Why Bother With Church?

When I was a high school chaplain I had a conversation with some nice parents who attended a Protestant church of some sort. They were distressed because their tenth grade son had announced that he no longer wanted to go to church. When they asked him why he said, “I love Jesus in my heart. Why do I need to go to church?”

I asked the parents what their reply was and they rather stammered and stuttered that they didn’t really have an answer. The kid had stumped them.

I like kids like that. See, they were into this “Jesus is a really nice guy” kind of Christianity and for them it was the whole suburban, respectable Christian schtick and their son put a bomb under the whole thing. Stood things on their head if you like.

You see if Jesus is just your Uncle Don then church just becomes an hour a week when you tootle along to hear some nice person tell you some nice things about what Uncle Don thought and taught and maybe you’ll pick up a few pointers on how you can be more like Uncle Don too one day. Then you sing a nice song about gathering all together and feel warm about life for a few minutes, then out the door and back to the real world.

I’m with the tenth grader. Why bother?

Here was my answer to the nice American suburban couple, “Well, we Catholics have a good reason to go to church. See, Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He’s God in human form and he’s at church waiting for us. We’re supposed to be in him and him in us and that means we have to receive him sacramentally at communion and you can’t really do that on your own.”

The Dad was impressed, “I like that!” he said. Mother was not. She was especially not impressed that Dad was impressed. The idea of becoming a Catholic horrified her.

I also like that. I wish my Catholicism horrified more smug Christians.

I wanted to go on and say that there are other reasons for bothering with church too. Like the fact that it is there that I actually receive the supernatural confidence, wisdom and power to try somehow in my own frail and failure way to live the life of Christ in the world. I wanted to explain that without the Eucharist my life would still appear to be real, but I would increasingly be like a mannequin made of dust. I wanted to explain that it was at the Eucharist in church that I plugged into the Divine Power, that it was there that I died and was made alive again. I wanted to explain that it was there that the cosmos opens up to me like a flower unfolding and that it was there that in some inexplicable way that I experienced first hand both the transcendence and the immanence of the Almighty. I wanted to explain that there a window opens, the light comes in, a transaction takes place in which my mortality is transfused with immortality. I wanted to explain that in this ritual my whole world is for a moment transposed into the court of heaven and the threshold of eternity. I wanted to explain that this is why I bother with church, and that of course if their church had none of this then her son was right.

Why bother?

  • Dom

    (grin) Shouldn’t that be ‘transfused with immorTALITY?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      whoops. Corrected

  • Ashley

    “I wish my Catholicism horrified more smug Christians.”

    You can take the man out of Evangelicalism, but ya can’t …

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Is that a good thing?

  • Chris

    This is an incredibly beautiful line:
    I wanted to explain that it was there that the cosmos opens up to me like a flower unfolding and that it was there that in some inexplicable way that I experienced first hand both the transcendence and the immanence of the Almighty.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      thanks!

    • Amy Giglio

      I really liked that one, too. I was trying to get this across to a somewhat dubious group of 2nd grade parents. I wish I had read this 2 weeks ago, before the First Communion parent meetings. I guess I will just have to email them the link.

  • Will

    What happens if one of your children stops going to church?

    • lucky louie

      Yes, my teen son has decided he is an atheist. To my shame, what triggered it was when he read that book “Atheist Delusions”. I think it was that book, but don’t take me to court over it. He was so appalled by the weakness of the author’s arguments that he decided then and there that he couldn’t be Christian. He won’t be Mohammedan or anything else, either. So what do I do now? I pray for him and I tell him I’m praying. He just smiles at me. I asked him if what I believe proves out to be true and he finds himself standing before the throne of Christ someday and Christ lays everything out for him and shows him that Christianity really is the Truth … would he bend his neck and accept Christ … and my son said yes of course if He proves it to me, then I’ll believe it. So what do I do now?

      • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

        There are several books with similar titles. I don’t know which book your son read. Not all of the refutations of the atheists are top notch I’m afraid.

      • Matt

        Your son really has you in a catch-22 because you can’t prove it (at least you can’t prove it beyond the possibility of doubt — you can reason your way to God’s existence, but there is no CSI-style evidence). Just keep praying. Your efforts to persuade will probably be counterproductive. He will eventually encounter a crisis where he will (hopefully) realize his dependence on God and turn back to Him, and then the firm foundation you laid when raising him will come in real handy. I left the faith in my teenage years, too, and came back to it when I got married, once I realized my authority alone was not enough to tell my children right from wrong. …and, yes, there were crises along the way that led me to deepen my faith and take it seriously. Just pray, pray, pray, and keep hope alive! Pray and fast for your son. God will lead him back!

        • Dave Pawlak

          Have you offered him the works of C. S. Lewis?

      • http://brandy-miller.blogspot.com Brandy Miller

        @lucky louie: Here is what you should do with your son. You challenge him. You say since he SAYS he is willing to believe if it can be proven, he should be willing to conduct an experiment with you. Then buy two journals – one for you and one for him. Tell him that as a good scientist, he is to record his daily experiences, just as you will yours. Explain to him that since he is seeking proof of God, what He needs is proof of relationship – proof of God interacting with him in a meaningful way. So, each day of this experiment, he is to record how he feels before he begins. Then he is to read a single passage of scripture three times – first for the literal meaning, then for any nuances he might have missed the first time, and the third time he is to read it as if he were a character in that scene. He is to write down what questions and feelings this scene brings up. Afterward, he is to pray for answers to his questions and for help in understanding what this passage means. Once he has done this, he is to record how he feels after doing this exercise and note any changes between his two states. At the end of 40 days, he is to go back through the journal to see whether or not he has received answers to those questions and whether or not those passages make more sense to him. He is also to review how his outlook on life has changed as a result. You are to do the very same thing in your own journal. At the end of 40 days, both of you should exchange journals and allow each other to read what has been written so that he can see it isn’t just his life that has changed but yours as well. Each of you should use the exact same Bible passages, by the way, to eliminate as many variables as possible and you should do it together at the same time each day.

      • yan

        You are doing fine. Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Or not too much…

      • yan

        Fr., I used to be a kid like that kid. I think you misunderstand him a little. I was an evangelical and I believed I had Jesus in me as well. That’s what the Bible says believers have. That’s what the Church teaches too in regard to the baptized. It only stands to reason that if God is in you already, if you already have the Paraclete, what is the need to go to Church to have someone else tell you about it? So long as you are informing yourself, that is. This kid seems to be intelligent, so I would presume he is doing just that.

        I know there are some people who think of God like Santa but just because you believe Christ is in you doesn’t meant you don’t care what He says. You have less of a reason to have someone else tell you what He says if He is already in you. Especially when you hear people in church say so many crazy and contradictory things about what the Bible really means, and when it is so often clearly just their opinion.

        I always knew it was a good thing to go to service. But, people being what they are, both lazy and busy with other pleasures and needs and so on, why go to church if I can save time and read and pray by myself, and talk to my friends about God on the phone or whenever it is convenient? Why must I go Sunday morning?

        Speaking for myself, what I needed was a new ecclesiology. I now accept the Church’s authority to tell me what to do. One thing she tells me to do is go to mass on Sunday. Thus I do so.

      • http://differentbugle.blogspot.com Chris Sullivan

        Look up a book called “Revolt Against Reason” by Arnold Lunn. It’s a great book and probably not too difficult for a high school kid. There are a couple of other books by Lunn that are good, but much harder to come by, “Is Christianity True?” by Arnold Lunn and Cyril Joad and “Science and the Supernatural” by Lunn and Haldane. Joad is a worthy adversary, but I thought that Haldane was slippery and not of the same caliber.
        You can probably find them on abebooks.com or one of the other used book search engines. There was also a book by Lunn and Msgr. Ronald Knox called “Difficulties”, written before Lunn’s conversion where Lunn attacks and Knox defends the faith. I have not read it because it’s hard to find and expensive when found.

