When I sit in church on Sunday mornings, I sometimes look
around at the other congregants and ask myself, "Why are these people here? Why
did they choose to come to church?" Some people prefer staying at home to
leisurely read the Sunday paper, or go out for a relaxed Sunday brunch. Why
have these people given up their precious spare time to be here?
Not only is church attendance going down, but those who do
go to church do so less frequently. As Lovett Weems points out in a recent Century article, the definition of a
regular attendee has
changed from someone who is there almost every Sunday to one who attends
perhaps only two Sundays out of a month. And yet 38 percent of Americans report
being an active member of a church or other religious organization. Many keep
coming back to church for some reason.
I can't speak for others, but here is why I go to church. I
go first of all to meet God, to be in God's presence. I go also to make
connection with other people who share many of my foundational convictions and
commitments. I go to find meaning in life, to make sense of my life and to
search for guidance on how I should live out my life.
In other words, I go to church to be part of something
bigger than myself, to join my storyline with one that started long before I
made my appearance in this life and will continue beyond my earthly existence.
I also go for the music. My congregation is blessed with
some talented musicians, especially two pianists, one who is a professional
pianist and professor and the other a lifelong college music professor who does
meditative improvisations on familiar hymns. Often after one of them has played
I don't need to hear a sermon--no offence to my pastors--because I've already
received the inspiration I need.
I also go to church to sing. As John Bell has pointed out,
the church is about the only place where people gather to sing anymore. My
tradition (Mennonite) has a longstanding practice of singing four-part a cappella
hymns. Of course by now we use a variety of instruments to accompany some of
the songs we sing, and our repertoire has grown beyond traditional hymnody to
include Taize, Iona, Catholic liturgical renewal and international songs.
But the default still is singing in parts, unaccompanied. Joining
our verses together in praise resounds deep within my being. It is then that I
sense most assuredly that I am in the presence of God with my people, the ones
with whom I am pledged to live out my baptismal vows. What Sister Joan
Chittister says is true for my congregation too: "My benedictine
community is a singing community. Maybe that's why we're a community at all,
come to think about it."
There are two necessary things in life, James Luther Adams
said: a sense of ultimacy and a sense of intimacy. I may not find ultimacy or
intimacy every Sunday at church, but that's what keeps me coming back week
after week. That and the singing.