Part 4: Start with ‘Why’ Series
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, June 5, 2022
Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-21 & 24b-27
Today is our fourth installment in “Start with Why” sermon series – Why Church? It is also Pentecost, the day we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto all believers with tongues of fire: that’s why everything is red. This marked the establishment of the Christian church.
So, just in case you were starting to think that Orville has all the jokes, I want to tell you a joke this morning. I can’t promise that it’s a good one, but it’s pertinent, it’s relevant today. There was a pastor who was serving at the only church in a small town. He knew everybody in the town. When you work at a church like that, you’re not just the church pastor, you’re the town pastor, so he knew everybody in town. He ran into a gentleman who didn’t come to church on Sundays, so he approached the man and said, “Hey, I never see you in church. I hope you know that you’re always welcome. We’d love it if you would join us one day.
With a scowl, the man responded to the pastor. “Well, I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”
The pastor was taken aback for a moment but then he thought, rubbed his chin, and said, “It’s not true that the church is full of hypocrites… there’s always room for one more!”
The church is not perfect, that’s for sure, yet every Sunday morning millions of people throughout the world get up and make their way to a local church. In our city, it’s more common now that people will drive miles to their church, passing dozens of others along the way. They do this to worship Jesus as part of a community of fellow believers.
I think the past couple of years have really shown us what a joy and privilege it is to be able to come into this wonderful place and see the thoughtful and friendly faces of other real, live human beings who are here to worship together. It’s shown us how much we truly need this time, this space, these people.
The joke points to a sad reality, though, that over the years the church has turned off a lot of people in one way or another…and I wonder, why is that? It has been common over the centuries to think of the church, not as a gathering of good, perfect people who have it all together, but as a gathering of people who know we haven’t got it all together, and so we come to receive God’s forgiveness and learn to grow and overcome our own tendencies to err, and to give and receive encouragement as we try to live better lives.
At it’s best, the church provides such a place. Unfortunately, the church is not always at its best; and at its worst, the church can push people away, not just from the church, but from God; and it is really sad when that happens.
I want to take a few moments, then, to begin today’s sermon on “Why Church” with the question, “Why Not Church?” What are some of the barriers to belonging to a church? What are some of the reasons people stay away from what we think is a wonderful place and a joyful experience? Knowing why some people elect out of the church can point us to why we need the church to be what it was intended by God to be.
1st Barrier: Bad behaviour. There’s a book by Wycliffe College professor John Bowen, called Growing Up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church, and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church? In it, he reports on personal interviews he had with hundreds of young people who grew up going to church, and asks them about their reasons why, at this point in their lives, they are part of a church or not. Just over one-third of respondents who had lost their faith said that issues related to bad behaviour on the part of church members/leaders caused them to lose their Christian faith altogether; and of those who still hold on to their faith but have left the church, two of the top three reasons that they were turned off the church had to do with bad behaviour.
When it comes to bad behaviour in the church, we might think of the biggies, like sexual or financial misconduct – especially among clergy and church leaders – because that’s what makes the news, and God knows the media loves a good story about church misconduct, and sadly, there is not a shortage of stories. But it’s not just that. Despite the news stories, those are actually much rarer than what most people said they witnessed that turned them off. What turns young people off the church more often are the petty quarrels and infighting, the lack of forgiveness (grudges), the power struggles, gossip, self-centred behaviour, and angry outbursts.
Over 21 years of ministry, I have seen plenty of bad behaviour that could drive people away from churches. Most of it happens at meetings, in small groups, or via email, but when it happens on Sunday morning, it drives away seekers. A couple of examples:
- At one church (that had said they wanted to attract younger families) one young family with three children joined us for several weeks in a row until one week when they were “shushed” (so loudly it was heard up in the balcony) – and never came back.
- Visiting one church where two men were fighting over whether or not to open the window. Wouldn’t shake hands – if I had just moved into the neighbourhood and were looking for a church to join, I would never go back there!
The problem with bad behaviour in the church is that when you’re in the midst of it, you think it’s normal – we all get used to each other’s “quirks,” and we think we’re like a family. Maybe we all love each other, but the truth is that nobody wants to join somebody else’s dysfunctional family! So that can become the “why NOT church” for some people.
2nd Barrier: Perceived Irrelevance. This is why I left the church when I was a teenager. I grew up in the church, and my family was involved: I went to Sunday School, was confirmed, etc. After that, though, I found I had no interest in attending church services. Reason: I had never been a part of it, having always been sent out to Sunday School, so it didn’t feel like I belonged there; I didn’t understand what was going on, and it had nothing to do with the reality of my life as a 15-year-old. For a couple of years, I went to the Baptist youth group, but there I experienced much of the bad behaviour mentioned above. So I went back to my United Church, taught Sunday School for a couple of years, but eventually found other things to do with my time.
