One Sunday morning having just walked the dog I was getting into the car when my five year old inquisitive neighbour, Emma, came running across the street to ask me why I go to church. I was a little stunned, coming from a five year old, and coming from a child at all. Five year olds from previous generations, clearly, would not ask that question. This, obviously, is the beginning of a new (perhaps the first) truly secular generation.
Why do people go to church? It’s obvious, isn’t it? They believe in God. Or as a friend of my father’s once said when asked if he still goes to church, replied: "Yes. I still believe in sin."
Sometimes Sunday morning when my mind drifts, (not out of lack of interest in the sermon, or in the Minister). I sometimes mentally travel (for numbers of reasons) while sitting in my pew. I sit in the same church that I did when I was 6. Both my parents are now gone, and I sit in the same front row seat that they did. Sometimes I look up at the balcony in this wonderful Byzantine-style architecture and I remember sitting up there as a kid, hanging my head over the balcony, looking down at the more than one thousand church goers. Today the balcony is virtually empty, and the sanctuary itself is a tenth of what it used to be. Where there were once 20 - 25 ushers to accommodate such a congregation there are now 2-4 ushers.
In my mental travels while I’m supposed to be listening to the sermon, at that moment I suppose I go to church to have a valuable link with my childhood. The world has changed dramatically since then, but this inner church sanctuary has not changed (the odd reparation and paint job being the exception).
Some people go to church to reminisce. Others because they are lonely and need a social network. Still others sit Sunday after Sunday, year after year, decade after decade in a church, yet still don’t know why they attend. My educated guess is that if you separate those who really believe one-hundred per cent in God (and in all that entails), from those who attend church for umpteen different reasons, there would only be a handful of true believers left, and sometimes even the Minister or Preacher might not be in that small group.
For some church is a social club, a chance to mingle with people once a week, have a pleasant chat, but not have to see them day in and day out. For others they are at a particular church because they didn’t like the one that they’ve just came from. It’s like that old joke where a man is washed up on an island and encounters someone who shows him around the island. There a 3 buildings on this island. The guide explains that one building is the Catholic church, and the other one is the Protestant church. When queried about the third building, the guide says: "Oh, that’s the church I used to go to!" Many churches are full of "escapees" from other churches. Others make a church going career from going from church to church. They’re not really seeking God, they’re seeking a certain style, or form of God that suits their particular needs and doesn’t upset their lifestyle.
The lonely come to church in droves, and they’re not necessarily categorized by their age, or even their lifestyle. Loneliness knows no age, knows no social background, knows no economic level. Some just wish to be with others, while others just wish to observe others.
There are those who only go to church for the music. Some like a Bach filled sanctuary, while others prefer the modern drum banging repetitious pop-like lyrics entertainment type of service. Some sing, some don’t. Others are animated, they lift their hands high, sometimes it’s one hand, sometimes it’s both into the air as if making some kind of spiritual connection. The beauty (or convenience) of protestant churches (as evidenced in the island joke above) is that there is a style of religious service to suit every and any taste, no matter how individual, and there always seems to be a new splinter church just beginning. It’s frequently been noted that one can attend a Roman Catholic church anywhere in the world and always find the same service. That is certainly not true of Protestant churches, with the style and substance sometimes driven by the individual Minister, or by a select few members of the congregation, or by the trend of the times, changing constantly.
Some people can only know God when sitting in a church. Others never know God while sitting in a church. If God is everywhere sometimes people don’t find Him in their particular church, and sometimes they are not really looking, or fail to see the obvious.
Like most things in life church is not black or white, there is an element of the grey, and the reason why people attend church, or one church in particular, is one of the grey areas. The paradox is that successful churches either have to have the same service so you can either take it or leave it, or successful churches have to have enough variety in their service that will appeal to the majority, most of the time. Or, churches must appeal to that mysterious part of human nature that doesn’t know why they attend, but they do.
My father used to tell the story of a one dollar bill and a one-hundred dollar bill. Both bills were minted at the same time. After going through the economy many times they finally met up again at the end of their lives at the bank to be destroyed. The one-hundred dollar bill recognized the one dollar bill and said: "Oh, hi. How’s it going?" The one dollar bill replied solemnly: "Oh, all right, I guess". The one-hundred dollar bill then said that he had a wonderful, wonderful life. He stayed at all the best hotels, ate at all the best restaurants, met interesting people, and travelled all over the world. When he finished talking, he asked the one dollar bill what kind of life he had.
"Oh, it was kind of boring", the one dollar bill said. "I just went from church to church to church."
I never did give Emma a satisfactory answer (from my point of view). I simply told her that I go because my parents went, and I go because I’ve been going to the same church since I was a kid, about her age. She seemed to be satisfied. She shrugged her shoulders, squinted her face, and said "Oh", then ran happily across the street to play, and that was the end of it.
From my point of view, I don’t think that I was satisfied, but I don’t have all the answers.