I don’t want to talk about Donald Miller. This is in part because in 2006, when I was working on my first book, my publisher kept bringing up Donald Miller’s name in every email or phone conversation we had, wondering why I couldn’t write more like him. (Ha!) It is also because I don’t know Donald Miller, or the nuances of his meaning. But mostly I don’t want to talk about Donald Miller because I what I really want to talk about is church, specifically, going to church.
Why do we go to church?
This is the question at the bottom of all this musing, right? Miller speaks for many who see the hollow-ness of what the gathered church has become. I see it. You see it. So we ask, “Why go to church?” Immediately, someone is going to say, “We don’t go to church; we are the church!” There is, of course, something true about this statement. But it misses a very crucial point…and we’ll start with that point:
1. We go to church because being and place belong together. Those of my readers who are more philosophically inclined will be able to cite various French and German philosophers and social theorists who talk about the necessity of human beings being grounded in place. We are not free-floating entites unconnected to particular points in space and time. We find our identity and memory and sense of being by being in a place.
There is, I think, a simple illustration for this: a family and a home. A group of people living together in a house doesn’t make them a family (See: house, fraternity). And a family will always be family even when the kids grow older and move out of the home. But what is a family that has no place, no house to make a home? Arguably, it is the memory of living together in a home that shapes the sense of identity as a family— long after the kids leave home. (This might be why children who grew up without one of their parents might say, “I don’t really think of him as my dad.” Why? Because he didn’t live with them in their home.)
To force the disctintion between “being the church” and “going to church” is to deal in abstracts. Life doesn’t divided being from place. We are formed as the famliy of God by gathering together, with those we know and love and with those we do not yet know or love.
2. We go to church because we belong to the human race. Since the Enlightenment, Western cultures have tended to view humans as free-standing, autonomous agents (a sweeping generalization, I know!). But Christianity, having grown out of the East, has a more communal identity at its core. Paul wrote that in Adam “all sinned”. And all who are in Christ are part of a “new creation”. Going to church, then, is not really an individual act. It is part of how we “take our place“– there’s that word place again– in the great drama of the cosmos.
I go to church and take bread and wine not necessarily because I feel hungry but because the common human condition is, at bottom, hunger and thirst and nothing more. It is the hunger of my mothers and fathers that I am feeding when I take the consecrated bread. When I take the cup it is the burning thirst of Adam that I slake. It is for the whole huge accumulated mass of human arrogance and stupidity and meanness that I hang my head in shame and say (embarrassed to be asking yet again), Lord have mercy.
I do not go to church because it is enjoyable (usually it’s not), or because it is never dull (usually it is). I do not go to church because it satisfies my private needs and wishes (it seldom does). I do not go to church for myself. I go because of Adam.
Yes, religion is a crutch. But it’s not my own personal crutch. It is Adam’s crutch. It’s the human race that walks (if it walks at all) with a limp.
3. We go to church because it is where faith is found, and where faith finds us. Yesterday I had lunch with a successful businessman in his late 50’s and coffee with a young writer in his 20’s. Both told me the same thing: we need something larger than ourselves, something to carry us when we cannot walk, something to belong to, to be committed to, something within which we can be located and identified.
To not go to church is to make me the arbiter of truth; it is to place myself as the final judge over what humanity needs, or what a person should believe. But to go to church is to surrender. Going to church is a confession at its core that I cannot make sense of the world on my own, that I cannot connect the dots, that I need the wisdom of the ages to be passed on to me. Not going to church can be, in a sense, the ultimate arrogance; going to church can be the ultimate humility. (Though, admittedly, this is often reversed; such is the mystery of pride and humility!)
Medi Ann Volpe, a Catholic lecturer at Durham University whom I admire, wrote about her own struggle with faith and doubt and the Church in this way:
“I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I had done to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn’t ‘mine’ to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don’t possess it.”
You may think all this too flowery, that I am living in a fairy tale, or trying to “weave a spell”. But to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, remember that in fairy tales, a spell is often just what is needed to wake us from an enchantment. “You and I,” Lewis wrote, “have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us.”