Christian blogger/author Carey Nieuhof is from Barrie, Ontario and has become known throughout the world; and he writes that many people give up on the church because the language and traditions they experience are so outdated they have nothing to do with the reality of their hectic, high-tech lives. A lot of churches have therefore tried to adapt to the fast-paced, high-tech culture as a result. Personally, I’m not one to carelessly toss aside 2000 years of Christian tradition – I’d rather explain it and teach what it means. I’d rather encourage young people (and some older people, to be honest) to put down their phones for a few minutes and quiet their minds in the presence of God. Take a deep breath and be present, be mindful.
But we have a problem if the only reason we can offer them for why we do what we do is: “that’s how we’ve always done it, and we don’t dare change it because Great Aunt Mildred would be upset.” Forgetting that Great Aunt Mildred has been dead for 50 years. But we don’t dare change things because that’s how it’s always been done. It that’s the only reason we have to offer for why we do what we do, it’s not going to be enough for people who are seeking.
Nieuhof writes that “People are going to church looking for God and are having trouble finding him,” and continues saying that “the paucity of personal experience of God is disturbing.” That sounds harsh; but the truth is that many churches across our country and North America have given other things – social activities, political activism, entertainment, and so on – higher priority than the true purpose of the church, which is to help each other know God, experience His presence, and walk in the way of Jesus. That’s the priority, the one thing that only the church has to offer people – people can be part of a loving community, can be involved in social activism, and experience the joys of music and theatre in a lot of places besides the church. What they can’t get anywhere else is the knowledge, through the person of Jesus Christ, of who God is. That’s what people are searching for.
In the past, many people came to church for a variety of reasons – social norms and expectations, or even social connections. That’s not the case anymore. Now, if someone gets up one morning and decides to go to a Christian church, it’s because they are looking for an experience of God that will give meaning to their lives. Nieuhof says, though, that nowadays more and more people are actually leaving the church in search of God.
One noted Senior Pastor and leadership teacher from a large well-known American church once said, “The local church, when it’s working right,” though, “is the hope of the world…” That’s “Why Church.” When it’s working right the church is the hope of the world.
There’s another book called, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Church and Why it Matters by David Kinnaman. In it, Kinnaman writes what I think is a very clear answer to the question, “Why Church?” He writes, “Church is a place that is meant to be very different from anything else we may experience – other institutions of family, or workplace or social clubs – because it connects people across boundaries. It’s [meant to be] a beautiful expression of what human relationships ought to look like, between people of different age groups, genders, racial and ethnic backgrounds, vocational arenas. It’s a great example of why we have to keep pursuing the church in its ideal form.”
The church at its best is a true, loving family and a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, and it’s distinguished by relationships of harmony, dignity, respect, and love. People should come to church and experience something that they don’t find anywhere else, and it should so impact their lives that they know they have experienced the presence of God. It is the hope of the world: the hope that the frenzy and frustration and pressure that we experience in our day to day lives is not all there is.
So, as we’ve intentionally been making things a bit more personal in this series, how do I answer the question of “Why Church” for myself? As a minister I have seen churches at their best and I have seen them at their worst. So why is the church so vitally important to me?
First, I feel like the church helps me to become a better version of myself. In the church I have encountered a lot of people over the years who think differently from me, but who are trying to live faithful lives sometimes under difficult circumstances, and these people – YOU – challenge me to grow and to not give up hope. I know people who take a different position from mine on important issues and knowing that we have both arrived at our positions prayerfully helps me keep my feet on the ground. I feel like I become a better person by interacting with a variety of people, by listening to other people’s perspectives and trying to understand, even when I don’t agree.
Second, the church is where the embers of faith are kept burning. A lot of people will say that they can worship God in nature, that they don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. It’s certainly true that anyone can be a good, decent person without going to church. But Christianity has always been a faith that is meant to be lived out in community. It’s not a Lone Ranger faith. The true test of our faith is how it affects our relationships. In community we love and serve others, we hear the scriptures and discuss the beliefs of the faith, we pray for others, and they pray for us. We can’t do it by ourselves. Pentecost (the celebration of the church) is symbolized by fire. If you remove an ember from a fire, it quickly grows cold; the same is true of our faith. When we get out of the habit of coming to church, it’s easy to lose that sense of fire and devotion.
When I finally returned to church after a few years’ absence it was because I wanted to know God more deeply… I wanted to know who God is, and what is God’s will for my life. I wanted to know more about what the Bible says, and who Jesus is. At church I’m able to have discussions and think more deeply about what the meaning of all this is, and I can ask questions and learn, so I grow as a person.
Being deeply involved in the church is not always easy, but I would not be the person I am today without it. In the church I have been loved, encouraged, and supported. I’ll be honest, there have been times when I have been run down and, on occasion even seriously mistreated, but even these experiences have helped me to learn how to lean more deeply into God, and how to rise above it and become a better person, a person who is growing in the image of Christ.
The church, for better or worse, is the Body of Christ and we can’t truly love Christ unless we love the church, His body. Thanks be to God. Amen.