Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why I Go to Worship

Last week, my church's worship and music committee discussed worship attendance. If talk from the recent Gulf Coast Synod Assembly was any indication, it's a synod-wide problem. Church members are skipping out on church services.

After some discussion, through which I sat silently, I asked the other committee members, "Why do you go to church?" The chair asked if that was a rhetorical question and I said, "No, I really want to know, because I'm not sure I can articulate why I go to church. I've tried to stop a couple of times but I keep coming back, but I'm not sure why."

There was some discussion after that, but none of it really helped my inarticulateness. Being a writer, inarticulate moments frustrate me, so I've been pondering this ever since.

Here's what I have so far.

It's largely a relationship thing. What do I mean by that? Are my best friends at church? Not necessarily, although I am quite fond of many people there and would name them among my friends. Some of my closest friends don't even go to church, aren't even Christian, so it's not as if church is the sole or even primary source of my friendships.

I often think, however, where else will I sing with other people? Having grown up in the church, I have a list of hymns that hold a number of associations for me. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" is one that I really enjoy singing, and I wouldn't care to do it as a solo. Where else will I sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" with a group of people? I think there is a nearly religious dimension to singing anything together. I've heard people who have come back from the Kerrville Folk Festival and talk about singing songs around a campfire long after all the performances have ended. They speak of it in quasi-religious terms. So it's not as if I couldn't find groups of people with whom to sing. I'm not hugely fond of "Just As I Am," a hymn with to much emphasis on the first person singular for my theological tastes, but when I'm singing it with a congregation, well, it's okay. And where else will I do that?

There are people at church I wouldn't know any other way than because we go to the same church. Engineers, lawyers, school teachers . . . I might run into these categories of people in my job as a retail bookseller, but where else will I have breakfast with them? Left to my own devices, all I'd know would be artists, performers, and writers. Going to worships exposes me to people from walks of life I wouldn't normally hang out with. And my life is made richer.

But it's not only a relationship with people thing, although that's an inescapable dimension of it. We gather as people of God, as followers of Jesus. And one thing that is true, even when I've tried to avoid the church, is that I'm a little in love with Jesus. There I said it. Sounds sentimental and mooshy, doesn't it? Well, it's not some box of candies, flower arrangement kind of love. Jesus doesn't really work all that hard at being consistently loveable. But I find Jesus compelling. I'll allow that it may be because I grew up in a Christian family and in church, but even though there are Buddhist or Taoist teachings that I find very interesting, even edifying, it's Jesus that I want to follow. It's the God that Jesus pointed to that interests me. That I love.

And seeing as how the church is the body of Christ, I suppose that means I'm a little in love with the people with whom I sing and pray on a Sunday morning. Sometimes we sing to God, but it seems we more often sing to each other. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" isn't addressed to God or Jesus. The liturgical hymn of praise "This is the Feast" is not addressed to God. "Lift High the Cross," a hymn with strong memories attached, is not addressed to God. So we must be singing to each other. And there's where something remarkable, even mystical happens. Singing together, we may be praising God, but we may also be singing to one another, as the body of Christ. It is as if Christ is singing to each of us. Exhortation, comfort, encouragement---where else will I hear dozens of people singing these words to me as from Christ? Where else can I, with dozens of people, sing these words to someone among us, someone who is needing that hymn sung to them by the body of Christ?

So this relationship thing, this love thing . . . I don't always feel it, not every Sunday. I do trust it's there, regardless. I do trust that there is something bigger than my feelings happening among us. I live in hope that because we gathered together, someone is leaving edified, renewed, hopeful, loved, even if that someone isn't me.

I'm not sure this explains it all, at least not to my complete satisfaction. I don't know that it's comprehensive enough. The sacraments are very much a part of my need for church, and I haven't even mentioned them here. Maybe another post. I'll have to see if I can find the words to talk about the sacraments in ways that express why I need them. This inarticulateness is frustrating. I hope my muddling through these thoughts might stimulate some thoughts of your own. I welcome responses.


  1. thanks, Neil! i think you've articulated very well a lot of our need for corporate worship and how we benefit from it. it's also a testimony against the rampant individualism of our culture. 'we are His Body, the chosen of the Lord!'

  2. Neil,
    Your post seems to tie in with a discussion that our book study at Grace was having yesterday, at least in my mind. Mind you, this is a book study at Grace, so not what you'd be reading at most other Lutheran churches. We had read and were discussing an entry in an anthology of writings of bisexual people of faith. Though I understood the writer's intention to say that there is an intertwining of passions, intellectual, spiritual, and sensual, including sexual, I was having a diffucult time with her use of the term erotic. Ok, you're wondering where I'm going with this, but I'm getting there. I finally got it that she was using the term 'radical erotic' to encompass the wide range of arousals that we experience. She also referred to a description of eroticism from Marian Valverde in Sex, Power, and Pleasure as mutual empowerment. That is what I see you describing in your worship experience, singing together.
    The writer also described her attachment to worship, particularly the liturgy and sacrament,as both utterly sensual and completely spiritual, tying into her previous discourse on the erotic. So, I almost want to dare you to take up this idea of eroticism in your writing about your experience of the sacraments in worship.

  3. Bridget, in seminary, our homiletics and liturgy professor bemoaned the fact that "erotic" has come to mean only that which stimulates the lower regions of our abdomen. He, too, spoke of the erotic as being broader, referring to a wider set of sensual experiences. Hence, walking through a rose garden or by honeysuckle might be spoken of as an erotic experience, assuming the scent of rose or honeysuckle is something that causes you to stop, breathe deeply, and gives you that overwhelming sensual response. Of course, food can do the same. I wonder if you don't experience something that might be called "erotic" when you run.

    So, it might be a topic. The sacraments are an obvious connection to the erotic. It's why some of us react so well to incense in worship. (We'll never have it at Salem, though. Too many people cry allergies at the mention of it.)

    We'll see what I do in coming weeks . . .

  4. I like the relationship and community aspects of your "where else would I sing" comments, Neil. There is also something in the relationship of MY needing YOU to sing sometimes. I think the corporate-ness of needing others around us -- singing and praying and present -- is a piece of the relationship.

    I am always struck by the frequent first comment about worship being the size of the assembly -- "lots of people today" or "attendance was down today." Interestingly, I hear the same comments often about an Astros game. It speaks of a need for community, I think, as well as a little bit of feeling good about being where others are and "where the action is" and hearing the crowd.

    We do NOT need that for worship, of course. "Where two or three are gathered..." is not a crowd. But people's experience often seems to be enriched when they/we are surrounded by others and feel the energy of "the crowd." I can't ever remember someone saying that they didn't like a full house.

    I guess it is always good to know one is not alone.

  5. I think the "needing you to sing sometimes" is part of what I was getting at when I said we sing to each other with some hymns, but you say it more directly.

    There is a song by the group Over the Rhine that has a line (and I don't remember the song title just now, only that it's on one of their earliest albums) that says, "you are a singer, too. Carry me like a tune." I always found that almost unbearably beautiful, to be carried like a tune. I suppose there are days when congregational singing carries me. Hymnody as buoy.

  6. Thanks for this, Neil. I found your comments very interesting, in part because I do not find it difficult to stay away from Sunday morning services, and DO find it difficult to get at what is meant by "worship" and how the latter has anything to do with Christianity. What I am hearing is that community may be the most compelling reason for being there, but that what makes this community gathering different from others also has something to do with the power of "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs." The reason I find this interesting is that it begins to get at why regular "gathering" might be such an important part of the Christian tradition, and it does so in a way that separates that question a bit from the question of "going to church," which for the life of me I can't manage to connect with the gospel.