Why We Go to Church

Some of my friends were elated when they heard that church meetings were canceled because of COVID-19, or Coronavirus, “Church cancelled!” texts went out.  Celebratory emojis were shared.  On a more serious note, a family member wondered whether there would be long-term effects on church attendance. Would people keep staying home on Sunday once they got in the habit?

We may well see a dip in activity rates.  But COVID-19 will only be the trigger.  The root problem is deeper.  Many members have lost sight of why we go to church in the first place.

Church as we know it probably developed after the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C. with the creation of synagogues, taken from the Greek word for “assembly.”  Some scholars trace synagogues to a practice of having representatives of communities outside of Jerusalem pray together when their priestly representatives attended ritual sacrifices at the temple.[1]

Synagogues unified the Jewish people.  Temple rites were mostly confined to a separate class of Levites.  But all Jews could participate in song and prayer while the temple rites were being performed.  This kept them loyal to the temple and its priests, who depended on their tithes.  It also provided the community a place to gather.

Christianity made the commandment to gather together more explicit.  We are to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”[2]  “When you come together, every one of you have a psalm, hath a doctrine [a lesson], hath a tongue, hath a revelation.  Let all things be done unto edifying.”[3]  People that need that edifying won’t be getting it this week.

When I heard church was cancelled, I first thought of my friend Kyle.[4]  Kyle suffers from Schizophrenia and struggles to get work.  He has few friends outside of church.  I also thought of my friend Josh.[5]  He hasn’t been to church in a while, but he met many of his close friends there.  He has asthma and is afraid of going out because of COVID-19.

Some of you might not “need” church.  But there are many people that do.  If you find yourself rejoicing at the pause, think of those that might feel differently.  Think of the parents that need relief as their kids socialize.  Think of the young men that need mentors.  Think of the elderly that need friends.

Is there someone that comes to mind?  Should you send them a text to ask if they’re doing OK?  Should you call them to see how they’re handling the quarantine?  If they are sick or elderly, should you offer to get them supplies or groceries?  It doesn’t matter if they aren’t on your ministering list.  If you thought of them, then you should probably reach out.

When people complain that church is “boring,” they seem to be missing the point.  Could the talks be better?  Sure.  Are the lessons repetitive?  Yes.  Church can’t compete with Netflix or games as a form of entertainment.  It was never meant to do that.

If you find yourself bored, play a little game.  Ask yourself, “who can I help at church today?  Who can I sit by?  Who could I introduce myself to?”  Do you know people well enough that they would tell you if something bad happened?  If not, maybe you should get to know them better.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the purpose of taking the sacrament.  But you can still get that at home.[6]  The suspension of church really denies us the opportunity to serve our fellow brothers and sisters.

Maybe some members will realize that it’s more fun not to go to church.  Maybe some of them will keep staying home as a result.  If they do, that will be a sign that we have failed them.  Not because we could make church more entertaining.  Because after decades in the gospel, they still approach church as a consumer.

[1] Encyclopedia Brittanica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/synagogue

[2] Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV

[3] 1 Corinthians 14:26

[4] Name has been changed.

[5] Name has been changed.

[6] Assuming proper authorization from your Bishop and the presence of a priesthood holder.

18 comments for “Why We Go to Church

  1. Laura
    March 16, 2020 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you for this. I don’t understand the celebration for no church. I don’t even understand the celebration for 2 hour church. I am a convert. I lived without church long enough to be grateful for the blessings of gathering to strengthen my faith and what’s more to strengthen those around me. I think the reaction you describe is telling of a deeper, underlying ingratitude that can and will have personal and communal consequences in time.

  2. christiankimball
    March 16, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    I’ve given the same sermon myself, years past. It’s an important observation and lesson.

    However, I have come to learn that for some apparently active members this lesson amounts to shaming speech. There is a class of members for whom attending church meetings is painful. I want to acknowledge them too.

    For myself, I count 10 years of being so angry at the Church that every time I walked into the chapel the whole front of the room flared red. I came anyway.

