This may sound odd coming from a priest, but I can see why people don’t go to church. Yes, you read that right. I see why people choose not to go to church on Sunday morning. Shocking, I know! Before you snitch on me to the Bishop, hear me out.
I had this revelation just recently. It was at the end of a week of study leave. As part of that leave I also took the weekend off, which meant no church on Sunday. I always relish the occasional Sunday off, especially in the Spring of the year. It always feels like there is little break in the busyness of parish ministry from September to May. So once Easter is over, I look forward to a Sunday to myself.
I wouldn’t say that this was an “out of the blue” revelation for me though. This was not a Paul on the road to Damascus experience; no “Luke, I am your father” shocking plot twist. No, it’s something that has been building in me for quite some time. In fact, for the past few months I have been immersed in conversations about our current religious climate and the future of the church. I have recently read four books that focus on this:
Charles Taylor – A Secular Age
James Smith – How (Not) to be Secular
Brian McLaren – The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian
Dianna Butler Bass – Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution
I recently gave a talk at a St. Mark’s planned giving event on the future of the church, which subsequently became a blog post here. Our Bishop has been writing extensively about the future of the church and he just recently hosted a gathering of reps from the Anglican churches in the metro area. Talk of the future of the church seems to be all over social media as well as traditional forms of media. So it’s not by accident that my mind went where it went on that particular Sunday.
The Sunday started off as does every other day in our house. I am an early riser so I was the first one up. Over coffee, I did a little reading and caught up on the news. My wife got up next and went off to her running group followed by yoga. After she left I took our dog up through the forest trails behind our house in Airport Heights for a walk. I came back home and started making brunch for the family. Our two daughters and a friend joined us for brunch at 11:00 a.m., an early rise for them on a Sunday. As I drove to pick up my youngest daughter from her friend’s house where she had spent the night, I noticed there was a neighbourhood cleanup taking place. I saw a number of individuals and some young families picking up trash all around Airport Heights. I heard on the radio that the walk for MS was taking place and I was reminded that I had heard about this on Facebook from friends who were taking part. When we got home we ate together and chatted about what was going on in our lives at work and at school. The rest of the day unfolded as do most Sundays in our house with some chores, reading and a trip to Costco.
It was in the car on the way to pick up my daughter that my moment happened. It was as I drove through the community cleanup and the scattered jogger that it hit me. Why should people bother with church at all? Why would people give up Sunday morning (probably the only morning they have to themselves and their families) to go sit in church? Is it more spiritual to go to worship in church or to take part in cleaning up creation? Is it better to give your morning and weekly offering to the church and its daily running, or is it better to give that time and money to a great cause like the MS Walk, or the AIDS Walk or the Relay for Life? Is it more important to break bread in church or to break bread around the family table where you are too busy to hardly eat together anymore? Aren’t running, yoga and other forms of exercise types of spirituality, perhaps just as legitimate as what happens in churches, mosques and synagogues?
Something really clicked for me in that moment. I really got it. I understand why people choose not to go to church on Sunday morning, or Saturday evening for that matter. People don’t need to come to church to be religious, spiritual or good. People have all kinds of ways of expressing themselves spiritually today. The spiritual marketplace is vast and the church no longer has the market cornered on God.
But this awakening opened up another question for me. It’s a most troubling question, one that the church really needs to come to terms with: Why do we need church? It’s one that we need to answer quickly. The decline in church attendance and involvement is pretty obvious. The “nones” (those who are religiously unaffiliated, eschew institutional religion and describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, secular or unbelievers) are on the rise. We talk a lot of attracting young people to church, but why? Why do we really want them to come? Is it to stop the decline and to perpetuate our current models of the church? Why in God’s name would young people want to do that?
If you’re waiting for me to give you a grand or clever answer to these questions then you are about to be disappointed. It might be a tad disingenuous for someone like myself, who gets paid to go to church, to write a long schpeel about why church attendance is important. I have my reasons for why I go to church, why I have chosen this as my vocation. Even if I didn’t work for the church I would still feel the need to be part of a church. I would still worship on a regular basis.
What I think would be more interesting is to hear from the people who do go to church as to why they feel the need to go. How would they answer the question, “Why do we need church?” Even more interesting might be to hear from those who choose not to go to church at all or only very, very infrequently. How would these people on the fringes answer that same question? So over the next little while that is exactly what we are going to do right here. We will hear from people, everyday people, not paid spokespeople, as they articulate an answer to the question, “Why do we need church?” There are no right or wrong answers, just people’s honest, authentic reflections. Not all of the things shared will be things we want to hear, but all their voices need to be heard.
So I invite you to stay tuned. Take some time to reflect on this question yourself. Share your own reflections and engage with those presented here.
Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s in St. John’s NL and adjunct professor at Queen’s College Faculty of Theology.