  • FW Ken

    Me and Jesus eventually turns into me and myself, but I call myself “Jesus”, so I can still feel good about myself. At Mass, I encounter the Living God, first of all, in word and sacrament, but I also encounter real people who are.not just props to act out my personal TV show, starring me, of course. The Church connects us to God, and to our neighbor.

  • Caroline

    Great article, as always, Father! Just curious, though, how would you then explain why we go to Church outside of Holy Communion–because this answer seems to carry an assumption of receiving Communion while (perhaps I am wrong) this is not the most important part of the Mass and is not even necessary (the people’s communion, that is…I assume the priest’s communion is necessary as part of the Sacrifice) to participate at Mass and obviously it is worthwhile without it. Perhaps these Protestants couldn’t quite handle an answer about the Sacrifice and Calvary at that time but how best to speak about the Mass in this context?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      all non eucharistic worship circles around the Mass and is derived from it because all Christian life circles around the cross and is derived from it

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  • Paul Rodden

    I’m glad you brought this one up. It’s very helpful. I’ve been having this debate with some members of our local ecumenical body, and I always worry that I’m misrepresenting their views and I’m displaying a reverse prejudice, but then you post – and from America – and I don’t feel so guilty…

    One of the most interesting interactions I find, is to watch an atheist say ‘You don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian’, and an Evangelical insists you do, ‘Because the Bible says so’.

    They don’t give evidence of that usually, but just posit it. At best, the verses which can be used merely describe aspects of the nature of the Church. In other words, the verses they proffer as ‘proof’ that ‘you have to go to church to be a Christian’ are as much proof of it’s necessity as 2 Tim 3.16 states that Scripture is, unquestionably, the the only source of authority for the Christian, when it states nothing of the sort.

    I say to my Evangelical friends that Catholics don’t have ‘to go to Church’ to be a Christian because the Church isn’t actually a building, so you can’t go to ‘it’. Church is the Communion of Saints – across space and time – summed up in the Mass and wherever the Eucharistic presence of the Lord is. It is the coming together of all those parts of the body St Paul describes in the verses they quote as proof text, outside any geographical or temporal location. The building is merely a convenient and secure location for the tabernacle but it’s architechure should reflect what glorious presence is within, 24/7.

    We can’t ‘change church’ if we don’t like the pastor any more: ‘Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present.’ Ps 139.8 (138 D-R).

    In my more catty moments, if they get tetchy, I ask those who have church-hopped whether they see themselves as just using those people they met with at their ‘old’ church merely to meet their own needs, as they seem to talk about ‘church’ as if leaving ‘a church’ the people meant nothing to them. The week before they were all huggin’ and a kissin’ at their ‘old’ church until the new pastor arrived in town with the real Gospel and where Church should be ‘at’, and so they dump their ‘friends’ and go a huggin’ and a ‘kissin’ at the new one, until the next pastor arrives… As if a congregation, pastor, and music group, are there merely for ‘their delight and delectation’, as Leonard Sachs used to say on ‘The Good old Days’ (UK Music Hall TV show).

    Dr Bryan Cross has a great article up on Called to Communion on what he calls ‘Consumerism and Ecclesial Relativism’:
    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/07/ecclesial-consumerism/
    …and one on what he calls ‘Ecclesial Deism’:
    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/07/ecclesial-deism/

    • Anna

      I was holding to the view to stay with the parish just 10 minutes walking distance from where I live because there is only One, Holy and Apostolic Church, so it wouldn’t matter where I attended Holy Sacrifice of Mass. It did not matter that I got upset nearly every time, because liturgical abuses were so common and the priest did not even bother to give the Body of Christ during the Holy Communion. He also wouldn’t listen to me and others: he WAS the authority.

