You fill in the blank: “I was born and raised a ________. I go to church, but I’m not sure if it is out of a sense of obligation or a fear of going to hell. It is just a cultural thing.”
That was the response of a focus group participant reflecting on the role of the Christian faith in his life. Unfortunately that self-appraisal reflects one end of the continuum of faith for people who attend church Sunday after Sunday.
The other end of the continuum can be found in the words of another focus group member. “Faith is your focus in life. It is a compass, a moral guiding point to live your life, and it prompts you to give back.”
For one, faith is a kind of rote experience. For the other, faith is central to life. The unfortunate truth is that many of us live somewhere between these two spiritual poles.
For some people, church attendance and faith are learned behaviors. “I was born and raised a ________.” Parents handed down going to church as parents hand down other practices such as taking a bath or keeping elbows off the table. Going to church is just something one does.
Usually people with this mindset remain in the denomination of their parents. Denominational identity is determined by bloodline not by belief. In many towns, one can hear that such and such a family has always been Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or Catholic or whatever.
Church participation and church identity are handed down from generation to generation as a family heirloom is handed down. Generation may even succeed generation in church leadership because of the family’s influence or history of service. But the motivation remains “I was born and raised a ________.”
“It is just a cultural thing.” That explains the church attendance of others. Going to church is what one does in these parts. All the good people of the community go to church. Religion is a popular topic in the media as well as in community organizations. Together they build a kind of social pressure to participate in church activities. In many places, not going to church can get one talked about. It could even be bad for business.
Social pressures and cultural conformity can be major motivators for actions, even for attending church.
Some people see going to church as a transaction. Their faith concludes that if I do this, then God will do that. The first focus group participant said one reason for going to church is a fear of “going to hell.” Some people believe if they pray, they will be protected from illness. If they give to the church, they will be protected from harm. If they work in the church, they will live well. If they attend church regularly, they will escape hell.
Comments to the effect that it is unfair for some illness or mishap to strike a particular person after all he or she has done for the Lord reflect a transactional theology. We conclude that we can put God in our debt if we only do the right things, including going to church.
For some, going to church is a rote reaction. One might be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer or sing the Doxology, but neither has any personal meaning. Both are rituals performed on cue. The rote reaction is not limited by worship style. One can have a rote reaction whether it is time for one to raise hands in a spiritual song or read a Bible passage responsively.
A rote reaction is all a matter of the heart or, perhaps better, lack of heart.
The second focus group participant had an entirely different response to the importance of faith and church participation. “Faith is your focus in life.” For this person, faith is intentional. It is not a learned reaction handed down by parents. It is not a result of social pressures from the community. Faith is not a fear reaction or a meaningless activity.
For this person, faith is a personal choice. It is intentional. A relationship with God can only be a personal choice. Faith cannot be passed down like a family heirloom. It cannot be forced on someone by pressure or fear. Faith comes when one decides to accept Jesus’ death on Calvary’s cross as the price for one’s own sin and to know God through faith in that saving act.
Being born into a Christian family does not make one a Christian. The decision to be a Christian is always a personal and an intentional decision.
Faith is “a compass, a moral guiding point to live your life.” Faith is important. It guides decisions – moral and ethical decisions, decisions about relationships, even decisions about church participation. Christian faith is central to one’s life. It cannot be marginal or unimportant because faith in Jesus Christ is the most important decision one will ever make in life.
“Faith prompts you to give back.” What a testimony to the transforming nature of the gospel. The first respondent focused inward – carrying on family tradition, giving in to social pressures, making personal deals with God. True faith in Jesus Christ focuses outward through service to others. Just as Jesus reached out to us in grace, so we reach out to others with God’s grace.
It is impossible to know what motivates someone to walk through the church doors each Sunday, but it is easy to know one’s own motivations. What prompts you to go to church this week? Where are you on the continuum of faith?
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.