Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
January 28, 2015
I received a thoughtful reply to my recent blog post, titled “Is Membership in the Church a Requisite for Saving Faith?” on January 20, 2015 here.
My correspondent wrote:
“In my mind, this is a very relevant post; not only because it seems churches continue to struggle with declining attendance among young people , but anecdotally, I find so many adults also seem to struggle with going to church these days. You’re answering a different question in [your post], but while reading it I found myself wanting you to answer the question, ‘Why should Christians not give up on church?'”
This is a serious question, and I’m sure that my correspondent is right that many people today find it increasingly difficult to see the point of regular church attendance. In this column I want to take on this question. I should probably begin by warning you that my answer is likely to seem rather “old-fashioned” or “moralistic.” But I am convinced that if we can understand why the answer I am going to give may seem offensive to contemporary sensibilities, we will understand why so many people are staying away from church these days. I shall argue that a major reason for the widespread failure of people today to see the point of weekly worship is that what they expect from worship is mistaken from the start. And then, when they go, and consistently fail to get what they were looking for, they stop going. What they don’t typically do, I suspect, is to ask whether their expectations were amiss. If, for example, you go to a hardware store hoping to buy a birthday cake, you’re going to be disappointed—but your disappointment is hardly grounds for refusing to patronize that store next time you want to buy a hammer.
Let me acknowledge at once that while a major reason for people’s discouragement with the church lies in their false expectations, an equally important reason lies in the church’s all too frequent failure to offer worship that is religiously inspiring, ethically challenging, aesthetically elegant and intellectually robust. Christian worship should be all of those things, and when it is not – for example, when the preaching is dry and shallow, or wild and shallow; when the music is dull and poorly performed, or trite but overly theatrical; when the ceremonies are stuffy and formulaic, or utterly lacking in dignity and decency – people can’t be blamed for voting with their feet. Or rather, people who are frustrated by the stupidity and tastelessness of what so often passes for Christian worship should demand better of their churches. If you go to a hardware store hoping to buy a hammer, and find that all the hammers in stock have splintered handles, you’d have good grounds for refusing to patronize that establishment again, or, better, for complaining to the store owner. In a future column, I’ll tackle that aspect of the problem of declining church attendance. But here I want to focus, not on the failure of the church to provide emotionally gratifying liturgy, but on the erroneous assumption of many churchgoers that the point of attending worship is their own emotional gratification. I shall argue that the disappointment many people feel with Christian worship is partly due to the fact that they’re looking for the wrong thing – and therefore shouldn’t blame the church for the fact that they aren’t finding it. What they should do is revise their expectations.
Put simply, if you expect a Christian worship service to be a lot like a rock concert, or a TV talk show, or a theatrical performance, or a university lecture, or a TED talk, or a group therapy session, or a political convention, or a protest rally – if you expect any of those things, you’re likely to be disappointed. And if you expect any of those things, and happen to find a church that delivers it, you may feel relieved and satisfied for a while, but you and the church you’re attending are headed for spiritual trouble. Christian liturgy has a “logic” of its own – a specific purpose and a specific set of suitable procedures for achieving it. That purpose and those procedures differ radically from those of rock concerts, talk shows, and so forth, and when, for the sake of audience appeal or entertainment value, the true purpose and appropriate procedures of liturgy are ignored, the result is…
Well, the result is un-theological. Here we come to the crux of the problem. The validity of a service of worship is determined by the extent to which it meets the specifically theological criteria set for it by Christian scripture and tradition. Are God’s deity and sovereignty acknowledged? Is the person and work of Jesus Christ proclaimed? Are the sacraments duly administered? These are the tests that a service of worship must pass. Christians do not (or should not) go to church to have their “spiritual needs” met or their aesthetic tastes satisfied. Rather, Christians go (or should go) to church to honor and heed God, and the validity of a given service or general liturgical “style” is established by its God-directedness. Moreover, the capacity of Christians to benefit spiritually from the habit of worship – and I certainly don’t deny that worship is beneficial for the worshippers – is a function of their willingness to go in order to “give themselves,” in the broadest, deepest and highest sense, to God. Moreover, Christians do not (or should not) stay away from church solely because the services routinely fail to meet their self-identified needs or satisfy their personal tastes. For one of the benefits of living a life framed by liturgy is the challenge that theologically valid worship presents to one’s selfish wants and pet preferences.
Some readers may wince at my claim that worship must possess theological “validity.” I would reply that such wincing is itself a symptom of the very problem I am describing, namely the dangerously “subjective,” even consumeristic, mindset from which we Americas typically operate these days. It is precisely that mindset that valid worship is meant to liberate us from – first by alerting us to our need for such liberation, via the reading and interpretation of scripture, and then by inviting us to participate in the means of grace by which that liberation is achieved, namely prayer, song, sacrament, fellowship with other disciples and service to those in need.
So the answer to the question, “Why should I bother going to church?”: Because doing so corrects my tendency to think that I am in a position to determine, all by myself, why I should bother going to church, or for that matter, why I should be a Christian at all. I am in no such position, and I need constant reminders to that effect. I once heard a sermon about God’s love entitled, “It’s All About You.” It was delivered by a preacher who, several months later, went salmon fishing for a week in Alaska, leaving his wife who was dying of cancer, to care for their two young children. Something would seem to have gone wrong here. But what? If he was right in supposing that a loving God panders to our inborn self-absorption, why was he wrong in indulging his favorite pastime at his family’s expense? What we need is the kind of worship that calls us to, and capacitates us for, the performance of our duties, not the kind that caters to our self-love. In his reflections on Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, William Temple (1881-1944), writes:
Sincere and spiritual worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of the imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy of that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin.
Christians should have expectations, and great expectations, when they worship. But what they should expect is the moral and spiritual transformation that occurs when one encounters the living God.
 See, for example, David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving … and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker 2011).
 William Temple, Readings in John’s Gospel, First and Second Series (London: MacMillan and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1945), 68.