Over the last ten years I have had hundreds of opportunities to ask myself a serious question: why do we bother going to church every week for three hours?
You’ve gotta understand, ten years ago we started our family, and church became increasingly more difficult. Prior to our first child, getting ready and attending church was easy. My wife and I only had our selves to worry about and prepare for, and with years of church going experience, we were pretty good at it. Enter our first baby and church became more difficult. Three people to get ready, one of which didn’t help much and needed a tremendous amount of extra attention. Over six years we added three more, and it could seem to the uninitiated observer that those three hours (four and a half if you consider prep time) were time wasted, that perhaps the same needs served by church could be met elsewhere, or that it was a lot of bother for little substance.
A little background…my wife and I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. If you took an aesthetic-only view of our worship services, perhaps comparing the surface elements of our services (ie music, audio/visual, speakers, guests, etc) you might find our way of worship less ornate and exciting than a mega-church or even a traditional mass. We don’t have professional preachers, bands, mixed multimedia presentations with professionally produced video, or guest musical stars that travel long distances to perform for us.
Our worship services are made up of very common, almost everyday, actions: a call to order by a local church member designated to run the meeting, group prayer, a congregational hymn accompanied by an organ or piano, scripture reading, bread, water, group business done by common consent, speakers giving prepared speeches, and a few more ethereal things like a sense of community or family, a shared concern, a desire to help and encourage, and a sharing of experience and knowledge.
Taken individually, any of these things can be found in many other places. Bread and water are commonplace, and outside of those that are eating Paleo or something like that, a daily diet staple. Any effective meeting I have ever attended has someone who is designated to run the meeting. Among religious folk group prayer is a standard. I can attend any number of classes where I can hear prepared speeches. And so on.
Even if you put them together, it’s not a spectacle that would turn the head of someone walking down the street. From the outside, our service might even be considered by some to be quite boring.
So why do we do it? Why do we spend three hours every week in that kind of atmosphere? Is it simple conditioning and we are so habitually trained to attendance that we can’t break free? Are we somehow enslaved by peer pressure? What is it about worship that draws us in spite of the crying babies, wrestling with contrary children, managing snacks, cheerios, coloring books, and crayons that makes it worth working so hard only to be able to pay attention to fifteen minutes of an hour and fifteen minute meeting? Certainly we aren’t sado-masochists who enjoy torturing ourselves with the labor of our Sundays.
Then what is it? Why is it always worth it? (And it’s always worth it…)
If you add up the individual elements of our services, the sum certainly is greater than the parts, even if the parts could be replaced with activities elsewhere. The sum of our worship leads us to one thing: our personal relationship with God.
I’ve recently wondered why our church buildings (outside of our temples) are less ornate and decorated than our christian counterparts. We are a faith that derives meaning from symbols…why don’t we have more symbols in the building that we weekly and weakly use for worship? I feel it is partly because our faith isn’t supposed to be contained in any one symbol, however apt it might be. Our faith is that our very lives become a symbol of our belief and we become the light on the hill that cannot be hid, metaphorically speaking, giving glory to God by our daily walk in his paths. This symbol of our lives transfers to our worship and to our worship houses.
They might not be amazing feats of architecture or covered in stained glass and ornament, but our modest buildings are shelters for and containers of the majority of life. In them we eat, sing, pray, dance, exercise, play, learn, and more. And their quiet dignity reflects our faith.
But the building, as such, doesn’t attract us to church. If the building were the only reason we attended, we’d probably be Catholic. (Full disclosure: I lived in Italy for two years and think that some of the Catholic churches there are some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.)
So we’ve figured out what it isn’t…but what is the attraction for us?
My experience of our worship services is that they are transformative to those who want transformation. The infusion of the Spirit of The Lord in to the sum of our worship experience provides a physical, mental, and spiritual renewal that cannot be recreated in other circumstances. The bread and water we use to commemorate the Last Supper feed our souls and we feel to sing redeeming love. It covers over our guilt, dissolving it in to bliss. Our sharing of personal thoughts and knowledge reinforce our desire to live more fully what the Savior taught. And when the confirming Spirit speaks directly to our souls, we can’t help but exclaim that mighty and great are the pathways of God!
That’s why it’s worth four and a half hours a week to attend services. That’s why we work so hard to be there, and why we come back weekly hungering and thirsting after something we can’t find out in the world. That’s why we labor so hard to return, week after week, year after year. In our worship we find healing to our hearts and soothing to our souls. In it we find out we are better than we thought we were, and that we can be better still, if we will.
“My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you…”