      The last straw was when he came to argue with me while two acolytes were giving the Eucharist to the faithful. He did not have any respect not to mention reverence to Our Blessed Lord at all. That was the last Mass I attended there.

      I have to drive to the church now. But, there is always the Most Blessed Sacrament exposed before the Mass and Fr. Doug is not only a very holy priest but just loves the Eucharist – he literally shines.

      Sometimes the salvation of our own souls and the souls of our children (I have three) is more important and changing the place of worship is a necessity.

      • Paul Rodden

        Hi Anna
        I obviously don’t know the circumstances, but I do sympathise with you over what happened.

        That said, I think we need to be careful about ‘Protestantising’ the Mass. We have the doctrine of ‘ex opere operato’. It’s not the sanctity of the priest that matters, and are we to judge whether a valid consecration has taken place (the priest used to pray the consecration in a whisper so how could we have known, back then, what he was saying?). What about all those people you abandoned to whom you could have offered succour, possibly being stronger in your faith than they were? Where does grace come in?

        I’d argue that Catholics these days, like Protestants, can tend to completely objectify the Church and Mass (‘get Mass’) as if they’re both there for their own spiritual benefit. I think reception of frequent communion has got us to focus on what we get out of it (and why people get upset if remarried people, etc., are excuded from reception) than the sacrificial nature of the Mass – but I’m not saying frequent communion is wrong – just that the mentality that’s come to surround it.

        I believe that the (unofficial) changes to the Mass which embody the ‘versus populum’ – toward the people – orientation of the Mass, has similarly led to a parallel versus populum view of the Church. The Church and the Mass should be perceived, ad orientem.

        In other words, I’d argue Christianity – as Catholics understand it – is not about not doing something for ourselves, providing a ‘service’. It is a reorientation – ad orientem – of our lives in the same direction – one direction – toward Christ.

        If a priest is liturgically abusing the Mass, maybe a letter to the bishop might be in order rather than walking away? But, I know how easy it is to say what I have, than follow through….

  • Gary

    Jesus said, if you love Me, keep my commandments. One of His commandments was “Do this in memory of Me”. Love is more than just a feeling., it is a matter of the will. We attend church because we love God and our neighbor.

  • Seraphim

    Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘Introduction to Christianity’ has a great introductory chapter about why the Church is a necessary and integral part of the Christian faith and why it is not enough to practice the Christian faith apart from the Christian community.

  • Sus

    I’m very very guilty of having the Uncle Don Syndrome. I have one kid that doesn’t like to go to church. So far, our response is that attending Mass is what we do as a family and that’s that. That isn’t going to work much longer.

    I’m going to pray on this: “Well, we Catholics have a good reason to go to church. See, Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He’s God in human form and he’s at church waiting for us. We’re supposed to be in him and him in us and that means we have to receive him sacramentally at communion and you can’t really do that on your own.”

    • Romulus

      Sus, what I tell the adults I catechise is that God’s will for us is life, and the sacraments entrusted to the Church, are where we encounter that will and receive its benefits.

  • Matthew J. Ogden

    I can definitely relate. I went to a Catholic high school, a good one, for that matter; but I knew many of the students there, while well intentioned, just went along with the faith without thinking much one way or the other. I’d rather deal with a thinking non-Catholic than an non-thinking Catholic. I took (a somewhat malicious) pleasure in trying to rattle their snow globe of a world to get them to think. And of course I did the same thing with the rebellious atheist conforming non-conformists as well. I like screwing with people. This must have been what Socrates felt before he drank the hemlock.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      “snow globe of a world” I like that. I’ll probably steal it. :-)

      • Matthew J. Ogden

        I can’t take credit for it. That comes from an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. But I highly encourage its use!

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          I’m a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond. I think it’s well written and well acted.