    For a number of my LGBTQ friends, walking into a place that projects the feeling of active rejection is painful. And many of them attend anyway.

    If you’re celebrating because church meetings are boring, take a look in the mirror. If you’re celebrating, or, more likely, relaxing a little because church meetings are painful, maybe the problem is not all in your head.

  3. JR
    March 16, 2020 at 10:09 pm

    There is more than one class of members for whom attending church meetings is painful.

  4. Hunter
    March 16, 2020 at 11:00 pm

    Amen to the above comments that recognize that “it’s a little more complicated than that.”

  5. March 17, 2020 at 12:27 am

    I don’t know of anyone who celebrated church being cancelled, but then again beyond my spouse I only interact with church members at church. So there’s no way for me to know if anyone celebrated.
    I’ve been thinking recently about church being boring. I recall a few years after moving out of my parents house, that their ward decided to split the Gospel Doctrine class into two classes. One would be normal Gospel Doctrine and the other one was called the Advanced Class. You could pick which one you wanted. But I think that it didn’t work out too well. I suspect the problem was the naming. If you’ve been a member your whole life you would think that you should be part of the “advanced” class, right? That doesn’t create the dynamic they were going for. If they had named the classes something like “Spiritual focused” and “Educational focused” it might have worked out better.
    A few years ago my Elders Quorum was on fire (for lack of a better phrase). The discussions in every quorum meeting were wonderful. It wasn’t entertainment, but it certainly was something that I looked forward to every week, for months.
    Some people might use this break as a cover to try and slip between the cracks. And for some of those, they’ll get a spiritual warning a few months later and return, with even a stronger testimony of church.

  6. Brandon
    March 17, 2020 at 2:02 am

    There is some significant phenomenon that happens just with frequent gathering, and around a common moral cause. It is hard to put into words, but after you experience it for years and years, it is a distinct feeling that can’t be replaced. And I have heard many an ex-Mormon talk about this feeling wistfully and wishing they could find something to replace it. Church is both boring and never boring. The lessons and talks are repetitive and mostly uninspiring. The people on the other hand are never boring.

  7. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 8:36 am

    Laura and Jader – it is a bit sad when people are happy that church is cancelled. Something has gone wrong when Saints don’t want to gather together, whether that is in the individual saint or in the body of the saints.

    How can we make talks and lessons be “on fire,” as Jader calls it? If we find ourselves being bored, what’s the best way to repent?

  8. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 8:43 am

    Christiankimball, JR and Hunter – I agree that for those where church is painful, it’s more complicated than that. Still, I know a number of LGBTQ members that attend regularly and their reactions weren’t any more or less jovial than everyone else (granted that was for a ward in the urban Northeast).

    I’m not going to begrudge people that feel wounded at church for not wanting to go. But the more common problem, based solely on my own experience, are members not wanting to go out of either exhaustion or boredom, instead of pain.

  9. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 8:47 am

    Brandon – love your thoughts! For me, the most interesting part is people’s journeys applying the gospel. I love when I identify something different I can do and then feel inspired to do it. That’s just my two cents, though.

  10. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 8:58 am

    Jader – I’m also suspicious of segmenting gospel doctrine lessons. Too often, the “intellectual classes” go into esoteric subjects and the regular classes are mostly the same, except diminished by the loss of some bright members. I’ve found the answer is to go deeper on doctrine – asking “how we can apply this” – as opposed to spending time on doctrines that are hard to apply.

  11. March 17, 2020 at 11:43 am

    I’m an introvert. I know my way around a good study Bible and a concordance, and I’m familiar enough with Jewish history, Biblical scholarship, Christian history, and our own Church history to know that our lessons are often shallow. I’m liberal enough to know a lot’s gotta change–at risk of the pain Christian, JR, and Hunter have pointed out–but conservative enough to expect change not without effort, and not without time, and not without grace, and not without me playing my small part. That small part usually involves being at church and noticing others, and making comments where I can, and earning goodwill. So I’d never celebrate the loss of the church. It’s where I get to play my part, usually by improv, and usually in a stumbling fashion, haltingly. But it’s a part I relish, and a part I miss right now.

