Why I Hardly Went to Church for Years (A Confession)
As I write this, it’s Easter evening, the end of Holy Week 2019—and last night, my wife was confirmed into the Lutheran church at our congregation’s Easter Vigil service. It’s been wonderful, after years of migrating from city to city during college and law school, to settle into the rhythms of a local church community.
That recognition is a little bittersweet, though, because it reminds me of an uncomfortable truth: there was a three- to four-year window in my twenties where I did not consistently attend a local church. I was never totally unplugged (I was always there on Easter and Christmas!) but my attendance habits were pretty far from ideal.
Now, to be sure, there’s a whole cottage industry of why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church articles. Most of these hit the same tired notes (“hypocrisy!” “not inclusive enough!”). Frankly, I find it hard to take many of these pieces seriously: if the people writing them really wanted the combination of traditional liturgy and progressive morality, they’d be packing the pews of mainline Protestant churches. (That does not appear to be happening.) These hot takes are not sincere attempts to urge change in the church. Instead, they’re usually attempts to rationalize a decision already made. Enough said there.
The reasons for my absence were far more banal—and probably more familiar. For one thing, most of the time I was just plain lazy. There are plenty of weeks I’d rather go to a late brunch on Sunday than get up early for worship. More interestingly, I first got out of the habit of Sunday morning church while attending a Christian college with daily chapel services. It’s probably safe to say that after a year or so, I felt a little burned out (and I know I’m not the only one of my classmates who experienced this). That’s not a great excuse, but it’s something.
On a still deeper level, though, I suffered from a more serious problem: I did not know what church was for. And this is not an unreasonable thing to wonder about—in fact, I think a lot of Christian young people wrestle with the question.
Is church primarily about the music? Surely not—I can listen to world-class hymns all week on Spotify, or sing a Chris Tomlin song in my car. Is church primarily about reading the Bible? Can’t be—because I can do that myself on my smartphone. Is church primarily about congregating with other Christians? Probably not, because the oft-quoted verse about “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” isn’t an argument for church qua church. If that’s the real point of having weekly worship services, why not just spend time with Christian friends or attend a midweek Bible study?
What about the sermon—isn’t that the point? Now I’m treading on thin ice, because for many post-Reformation branches of Christianity, the preaching of the Word is the high point of any service. But this claim really doesn’t strike me as particularly sound: with a few clicks, I can listen to the nation’s best preachers (Chuck Swindoll, anyone?) deliver messages on whatever topic or passage suits my fancy. If the point of worship is to hear the preaching of the Word, why isn’t that enough? At best, this is an argument for setting aside some time each week to listen to a biblical meditation—not a case for actually participating in the life of a local church.
Fortunately, I think there’s an older answer that makes rather more sense: at bottom, church attendance is about the administration of the sacraments. For Lutherans, these are Baptism and Communion; for Catholics and others, the range of sacraments includes Reconciliation, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Matrimony, and Anointing of the Sick.
So why are the sacraments so connected to the life of the local church? There are multiple reasons. First, a sacrament requires multiple actors: one does not baptize himself, place Eucharistic hosts on his own tongue, confess sins to himself, or ordain himself. By definition, more than one person must be involved in the administration of a sacrament. Second, a sacrament occurs in physical space and time: Baptism requires real water, Communion requires real bread and real wine, and so forth. (Any arguments to the contrary are beyond parody.) Third, a sacrament typically involves consecrated objects—that is, physical vessels that are never used for other purposes, but set apart for the purposes of God. While it’s certainly possible for individuals to reserve certain vessels for special use (consider Jewish families’ kashered dishware), I think it’s safe to venture that most millennials are pretty indiscriminate about such things. Fourth, sacraments unfold according to a particular form: a valid baptism must use the Trinitarian formula, specific Words of Institution are spoken over the Eucharistic elements, and so forth. These sacramental practices of the Church are irreconcilable with a DIY ethos that treats all iterations as equally valid.
In short, there is no such thing as meaningful sacramental practice apart from the context of the local church. The sacraments are the sine qua non of church life.
I really wish I’d learned this truth years ago. Out of a desire to see more of the Christian world, I didn’t attend high-church services in college. That was a fateful miscalculation: removing sacraments from the equation turned my weeks into an almost uninterrupted continuum of quasi-church services. So, my logic ran, after five days of chapel at school—which typically involved songs, prayers, and sermons—what could be the harm in declining to add a sixth? And it was tough to come back from there.
As it stands, the most compelling reason I can marshal for going to church is that God Himself has promised to meet us there in the sacraments—engaging with us in a uniquely tangible way that cannot be replicated elsewhere. As Luther once put it, “although [God] is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water, or even in a rope, for he certainly is there, yet he does not wish that I seek him there apart from the Word.. . . Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of him in the right way.”
And this strikes me as a very good reason indeed.