  • FW Ken

    I’d rather deal with a thinking non-Catholic than an non-thinking Catholic

    Understandable, but (fortunately) not your only options.

    • Matthew J. Ogden

      Oh, absolutely. The thinking Catholic is optimal, of course. And that’s where I fit in.

      [Figured I'd mention that, since it was not totally apparent from the above where I stand.]

  • Matt

    Excellent post! I do bother with Church but it’s always good to have a few more good reasons for doing so.

  • Bill

    Mass – what a beatiful word! Great article, Father. As always. I have come to the conclusion that defending a position about religion is just about impossible with today’s younger generation. The younger side most often are in a very offensive position, and in a different cultural mindset than their parents, who might well have come out of pre-Vatican II times. It is easy to be in an offensive position and throw out very basic questions, as many young people do today, so basic that it is almost impossible to answer their blunt “why”. “Why get married? We’re happy living together, we love eachother, everything is just fine.” You all know what I am saying. Arguing a position with a younger generation about Catholicism is pretty difficult. I believe we have lost a generation of young people, I believe the Church will diminish somewhat, I believe it will be a generation or two before there is a turn for the better. I believe Vatican II was well-intentioned, but flipped off the rails. I believe the present Pope Benedict XVI is slowly trying to re-rail the Church, but it will take time. He is setting a great example in the face of all adversity. What he is endeavoring to do has to get down to the very grassroots parish level, the local parish priest. In a generation or so, there will be a stronger Church. Just gotta stop, it’s all kind of overwhelming. Went to Mass today and my local parish priest has his butt worked off rekindling a Catholic atmosphere in our church. Doing a great job. An inner city church, older building, where I grew up, but I feel like I am going to Mass again when I go there. Whatever, a bit of a ramble.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Well, how about that thing about the Lord being wherever two or three are together in His name? The Lord never said anything about being with someone doing his own thing, even if he loves Jesus in his heart or hearts. Well, tow or three together in His name is called a Christian community, AKA, church.

  • mm

    luckie louie- there are many good rebuttals for your son. Try Life, God, and Other Small Topics-by Eric Metaxas. If is a series of lectures. Several of them are by prominent scientists who became christians because their research led them to the “fact” that there is a God.

  • Mariusz

    “Terribilis est locus iste” (“Awesome is this place”) – in the past, this Genesis 28:17 verse was sometimes carved over the main entrance to a church, it was also used in the consecration rite of a new church. That’s why we should go to a church; it is literally a house of God. We Catholics have abandoned and forgotten so many meaningful things and the holiness of a sacred place is one of them. Let’s defy Bultmann and the “spirit of Vatican II” and let’s bring back the myth with its sense of the sacred into the Church!

  • JohnR

    I cannot take credit for the following, I read it on the Internet and it has stayed with me.
    We, Catholics are the Mystical Body of Christ. We are a BODY not just a set of individuals.
    Consider the words of Psalm 94 when God says of those people of His whom He brought out of Egypt:-
    “For 40 years I was wearied of these people, and I said ‘Their hearts are astray, these people do not know my ways’ then I took an oath in my anger ‘Never shall they enter into my rest’”
    We are a People of God and we are called to worship Him as a People!
    The Protestants focus more on individualism “Are YOU saved?”. Certainly we are individuals who have a personal relationship with God but the fact that we are a part of a BODY is so often overlooked. At Mass we worship God as a BODY. St. Paul puts it nicely when he points out that the foot cannot say to the hand “I do not need you”, nor can the eye say to the ear “I do not need you”. We are all part of ONE BODY and each part needs the other parts for that BODY to exist!
    Hence, we must go to Mass and worship God as part of His Body.