    To those talking about church being boring and painful, I like Patrick Mason’s 2016 talk “The Courage of our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age”. He quotes the Jewish Rabbi Heschel, saying “for too many of our members, Mormonism has become, in Rabbi Heschel’s words, ‘irrelevant, dull, oppressive, [and] insipid.’” (Definitely been in a few lessons like that.) And then he posits that his two fears for the church in this century is the juvenalization (EFY-ization) of the Church, and for a fundamentalist takeover of the church. That about echoes my own sentiments. That’s what I fear, and what makes classes irrelevant and oppressive to me–the lack of imagination, of getting beyond the milk to the meat. Not to the meat of “deep doctrine,” but to the meat of a mature understanding of scripture, of revelation, of history, and of our neighbors–reached in love and patience.

    If there’s a part of church I enjoy but get too little of, it’s a feeling of mutual purpose with others that that (or something like it) is what we’re after.

  12. ReTx
    March 17, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    How can we make talks and lessons be “on fire.”

    It’s not accidental that our services are so boring. Bring a classroom to a state of being ‘on fire’ is a skill, and not one that happens just by chance or even just by charisma. It’s a lot of work. And years of experience of knowing what works and what doesn’t. And spending 10 hours to prepare a 50 minute lesson rather than an hour and a half (and dumping the manual).

    The way other churches seem to solve this problem is by hiring/paying those with the skill set and experience. That seems like an unlikely solution though. Barring that, I have no idea of what else to do.

  13. Carol
    March 17, 2020 at 9:53 pm

    As a child, life was difficult and religion was not part of my parents’ life. My mother did send me to Primary. Later I went to Sunday meetings on my own. I loved being church-loved the music and the way I felt and the people who were there. It was my refuge and compass for life. Now I live in a small branch covering 3 communities. People come as far as 50 miles to be there. We go to church because it is the only opportunity many of us have to be with people who believe as we do. It is a safe place to share our feelings and learn from each other and feel the spirit. That’s why we go to church.

  14. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 10:37 pm

    Carol – Thank you so much for sharing your story! I hope we can do our small part to make sure everyone feels the same warm feeling of the Spirit when they come to church.

  15. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 10:39 pm

    ReTx – Agreed that it is very difficult. The best talks and lessons I’ve had have taken a lot of preparation (and a lot of preparation isn’t a sure path to success either).

  16. William Barlow
    March 17, 2020 at 10:53 pm

    Bryan – thank you for your insightful comment! You’ve put into words something I’d been struggling to express. The juvenalization of the Church treats church almost like a commodity (come here for a good time, we will add a religious message in on at the end). The problem with that approach is that the main motivation is assumed to be hedonistic (people want to have a good time).

    The reality is that most people want to be like Christ, whether they know it or not (and some to greater degrees than others). The church is here to help those that are ready to actualize that desire. When we get distracted from that mission, I fear we start to lose people.

  17. Arganoil
    March 18, 2020 at 11:04 am

    I have been concerned for a long time that Christ is very hard to find in our Sunday meetings. And for that reason the sunday meetings become redundant. So much focus on the fluff (FTP, come follow me, etc) so little on how to find Christ in your heart and soul.
    I am afraid that even if Christ would walk among us, we would be too busy bees to recognise Him and fall at His feet.
    We are missing the point.

  18. Aaron
    March 20, 2020 at 5:18 am

    I actually look forward to dressing up and going to church on Sunday and I feel different the rest of the day when I do. I think we could do something about the boring part, though, that would be in keeping with why we go to church in the first place: stop assigning topics and let people talk about what means the most to them about the gospel; and bring Jesus back to our talks and our classes. It seems we talk or teach about everything under the sun except the one thing we should be talking about and that is the savior.

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