Why Do People Go to Church?

Standing on the sidewalk outside a church after the service, I asked a young, professional-looking woman why she came to church that morning.  Her answer was immediate, “I feel the power of God here.”  She also explained that this church had reached out to her when she was in juvenile detention.

If you were asked that question, how would you answer and how long would you need to think about it?  I suspect many traditional Christians from historic church bodies would struggle, only to come up with some version of, “That’s what we do on Sunday mornings,” or “This is where my friends are.”

When my family and I were members of a large Lutheran congregation that finished an impressive new sanctuary 35 years ago, I noticed that the average attendance reported in the weekly bulletin went down.  Almost always a new sanctuary attracts more people.  I asked the pastor why he thought fewer were attending.  All he could come up with was, “I guess our people are losing the habit.”  Habit is a very weak motivator for participating in anything.

Habit could sustain involvement in earlier, more stable times when children accepted the ways of their parents. Obviously, we are in a time now of fast social change driven by the increasingly rapid innovations in the technology by which we organize our lives.  Few of the youngest generation of adults aspire to carry on the habits of their parents because they have so many new options.  One result is the almost complete absence of 20- and 30-somethings in the worship and activities of traditional congregations.  The long-range implications for their continued decline should be obvious.

I hope to promote discussion about this and other cultural issues among Christians who care about church life and value the heritage of traditional church bodies.  By this, I mean church bodies that value their centuries-long heritage.  They used to be described as mainline:  Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian/Reformed, Methodist. They are all in decline and are best now described as old line.

I have been a practicing pastor now for almost thirty years, observing what works and what doesn’t.  My books in recent years have focused on how the Spirit works today. In the Nicene Creed, we confess he is the Lord and giver of church life.  I am convinced that we in traditional churches need to fine-tune our church cultures and the methods through which we express our beliefs, and to do so in the direction of greater willingness to share our spiritual experiences. If you don’t have spiritual experiences in church, why bother going?

The outcome I seek is that those who participate in these discussions will learn better to name our encounters with the Holy Spirit, to share those stories with others, to seek more such fulfilling experiences, and thereby to reach more unchurched.

I have studied these general concerns enough to know that I want to organize my contributions in the blogs that follow into these Six Perspectives on the Spirit:  Motivated by the Spirit, Recognizing the Spirit, Discipled by the Spirit, Waiting on the Spirit, Culturally Shaped Experiences of the Spirit, and Organizing the Spirit’s Fellowships.

The young woman I mentioned who knew why she went to church was an African-American coming out of a Spirit-oriented, predominantly black congregation in the Tremont neighborhood of inner-city Cleveland. Tremont has become a trendy place attracting young adults.  It is packed with church buildings from a former era.  I intend to do more “why-do-you-go-to-church” research there, expecting the new generation to tell me why they don’t.   Tremont is also where I grew up.

If you know of other why-do-people-go-to-church research, please let me know.

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