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Why Bother to Go to Church?

February 27, 2014

Next Wednesday, March 5, will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  For Catholics and many other Christians, Lent is a season of self-reflection and repentance, where we examine our lives and seek to draw closer to God as Easter approaches.

I have many fond memories of going to church as a child.  My father would always put his arm around me during the service, and carefully mark the pages for each hymn so that we would be ready at a moment’s notice to join in the singing.  Throughout my life, church has been a refuge and a source of strength and encouragement when times were difficult, and a source of joy when times were good.  As funny as it sounds, church to me is almost like the bar in Cheers, where “everybody knows your name, and we’re always glad you came.”

Friends from church are the ones who supported me when I was struggling and comforted me when my mother passed away.  Almost every week, as I listen to the readings and sing the hymns and responses, I feel peace, comfort and encouragement.  Many other times I have felt the sharp sting of correction when I realized how I needed to work on my own temper, harsh words or judgmental attitudes, and I would leave resolved to do better as a wife, a parent and a friend.

I have happy memories of leading bouncing children in singing during Vacation Bible School, and letting my own children drop leaves over the bridge of the creek next to church for “leaf races”.  Because they also went to the school associated with our church, almost every aspect of our lives – sports and scouting and music lessons – centered around our faith community.  Of course, neither the school nor the church was perfect, but it was, for the most part, a safe and warm place to grow up.

For all these reasons, I have been saddened by news reports in recent years that the younger generation – one third of adults under 30 – have no religious affiliation at all.  Although a majority of them still believe in God, they are not seeking to belong to any particular faith.  To me, this is a great loss – both for our faith communities and for these young people. Ironically, this change in attitudes comes at the same time as new research indicating that regular attendance at worship services (not just Christian, but also those of Jewish and other faiths) is associated with better health, longer life, and less depression.  Children who attend church regularly also perform better academically, and are less likely to get divorced or live in poverty as adults.  This positive effect for children is even more pronounced among those who grow up in impoverished neighborhoods.

Of course, not all churches and faith communities are healthy.  One study showed that when a person experiences God as distant or unloving, prayer increases emotional distress, rather than bringing peace or comfort.  It is important to seek out a faith community that consistently exhibits love as its primary focus.  But when you find that special place, it can change your life.

These days, you don’t even have to get up early to attend church.  Many churches have evening services, so you can get the extra rest you need on Sunday morning.  And as long as you’ve dressed up a little, why not go out to dinner afterward?  It makes a great way to start the week.

I’ll admit, it isn’t always easy to get to church, especially with children.  I can’t begin to count the hours I sat in church with a crying baby or squirmy, bored children.  Many times we were late, and at least one of us had something wrong with our hair or our clothes.  But I also have wonderful memories of the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, all three of my kids forming a group hug with me during the sign of peace, and singing the hymns loud and clear.  It’s a place of peace and joy – why not come in and stay awhile?

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