In a recent conversation with another Episcopal priest, who after many years as a youth minister is now an active duty military chaplain, the chaplain commented that many of the young adults to whom he ministers do not see any reason to bother with God or the Church. Religion seems superfluous to them.
His observations prompted some musings about the question, Why bother with church?
Three traditional answers to that question have increasingly little power to change lives or behavior. First, growing numbers of people no longer regard the Bible as authoritative. Pointing to biblical injunctions to attend worship, exhortations about the body, which is the church, being incomplete without every individual Christians participating, and Christ as the vine who sustains the individual, is often a futile means of encouraging attendance or participation.
Second, few people spend much time contemplating questions about the possibility of life after death and, if life after death does exist, pursuing the path to eternal life. Factors contributing to this lack of attention to the question of life after death include the hectic pace of modern life, longer life spans (in the US and Europe, life expectancy has more than doubled since 1000 AD), and a growing disaffection with religion fueled by a belief that science increasingly demonstrates religious myths lack any factual basis.
Third, guilt plays a greatly diminished role in the contemporary psyche. Fewer people experience crippling or even a heavy sense of sin. The idea of eternal punishment in hell is widely recognized as incompatible with the idea of a loving God. And, perhaps most importantly, guilt is rightly recognized as effective in motivating only short-term behaviors and not lifelong transformations.
So, why bother with church?
Human behavior is always self-serving. Philosophical debates about the possibility of altruism, addressed in other Ethical Musings' posts should not derail this line of analysis. Briefly, altruism and self-serving, depending upon how one defines those terms, are not inherently contradictory. If every act is inherently self-serving, an altruistic act might be an act chosen because it benefits another at least as much as it benefits self; indeed, the benefit to self might be uncertain and entirely in the future, as often occurs in reciprocal altruism.
Consequently, the key to church participation – whether attending worship, involvement in a Christian education or formation program, or joining in an organized effort to help one's neighbors – is to aid potential participants in seeing the potential personal benefits of participating. Among these benefits are being part of a mutually caring community, intentionally spending time in exploring one's spirituality and ways to grow spiritually, acquiring important life skills, and exercising compassionate concern for neighbors and creation. The goal is to motivate engagement with the church, its mission, and God by highlighting the benefits of that engagement while concurrently avoiding the fatal pitfalls of reducing the church to a self-help movement or social service organization. In many respects, this approach is an updated version of evangelistic efforts centered upon helping persons to choose heaven instead of hell, a choice that many in the twenty-first century find irrelevant, inconceivable, or even incomprehensible.