Saturday, April 16, 2011

Going to church: it’s important because it’s not about you

I recently read an article in which the author seemed surprised that so many young people find church boring. The surprise was confirmed by ”googling” some variant of "church" and "boring," which apparently yielded millions of returns, most of which are posted by young people who are either made to go to church, or who experience a strong parental expectation that they will attend church and face parental disapproval if they do not. For anyone who currently has teenage children, or who has had teenagers or even for those of us who simply recall being a teen, perhaps the greatest hallmark of this period of life, at least in Western societies, which invented adolescence, is truly believing that it is all about you. Hence, one of the greatest challenges adults have is to show young people that while they are important and have value beyond their wildest imaginations, true happiness is not found in being selfish, but by being selfless, in imitation of Christ. Going to church is an invaluable means to this end. Of course, it is not the only means, but it is an indispensable one. Studies show that the best predictor as to whether a person will continue attending church as an adult is if s/he grew up going to church, whether they were bored or not does not seem to be a factor. Attending church during one’s teenage years seems to be particularly crucial for practicing one’s Christian faith as an adult.

So, might I humbly suggest that, at least from a Christian perspective, going to church is not primarily about you? I mean, if all we’re proposing is indulging the already self-indulged, then we are beaten before we begin. Sure hikes are nice. I find spending time in nature very spiritual, but it is not a substitute for going to church. In my experience, nothing becomes more quickly outdated and irrelevant than fervent attempts to be relevant, to be hip, to be with “it”. This is not an excuse to be slackers when it comes to our corporate worship of God. After all, God is deserving of the very best we have to offer in music, in devotion, in the churches we build to God’s greater glory.

In a world of constant and rapid change, more than ever, we need stability. I very much like the way I once heard Archbishop Niederauer address this very issue in a homily. He said that people frequently shared with him their preference for going golfing, skiing, boating, hiking, or even working in their yards on Sunday to attending Mass. His reply, which I paraphrase, was beautiful because it was a simple call to discipleship: Jesus did not say, “Go golfing in memory of me,” “Go boating, skiing, hiking, to the mall, or out to brunch in memory of me.” Rather, Jesus said “Do this in memory of me.” As he spoke those words of Christ he made a sweeping gesture around our beautiful Cathedral here in Salt Lake City. He went on to say how none of the things people often prefer to going to church were bad things, on the contrary, they are good things, but they are made better, that is, more meaningful by our participation in the liturgy in faithfulness to Christ’s summons. You see, it is both/and, not either/or. Likewise, dealing with the issue of church and boredom is also a both/and proposition. We certainly need to find ways to help young people see the importance, the vitality, the beauty, the importance of going to church, but we will not succeed by trying to come up with something new every time a young person, or a group of young people complain that church is boring. Another aspect of this that I will but mention in passing is tradition, which is not stultifying and static, but life-giving and dynamic. I guess my plea is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a Catholic, the liturgy is the rock to which I cling in the rapids of life. Last New Year’s Eve I was waiting for a Mass at which my oldest daughter, who is fourteen, was singing in the choir, to end. For some reason I made a conscious decision not to attend this liturgy, opting instead to do some work in my parish office. Nonetheless, I desperately wanted to be there at the end of the Mass when the choir sang the Te Deum. You see, my Dad had just been diagnosed with the cancer that over the course of the next few weeks would take him from us. I was hurting and sad, but I felt a deep need to give thanks to God at the end of a difficult year, which I recognized as a great grace from a loving Father. I walked into the church, removed my hat, knelt and joined my heart to this beautiful hymn, being sung in Latin no less. The church was not full (it seats 1,100), but there was a decent-sized congregation, maybe two hundred people. The choir was comprised of all young people most of whom were probably bored. But I know these kids and I know that if I could ever express to them how much I needed what they offered to God that night on my behalf they would agree it was worth it to be there on New Year’s Eve, delaying their plans, their parties, their fun. I am certain that I was not the only one in the church that night who had this need. This is but one example of how going to church is not about you, one that shows why it is so vitally important that you go.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis


  1. There is so much I want to say but the words don't come. Mass is not about us as individuals, so very little is... and that is a good thing. Not that individuals are a bad thing, but it is how we see ourselves and live in the context of Christ and community.

    Your story moves me, especially the idea of not going to the liturgy. I am really struggling as I will be away from my community this Palm Sunday and I am feeling so lost as where to go and what to do... I even thought of not going.

    But of course I will, I will be grateful also.

  2. Thanks, Fran. I know what you're experiencing. It is just thing that I want to share with others. It is experiential at a deep level and unfolds over time. Being Christian has never meant anything apart from belonging to a community, which is where and how our individuality, our God-given gifts, are discovered, developed, and put to use building up Christ's Body and working for God's Kingdom.

    I will be thinking of you at Mass tomorrow and praying.

  3. Great post. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, Dan. Your friendship and encouragement really mean a lot to me. I work on the monkeys typing on a keyboard theory- write enough and once in awhile maybe there is something worth reading.

    St. Francis de Sales, pray for us!


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