  • dee

    I was baptized catholic and grew up in a get the sacraments/ Christmas &Easter mentality. As an adult I married a non catholic and participated in a Methodist church. God invited me through the holy spirit to have a relationship with Him. Then through bible study, church outreach activities, and sharing the word through daily life grew in living out the Word. 13 Years later through God’s prompting I rejoined my catholic faith..where I serve and love the Lord. WHY go to church? Yes receiving communion is number ONE. Also At church you are surrounded by a community of believers, you listen to the Word and there are opportunities to serve the people in the margins. I love living out the catholic life, but KNOW God uses all religions for HIS good. Going to church gives people support to grow and begin a relationship with our heavenly Father.

  • Steve From Long Island

    People often say something about how going to Mass makes them feel or how they don’t feel anything by going to Mass. But it’s not about how we feel. It is simply about worshiping God for being God, whether or not we feel “something”. When the focus is on the people, as so much of the music and setting is during many Masses, like applauding the Choir, the altar “servers”, the “Eucharistic ministers”, the sacristan, and the people in the pews, we are led astray, and I find that I am fighting this sentimentality all too often, responding gently to those who speak about how they feel at Mass, that it is not about that but worshiping God. I get some startled looks and can almost see the gears grind to a halt behind the eyes. I have recently had this discussion with a friend who’s left Mass for protestant “service” because of how she “feels.”

    This is what I have taught my children and I have also taken the responsibility to teach the faith, and not left it for them to breathe the ether and get it. If they are going to walk away, at least they will know what they are walking away from. But ultimately, I leave it to God to reveal to them that He is real, and I pray for that regularly.

    I walked away when I was a teen, thanks to all the do-gooders in the Church who took reverence away, plopped “folk” singers in the Sanctuary, mocked devotions, hung felt banners with banal slogans in the Church, told me to take Communion in my hand while standing instead of while kneeling at the altar rail with a paten under my chin, all in an effort to make us feel good but all of which told me that this is not really important. Sadly, I let them undermine the faith I had and, even when I thought I had become an atheist, I still yearned for those days when I had the faith as a youngster. It took many years, but God in an instant revealed to me that He is real, and I came back, to worship Him no matter how I felt about it. Faith is a great, beautiful gift and there is nothing I can do to give that to others ultimately; I can only give an example of how I respond and what that gift means to me, including regular attendance at Mass, prayer, and devotions such as Adoration as often as I can. Of course, I still want to know that my prayers are being heard and answered, of course, I want to feel better, or course I want answers, but I have taught myself that God is first and I am the creature, and that is enough. Hey, I’m still working on it, but I never want to go back to those awful, hollow years of being my own god.

    • TJB

      Very nice post, Steve. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

      Definitely a worthwhile blog entry, Father. The thread of comments has made for a nice supplement to the read.

      • Paul Rodden

        I agree. TJB.
        When the comments are rant- and troll-free, some great insights are shared.

  • P.Thompson

    Fr. Longenecker,
    I think your Catholicism might actually horrify many smug Catholics as well. Far too many don’t know whats in the bible aside from what snippets they glean from the weekly homily and the rote Eucharist practices can also provide the same “feel good” vibes without actually knowing or caring what it means. Our love of Christ should indeed be the main reason we attend church, as a Christian I too share that view, but unless a person truly has that personal relationship with our Lord the desire to attend church will be lacking, regardless of what Christian faith he practices.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      agreed

  • Gromit

    I don’t know what “controlling church” Don Miller has in mind — but what I find ironic: Most people consider Catholic Church to be “controlling/man-made”, whereas the hip, new Protestant churches are “free” and “unhindered”. My experience at a certain neo-Reformed, cool, ripped-heans wearing pastor (with a well-known anti-Catholic pastor who shall go unamed) is that precisely the OPPOSITE is true! This church is very self-stylized, man-made and controlling church. Apart from its claim to be a “sola-scriptura” church, it essentailly has no boundaries, no constraints, no traditional apostolic moarings apart from the whims of the local pastor. Either the chair of St. Peter (in communion with the Bishops and the historic church) has primacy, or the local pastor has primacy — take your pick.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Instead of one pope they prefer many popes.

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