Why I go to Church

When nonbelieving friends learn that I go to church every Sunday to worship the living God, their faces usually register surprise. Why, they ask, does someone like me, a person who functions relatively well in the “real” world, go to church at all?

In response to the litany of criticisms aimed at organized religion—like “Isn’t the church full of hypocrites?” or “Isn’t the church corrupt?”—I nod my head in agreement and try to be clear about what I think the church is and isn’t.

The dialogue is especially intriguing when people involved in 12-step recovery programs—many only recently aware of a Higher Power in their lives—learn I am recovering from similar addictions by relying on my Higher Power, Jesus Christ, without ever setting foot in a 12-step meeting.

Step 2 of the “12 steps” states, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The remaining steps emphasize that the quintessential basis of recovery is spiritual, acknowledging God (“as we understood Him”), prayer, confession, making of amends, and similar actions as elements of “spiritual awakening.” Yet, while millions of 12-step meetings have taken place in churches and much spiritual growth has occurred, participants have quietly, and almost universally, steered clear of Christ and his church.

Don’t I, they ask kiddingly, have rocks in my head for believing the Rock of Ages is real and relevant? Might I be in the throes of denial (a commonly used term)? I shake my head and cite the past 11 years free of drugs and other addictive behaviors.

Total Acceptance

Like many of my contemporaries during the sixties, I was a hippie. I marched in protests, defied the establishment, and professed peace and flower power. But unlike many of them, I did not fall away from the church—because I was never “in” it to begin with. The church, any church, had never been the place for me.

For the first 33 years of my life I never willingly set foot in a house of worship, nor did I think that my personal problems were solvable by religious or spiritual means. As a boy growing up in a white, middle-class family, I never even heard God acknowledged (except in profane terms). Our family never attended church. We were agnostic by benign neglect.

In 1977 I was on the verge of suicide. I suffered depression and constant frustration, and believed that life was a hopeless, cruel riddle. When a neighbor told me my problem was my disconnectedness from God, I rolled my eyes and sighed. He explained that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, had come to save me from bondage to sin and had provided the free gift of eternal life with him and the Father forever in their heavenly kingdom. I shook my head and walked away, insulted at hearing such nonsense. Three weeks later I was lying in a wheat field, pleading for Jesus to save me. To my total surprise, he did. Immediately I experienced peace. As I began to pray and apply Scripture to my life, my marriage (once at the point of divorce) started to heal, and my battles against infidelity, drugs, and pornography turned from defeat to victory.

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To my surprise, I found total acceptance at church even though I was sinful and imperfect. Fellow Christians listened, advised, and encouraged me and my wife (who accepted the Lord three months after my wheat-field experience) to grow into the people God wanted us to be. No finger-wagging. No shocked expressions. There was only the demonstration that the church is his body, commissioned to do his work, “to have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Like many of my 12-step friends today, I once thought of the church as fallible and just as “fallen” as the rest of the world. It seemed to me to be a cracked flower pot, with no real value; being clay, it was always in a state of crumbling. While Paul acknowledges that “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), at the time I was blinded to the “flowers” (treasure) the pot contained. My eyes only saw the container, not the beautiful flowers “in” it.

Today I attend a local congregation of Presbyterians in suburban Minneapolis. While the cracks and crumbling are still visible to anyone—as much here as in any congregation—in this fellowship of believers I am nourished spiritually, socially, and intellectually (like the ad for the Episcopal Church said a few years ago, “Jesus came to save our souls, not to steal our minds”). My church is now the first place I turn to for help. It is where I laugh more than anywhere else, and where the meaning of a life in Christ becomes clear.

I no longer fault the church for its earthly imperfections, but I am there to celebrate and experience the invisible, eternal Creator and Maker of the universe, Jesus Christ. Knowing the name of my Higher Power makes God personal; it gives him an identity; and it reveals his character. Unlike an impersonal, fuzzy divine “Force,” I am on a first-name basis with the Maker of the universe. What’s in a name? I’d say it makes the Invisible much more tangible; it implies a relationship.

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Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Like the characters who crowd into TV’s “Cheers” bar, I join the crowd at my local church to experience togetherness. I am a Presbyterian today mainly because the first church where we were nurtured 11 years ago happened to be of that denomination and the people were—like those in “Cheers”—friendly. I have found, to my surprise, that I could bare my soul there. I have received comfort there like I had never encountered before. I have been especially amazed to find that whole-hearted singing, applause, and laughter were part of the celebration and brought no lightning bolts from above. Gradually, I realized that the institution itself, while unworthy of his presence, is something that he nevertheless inhabits, like the beautiful flowers in the cracked flower pot.

My own participation in a local church starts with worship, but it goes beyond that. It leads me to action—loving action. Despite shortcomings of myself or other members (of any congregation), an objective, even skeptical observer will discover evidence of practical service to the local community: day care for children and the elderly; programs for the mentally handicapped; help for refugees; as well as free clothing and food; a counseling center; and a summer camp. Hundreds of churches in the U.S. and in other countries reach out in similar ways.

These programs—financed by church members and staffed by volunteers—exist for only one purpose: to bring God’s loving Spirit to as many hurting people as possible. Just as I experienced. Just as Jesus did when he walked this earth.

For the past 11 years Jesus has proved himself real to me again and again, and he has demonstrated his presence by giving me the power to say no to many habits, addictions, and attitudes (mainly selfish) that once enslaved me. Although I’ve never entered a formal 12-step recovery program, my Higher Power has helped me recover from chemicals and other addictions, and I am grateful to serve in his name as part of his body—the church.

So, to answer the question why someone like me goes to church, I can say my church provides me with relief after a long week of struggles, refreshment in seeing how God is working in others’ lives, a community where mutual feelings of love for God and one another can be shared, and a haven where I can be completely myself.

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