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Why go to church?
July 6, 2009
by Rev. Joel Swedberg, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard Lake

Almost everybody in the Western world knows that Sunday morning is the time that Christians gather together in their church buildings and worship spaces.

Most people, even if they’ve never been in a church service, could pick the sort of activities that go on in one. Give them a multiple choice list, and they’d check off things like: reading the Bible, singing hymns, listening to a sermon, saying prayers (some of them might think drinking coffee is part of the religious activity, too, but that just demonstrates an unrecognized gap between purpose and practice in the Christian religion).

So, most people in our society may be aware of the sorts of things that go on in a church service, but do they have any idea why those things are done? For that matter, how many regular church attendees have a clear understanding of why they come?

There’s a wide variety of answers to the question of what people seek to accomplish with church attendance. Some come for social reasons: church is where their friends are gathering. Some come for vaguely-defined personal reasons of habit: “I don’t feel right if I don’t start my week in church.”

Some come out of fear that God is taking attendance, and getting into heaven may require a certain number of check marks in the book. Some come to learn about the Bible, or to sing favorite hymns, or to listen to the well-rehearsed choir.

Ask a thousand church members why they go and you may get a thousand different answers. Ask a thousand pastors what people are supposed to be getting done in church, and you may get nearly as many different answers.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, put the emphasis on what one receives in a church service: the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, put forth to the people through the words of holy scripture, through the words of the sermon, and through the grace conferred in the sacraments (by sacraments, he meant only baptism and holy communion).

I like to think that the purpose of a worship service is two-fold, but united. That united purpose is to build up a relationship between God and the people of God. The relationship itself can only come into being as a gift from God, received by people when they come into faith in Jesus Christ as their own Savior and Lord.

That arrival at the place of faith (in the heart) comes about in countless ways, but it can only happen because God has put the good news into operation and offers it to us. He even offers it to those who can’t yet understand it, but are placed on a path of learning to live it by their already-believing parents (that’s what infant baptism is about).

Unbelieving people can come to church services in order to find out what this Christianity is about, but the main purpose of a church worship service is to enable believers to build up our relationship with God by receiving more of what God has for us and by worshiping God in return.

To worship God means to thank and praise Him, not only for what He supplies, but for who God is. Bowing before God to worship puts us into the proper posture before our Creator and Savior and gives God the chance to work on improving us.

We never come to the end of the growth cycle. There is always room for us to love more completely, to serve more unselfishly, and to share the good news of Jesus more effectively.

So, if any of this sounds a little different to you, why don’t you just make the effort to get that two-way traffic flowing in your relationship with God this Sunday. Then, look in your life next week and see how it’s building you up.

God’s Word does not return to him empty (so says Isaiah 55:11), so if you actually get involved, you should be seeing some growth in yourself as a result of “going to church.”