve done wrong; maybe we come on a Sunday morning seeking forgiveness for what we did on Saturday night (or, as some used to do when I was at Lehigh University, to 5:00 mass Saturday evening seeking forgiveness for what they were about to do Saturday night).
We come, sometimes, to make a commitment to God – to promise to do better, to promise to serve, to sign up to do a particular office or job. Some come to church, sometimes, to try to prompt God to answer a prayer, thinking maybe if God sees I made the effort to go to church, I’ll be more likely to get the answer I want.
We come to church because we have a job to do: “I hafta go, Mom; I’m an acolyte today.” That one’s crossed my mind now and then, too.
We’ve come to church because there’s nothing else to do on a Sunday morning – at least that used to be true, when blue laws kept malls and movie theaters closed on Sundays. Another reason that’s not as prevalent as it once was: we come because we’re afraid of what the neighbors will say about us if they know we didn’t go – fear of gossip, peer pressure.
Some come because it gives them a chance to perform, and they like the attention they get for performing, for singing a song or playing an instrument. Some come because a family member or friend is among those up front leading worship – come in the same way they would attend the school band concert. Some come because it’s: Christmas Eve, Easter, a baptism, wedding, or funeral – and otherwise they don’t.
Some people don’t know why they come to church on a particular day. Andrew Weeks says if you ask a newcomer “Why did you come to church today?”, 8 out of 10 will say they just had a strong feeling that day that they should come – the hand of God, he says.
We come to church out of a vague sense that it makes the rest of the week go better. We’re not sure how or why, but church gets the week “off on the right foot” and the next six days seem to fall in line. We come seeking a sense of God’s presence, out of a belief that we’re more likely to feel that here than elsewhere. We come looking for a spiritual or emotional lift – a push that will “get me through the week ahead.” We come searching for some kind of meaning in life, when chasing after money and material things just hasn’t proved satisfying, when a bad thing has happened to a good person, when life seems pointless.
We come because we want to hear stories of good news for a change, a message of hope; to be reminded that whatever’s going on now, at the end God wins. We come because we’re trying to make connections between our faith, the things we believe, in our heads; and everyday life – to find out how to apply our faith to particular situations. We come to be part of a community – maybe because we’re lonely, to visit our friends, maybe to catch up with the latest gossip. We come because being part of a community means that community can inform or guide or correct our thinking; we won’t be as liable to run off with a crazy idea in the wrong direction, when we have the rest of the community to reel us back in. That’s why cults that meet a bad end have almost always cut themselves off from the rest of society; if they’d stayed more connected with the mainstream, they wouldn’t have ended up trying to hitch a ride on a comet or drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.
Some people have come, of course, because they want to be part of an influential community club – to make connections, to be seen with the right people. And some come because they want to support their congregation with their presence, knowing it’s more encouraging to worship in a room full of people than a few scattered here and there; or because they want to show their support for the minister, or the staff. And that one’s appreciated, believe me.
Those are the reasons I’ve brought today – the reasons we come to church. How many was that? Did anybody keep track? 33, by my count. And as I said, you probably have more.
Are all the reasons equally good? Probably not. I think we can safely say that coming to hear the latest gossip is not the most noble of motivations. On the other hand, I’m not going to question the one offered by the Pope. Some reasons are better than others.
But as I looked up Bible passages on worship, I found the Bible has very little to say about exactly what our motivation is supposed to be for being here. It doesn’t say, “This is what should be running through your mind as you walk through the doors.” There is not a single passage that says, “Christians should worship for this reason, to accomplish this purpose.” Rather, the Bible’s message is more simply . . . just be here. Just worship. In fact, it more often than not presumes worship; it’s not an option to think about, it’s what people do, like breathing, eating, and sleeping. We also worship. From the time the Hebrew people were led into the wilderness to head toward the Promised Land, from that point on in the Bible, the people of God are always called to gather in worship, over and over and over. If a person says, “I believe in the God described by the Bible, but Idon’t believe in going to worship,” well, they haven’t been reading very closely; the God of the Bible continually calls us to worship. People of God just do – that’s the Bible’s attitude.
So evaluate the 33 reasons if you want. Rank them top to bottom, or one star to four, if you like – decide which ones match you. But more important than any particular reason for coming to worship, Biblically speaking, is just that you come. Come early, come often, come holidays and not. Come to praise, or pray, or learn, or be forgiven. Come out of gratitude, or loyalty, or duty. But for whatever reason, come. Come and worship the source of all good things and good news. Come and worship the author of our salvation. Come, and worship God.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for calling us together to worship. Thank you for this particular community of worshippers, and beautiful space to worship in. Help us to stay faithful in our attending and in our manner of worship. Amen.