Why We Shouldn't Go to Church
By Ed Watson
You can also read this post in the Saint Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.
I'm going to start this post with a confession: I've slightly doctored the title in the belief that it's more likely to get people's attention. I'm not actually going to argue that we shouldn't come together to worship on Sundays. That said, I'm not being completely disingenuous: I am going to try and argue that the more we emphasise talk about church as something we go to, the more we implicitly presume a view of church which is radically distorted; a view which has lost the sense of what it is to be a church.
Here's a second confession: I don't love worship. I don't get too excited about (or during) a typical Sunday service (unless there's an especially rousing hymn), and I rarely leave with the sense of something between invigoration and contentment that I've seen in others. I have grown to like worship in various different forms, from Anglo-Catholic to Congregational. It has also become an important part of my life, to the point that I feel slightly off if I don't attend some sort of service. All the same, I can't say that I love worship.
Now, I'm sure many people reading this will have heard the question 'why don't people go to church?', or maybe even 'how can we get more people to go to church?' Whether you're an atheist or a Christian from birth, it's hard to miss this fairly constant refrain. It's a question which seems to have led to such bizarre things as the Dr. Seuss Mass, something we should always remind ourselves actually happened (and which I'm sure served its purpose, which seems to have been to bring joy to young children).
For my part, I've always heard this question in the context of my lack of love for Sunday worship, because the 'church' in question has invariably been that church on Sunday. The concern has always been bums on pews (to put it in British terms), as if this were the epicentre of the Church's problems in the modern day. And because of this, I've never quite been able to get my head around it: after all, why would people go to church? Most of us have ostensibly better things to be doing with our time, and the majority of people are not going to out and out love Christian worship, no matter how it's practised. (This doesn't seem to me to be something that's going to change, whether we eviscerate the liturgy until it's barely recognisable, pare everything back to a sort of radical neo-Puritanism, or go all out with the smells and bells of Anglo-Catholicism. There will always be people who love each of these kinds of Christian worship, but I'm fairly sure that the majority will check out as soon as they hear the core concept.)
The main problem, however, is not that the question seems to be premised upon the idea that people would want to go to Sunday worship, if only we could get Sunday worship right: it's the concept of church which is being employed. It's a concept of church which is narrowed down, right from the beginning, to those services on Sunday morning. It is a concept of church where the rest of the Christian life seems to be derivative from this. And it's problematic, not because worship is not integral to the church, but because it cuts out what it is that calls the Church to life in the first place.
To draw this out, let's try wording the question differently: instead of asking 'why don't people go to church?', let's ask 'why don't people come together to worship on Sunday mornings?' Let's then ask further, 'why don't people pray?' Perhaps even further, 'why don't people love their neighbours as themselves, or work hard to make this world a place of peace and justice?' (I don't think it's by chance that this question seems ridiculous, especially when applied to young people.) And then let's ask a final question: 'why don't people believe that they are called by Christ to exist together in Him as the Church?'
Now, I don't know the answer to this last question. I'm reasonably sure, however, that we don't hall matters if we conflate it with the question 'why don't people go to church?' In fact, I'm reasonably sure that by conflating the two we are implicitly forgetting that the church we attend has to follow from the fact of the Church we are called to be. I'm reasonably sure that by talking about church as primarily something we go to, then secondarily something we are called to love within, we are in fact gutting our account of Church, thereby making it that much harder to say why it can be a good thing to come together for worship.
What should we do then? Well, perhaps we should stop placing emphasis on communal worship and instead emphasise what one might (hubristically?) call a sense of active Christianity, where all that really matters is that we live loving lives and commune with God in our own way. After all, by doing this we might even indirectly boost church attendance by helping people to find their own reasons to join in worship with others.
It seems to me, however, that this would be to miss the point just as badly to the other side. The point is that to be in the Church is neither constituted by worshipping with certain people at a certain time nor by living our lives a certain way. Instead, to be in the Church is constituted by the fact that we are called together by Christ to do these things. Our action is the action of the Church insofar as it is in response to this call. Unfortunately we seem to have a bad habit of placing our action at the heart of who we are, then wondering why people don't act with us: we give our attempts at response precedence over the one who calls us, then ask why people don't go to church.
As far as I can see, then, the truth of the matter is something like this. We don't try to live lives of Christian service because we go to Sunday worship, but neither we do go to Sunday worship because we try to live lives of Christian service: both of these are secondary. Instead we do all this because we are always already in the Church. We are always already called by Christ to love our God and neighbour. We are always already called by Christ to worship God and to remember His death and resurrection in the Eucharist. In all this the Church is not something we are called to go to, as if the Church was fundamentally worship on Sunday and only secondarily all the rest; neither is it something we are called to create by our actions, as if its existence were contingent upon our powers. It is instead something that we are called to live within, so that through this we might then live out of the love of God.
I highly doubt that describing things in this way will solve the problem of declining church attendance; but then I also think that the problem of church attendance is far less important than the fact of Church existence. This existence entails worshipping with others, for within the Church we are called to do so in our churches (be they buildings or denominations): this is why we should come together on Sundays. It also entails trying to gear each aspect of our lives towards responding to Christ's call, be it command, promise, or something else. Above all, however, it entails recognising that we do the Church a disservice whenever we speak of it as something which primarily attended: it entails recognising that church is not first and foremost something that we go to, but is instead something that we always already exist within, called as we are by Christ to love God and neighbour.