Have you ever been a part of a church that has convulsions every two or three years and it seems that the church never gets past the culture of chaos that defines thee character of the congregation? You may walk away scratching your head and wondering why people really continue to go to church there. If you have asked that question don’t feel like you are alone because it is more common among many congregations today. In fact, maybe a better question to ask is why you are still go there? After growing up as a PK and serving for almost 40 years as a pastor, I have come to understand that people do not always come to church for healthy, Godly, or spiritual reasons alone. Unfortunately, in the midst of the mix of personalities idealism, and activity inside the church sometimes more bad occurs than good in the name of misplaced motives and organizational dysfunction. Many people have a lived-experience of being hurt, manipulated, or mistreated and they no longer want to go to church because it is too painful and disruptive to life. If you have found yourself in that frame of mind and ever wondered why people continue to attend church, and stay in a church: thinks about what follows from a lifetime of experience at observing, learning from experts, and forming a rational point of view. Obviously, the reasons why people go to church are numerous, and sometimes bizarre and not very logical, little alone spiritual, but there are reasons to consider.
I heard Elmer Towns once say that when people go to church that they look for someone who is like them to identify with and if they cannot find someone to connect with who is like them or they will go somewhere else. The point that this draws attention to is that one issue in church attendance and membership is a result of social and cultural identity issues. This is readily demonstrated by demographic patterns in different parts of the country. For instance, if you live in the South or parts of the Midwest, social standing, or social identification might be determined by which church you attend. Think about it for a minute on a personal level. Then, look around yourself the next time you go to church and ask yourself the question: What kind of people go to this church? I think that what you will find is that there are age, cultural, ethnic, and spiritual factors that unite people in worship activities.
Guess What that Tells You?
The message is that the people that you see in a group determine the kind of people that a church is going to attract. After you look around, what you will see is that your church has characteristics that are common to the people that are there and representative of the cultural identity of the people who attend a church. If you have ever wondered why disorganized, disheveled churches attract people with a lack of spiritual discipline or people who value disorder as if it were a spiritual gift, remember people reflect their personal values through their religious practices. How people identify religiously reflects important matters in people’s, as well as, how they value what is important in the life of a church body. Theorist’s call it the homogenous principle: like kind attracts like kind. In fact, when churches have unruly members who terrorize people with their dysfunction, it is a source of distress for the congregation, but it says as much about the church as it does about person. The simple answer is that sociology and culture drive the ability or limit the ability of a church to reach people. Consequently, if you want the church where you are worshiping to be larger, better, or something different than it is now, the church must experience a cultural, sociological, and value change to reach people that are different.
Family Connection Drives the Church Bus
For some people, their children also bring them back to church. Sometimes people feel the awesome responsibility of molding and shaping young lives to be happy and productive for the future, and sense almost instinctively that those things require faith and knowledge of God. We know they will not develop a strong moral core from the society around them. It did not work for us, did it? And so we bring them to God’s house, and come along with them, sometimes for the first time since our own childhood. And as our children learn about Jesus, we experience a wonderful renewal of our faith.
Friendship Drives the Fellowship Wagon
Friendship brings us to church, too. Sometimes we are invited by friends; then, we come with them. Nevertheless, so often it is the desire for friends –good friends, caring friends, friends who share our values that brings us to church in hope. God knows, loneliness can eat at our sense of well-being, so He draws us into fellowship with Him and a church to engage relationship with others. Being new in a community often accentuates that longing to love, be loved, and belong. In fact, this is as it should be because it is a fundamental need to belong, find acceptance, and identify with God and othhers. God means for the church to be a place to build long-term caring relationships, to be a community in every sense of that word.
Another Answer is Materialism or Social Networking
For many people going to church is the main social event of their life. It is where their family congregates and decides how spirituality will be expressed. However, think about this: do people join a large church to network for business or create opportunities? It does happen. However, before you judge too harshly, consider the fact that when you’re looking for a future husband or a wife, networking in a church isn’t a bad place to start — at least you’re likely to find people with the similar value systems. Many people go to church to find a wife, date their girlfriend, spend time with their friends, and make business contacts. Look around the average church and ask yourself if the people are there because of the deep conviction about the theology of the church, or are they there for some other reason that may be relational or social. The down side of this is that the church has become more about the material and social aspects than it is about having a servant’s heart to worship God through submission to a sovereign God.
Fear or Guilt? Unfortunately, many people who go to church, especially in fundamental churches are plagued by fear of what might happen if they don’t go and sometimes guilt about what is wrong in life. I have often said that guilt tends to make people hide –in a crowd, a church, beneath some leaves to serve as a cover for what has happened in their lives. We hear guilt from the pulpits, guilt leads to fear and fear to conformity to appear to be religious. What people may not understand fully is that people attend church for the most human of reasons that are some time emotional and sometimes relational. Family also history has its place in why people attend church as there do and at types of churches. Children of Catholics are most often Catholic, in orientation at least. Those habits, duty, emotional ties, and family history are components in church attendance. However, let me talk for a moment about what I see most.
Hurt, Pain, and a Search for Answers
Hurt is way up there on the list for why people go to church. When people go to church they are looking for a hand up and someone to care about them. At times, everyone will find themselves reeling from some painful experiences and wounds because of life experiences. Things like, estrangement of a spouse or marital problems. The loss of a loved one to death, loss of a family, loss of a job, loss of innocence, loss of health, loss of hope. At times like this, life is on the ropes and we are down for the count. It’s only natural to seek healing in relation to God. It is in the context of the church that God uses some of his dear people gifted in ways to be channels of God’s healing, hope-filled, non-judgmental love. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve seen people’s hurts healed within the context of a healthy congregation.
Discipleship and Personal Growth
For many people, personal growth is a factor in regular church attendance. As people attend a congregation that they can identify with, gradually these individuals allow the Holy Spirit to clear the smokescreens away and allow God to bring to the surface things that need to be faced. In the process individuals begin to grow up and get past the time when they saw a hypocrite in church and excused themselves from any commitments. When church attenders start to experience personal growth the result should be discipleship the moves people beyond life-long resentments like being forced to attend church as a child. God uses the experiences of life to allow us to learn about ourselves and grow past childish rebellion. When that takes place, we grow up, and we are freed once again to include God in our personal exploration.
The Search for Significance and Meaning
For many people, especially men over 40, the need for significance is a strong motivator in why men go to church. Something inside of a man wants to make a difference, to do something meaningful, lasting, to be part of a cause bigger than ourselves. The church is a perfect context for this type of fulfillment, since, at their best churches change communities for good –one person at a time. Unbelievably, there are people who are asking, “What do I can I give here?” rather than just “What can I get?”
Worship and Intimacy through Knowing God
Believe it or not people attend church in order to come to know God, to honor him through worship and by their very presence in his house. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it succinctly, “There’s a God-shaped vacuum in every man that only God can fill.” You and I have felt that emptiness before and the need to have it filled. We’ve wondered at times if we’ve lost forever that most important link of faith that shapes who we are and who we can become. People come to church because they are searching, and they find they can search for God in this context better than they can in other places.
“Our hearts are restless,” said Augustine, “until we find our rest in You.”
Some motives are better, some worse, but in one sense it doesn’t matter much what is your motivation. What matters is the process that begins when we enter a relationship with Jesus Christ an allow the Holy Spirit to direct our lives.
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