Ever wonder what motivates people to attend church? Take it from an old hand, the reasons are numerous, and sometimes bizarre.
Now if you lived in the South or parts of the Midwest, social standing might be determined by which church you attend. Out here in California, though, few people seem to care. No great loss: pride and social-climbing never were terribly good reasons anyway.
How about joining a large church to network for your business? It could happen. But before you judge too harshly, consider 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 same value system.
Fear? Guilt? Those are motivators sometimes, but not ones to impress God very much, not a God who at his very core oozes love. Love is on a different plane from fear and guilt.
People attend for the most human of reasons. Family history has its place. Children of Catholics are most often Catholic, in orientation at least. Habit and duty figure, too. But let me talk for a moment about what I see most.
Hurt is way up there on the list. At times we find ourselves reeling from some of the most painful wounds imaginable. Estrangement of a spouse or lover. Loss of a loved one to death, loss of a family, loss of a job, loss of innocence, loss of health, loss of hope. We’re on the ropes, we’re down for the count. It’s only natural to seek healing in God, and it’s amazing how God uses some of his dear people 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.
Our children also bring us back to church. We feel the awesome responsibility of molding and shaping their young lives to be happy and productive for the future, and sense almost instinctively that those things require faith and a knowledge of God. We know they won’t develop a strong moral core from the society around them. It didn’t 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. I’ve seen it happen time after time.
Friendship brings us to church, too. Sometimes, literally, we are invited by friends and come with them. But often it’s 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. Being new in a community often accentuates that longing to love and be loved. And this is as it should be. 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.
Personal growth is a factor. Gradually we allow our smokescreens to blow away. Men sometimes decide to grow up and get past when once-upon-a-time they saw a hypocrite in church. (You saw an actual hypocrite? Wow!) They move beyond resentments at having to attend church as a child. (They didn’t stop enjoying dinner because their parents insisted they eat their supper, did they?) We learn about ourselves, we grow past childish rebellions, we grow up, and we’re freed once again to include God in our personal exploration.
The need for significance is a strong motivator, too. Something inside of us wants to make a difference, to do something meaningful, lasting, to be part of a cause bigger than ourselves. Church is a perfect context for this type of fulfillment, since, at their best, churches change communities for good –one person at a time. Believe it or not, there are people who are asking, “What do I have to give here?” rather than just “What can I get?” Refreshing, isn’t it!
Finally, 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. 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 others. “Our hearts are restless,” said Augustine, “until we find our rest in You.”
That’s pretty much the list. Some motives are better, some worse, but in one sense it doesn’t matter much what your motivation. For years I spent two weeks each summer as a leader at Christian youth camps in the San Bernardino mountains. Teenagers would come for predictable reasons: wanting to get away from home, wanting to find a boyfriend, wanting to find a girlfriend. I would see lots of romances wax and wane in the space of a week. But time after time I saw those young people encounter God at camp. Decisions were made to affect a lifetime. Transformations came about not because these kids came for perfect motives, but because they came! And God met them there.
So I invite you to attend church this weekend. For whatever reason: come. It just may be God will meet you, too.