Why We Go To Church: The Intuition of Law And The Counter-Intuition of Gospel

Pilgrims Going to Church by George Henry Boughton

[This was originally a bit that appeared in Modern Reformation’s July/August issue. Here is what I did with it when I wanted to take it another direction for our church Courier…]

It might sound odd to say, but I like the fact that my kids can find church to be a turn-off. Our time assumes that a thing’s final value can and should be measured by subjective, personal enjoyment. Witness the church-growth movement. It is really nothing new and classically American in the sense that it is the natural evolution of that very presumption. Ever since Winthrop and Whitefield landed and helped tear the Gospel from its churchly contours, American Evangelicalism generally has wanted to “meet the felt needs” of the populace. And American Liberalism specifically declared that “the world sets the church’s agenda.” Little wonder we fret that when Billy and Suzie are bored we have let them down. Instead of patiently expecting them to grow into something they don’t naturally understand, we race to appease them so they won’t end up hating church. Instead of letting them be comfortable with the discomfort of growing up that something like staid liturgy demands, we are tempted to prolong adolescence by appealing to the least common denominators resident within the stuff of entertainment. But since Scripture regards us as aliens it seems there ought to be antithesis between what we experience in our six days and the Sabbath day. However vulnerable to a thousand qualifications, perhaps a good thumbnail test may be that if your kids are bored something is being done right.

A question in such a context of discomfort may be, “Why do we go to church?” The inquiry seems inevitable for those of us who are covenantal parents. And, just like the boredom that should be embraced rather than feared and avoided, this direct question should be welcomed and capitalized on. I might do well to back up before I go further.

I was not formally reared in faith. My parents are baby boomers. And even though Dad was raised by a faithful Episcopalian mother, one famous trait endemic to this generation is how they turned tail on organized religion. At some point and for whatever reasons the boomers got antsy and decided they had gone too far.

So round about junior high my younger brother and I were yanked from our Sunday morning TV cartoons, forced to wear monogrammed sweaters and trucked across town to the well-established and mainline United Methodist Church.

The whole awkward foray back into the pew was very short-lived. Suffice it to say that as good as it may seem in the drawing boards of parents’ minds, springing religion on un-churched and thoroughly uninterested pre-pubescent boys is nothing if not packed with learning curves.

Memories of this are few and sketchy. One clear memory I have is asking my father this very question: “Why are we going to church?” I will readily admit that my question at the time was grounded more in supreme adolescent annoyance than in an honest quest for objective truth. And in looking back, his answer seems to speak volumes with regard to how we understand that counterintuitive thing called the Gospel, the thing “going to church” is supposed to be about. He said, “To learn how to be better people.” While neither one of us would have understood it back then, I have come to see that his answer was grounded firmly in that other more intuitive thing called Law. After all, true religion “makes bad people good and good people better,” right?

I am not so sure. There are several problems with this Law-laden answer. The first is logic. Just as the world is, in fact, not getting any better or worse as time either progresses or retreats (Ecc. 1:9-14), going to church does not make one essentially any better or worse than anyone else. I have been at it for almost as long as I wasn’t, and I am no better or worse than when I first began. Second, why Christianity? If the point is to improve individuals or society in some way then plenty of religions, organizations, therapies, programs and philosophies will do the trick. Third, his answer assumed we were somehow presently not up to snuff, perhaps even bad. But my father himself was a pillar of the community, a good man publicly and even better privately. We were law-abiding and quite functional citizens. And we were such with no direct help from church or any formal religion, thank you very much. What was it exactly we needed to learn that we didn’t already know? If God is mysterious then it doesn’t follow that His institution is about the obvious or intuitive. I can agree we go to learn something, but what, how and why?

I would suggest that we don’t go to learn Law or, as dad put it, how to be good or better people. Rather—through the rituals of sound liturgy, confession and Creed, Word and sacrament—we actually go to learn the Gospel. Nobody in his right mind makes efforts to go and learn what he already knows. He must learn what is alien to him. Which statement is natural and which is not: “Stay out of debt, be a good spouse, encourage your kids, seek peace, don’t be a racist, love God and man” or “There is a great exchange whereby Christ’s obedience, by faith alone, is applied to us while our sin is applied to Him and we are thereby reconciled to God and owe Him a life of gratitude”? The former makes sense. Christians and non-Christians alike, in their equal access to Law, can do that theology in their sleep. Like fish on bicycles, it’s the latter that is so weird and unnatural. By nature we wake up each day trying to do the right thing well before we wonder how we might be reconciled to God and what that subsequently demands of us. So what we learn is the Gospel.

If we have answered what then the next question might be how. I think learning the Gospel is revelatory and declarative. Learning Law seems a very academic affair. While not exhaustive, one helpful sign that we may not be properly learning the Gospel is if we find ourselves at church sitting amongst legions of furious note-takers instead of simple yet intent hearers. If so, we are likely writing out our own prescriptions for more Law. If we are more familiar with the conditional language of “steps, principles and challenges” than pronouncement language like “confession, declaration and benediction”; if we are focused on invoking and applying some new idea or exercise to improve ourselves and our world; if something has to be achieved or a lesson to be learned that we could have figured out while sitting at home on Sunday; if there is something to work at either behaviorally or mentally; if we are familiar with hard Law (hellfire and brimstone) or soft Law (biblical principles) or some hybrid of the two, we may have been seriously derailed from the Gospel. But when one sits under a declaration he simply hears it. Little wonder the language of Scripture is one of both proclamation and hearing. In the Christian religion the Gospel is “preached” and we are to “hear the good news” of it. The Reformed tradition speaks of “receiving, resting, and relying.”

Along these lines, as my children get older and sit in worship I encourage them to exercise the muscle of faith—their ears. Listen to the words sung and prayed and said. Much as I esteem quality preaching, it has never seemed to me that a sermon is so much designed to make students as it is to confirm and compel believers. Ours seems a more organic project than a mechanical, academic one.

But to those hungry for Law this seems a rather weak image. “Yes, yes, that sounds very good and pious, but aren’t there programs to inaugurate, principles to grasp and behaviors to employ? Isn’t there a self to improve and a world to save?” If we ask such questions, it seems the Gospel has once again been lost on us. The Gospel is excruciatingly alien to us, which is why it seems we must learn it over and over again with our ears and not our hands.

As I have moved from my secular rearing, into and out of broad Evangelicalism and finally into Reformation Christianity, I have seen that the Gospel is very hard to come by. I believe the Reformed expression is the superior one in all of the Christian landscape, purely capturing the Gospel. But even where it is formally confessed it can be hard to find, which only seems to prove its perfect alienness, its ability to resist any trapping of men. I have also come to be suspect of those who might deny it outright yet imply they have the Gospel easily grasped, imploring us to now move to bigger and better things, as if we could or as if something greater actually existed.

If we have answered what and how maybe the next question is why. Of course, the best of the confessional Reformed tradition understands there is now a life of gratitude, tutored by the Law, to be led: in light of what has been done for you, go and do what you already know to be right. Our tradition believes strongly that there is most assuredly a place for Law. While Christianity is not a way of life there most certainly is a way of life resident within it. Finding it all over in Scripture, our tradition speaks of an indicative declaration and subsequent imperatives. The latter is married to the former and cannot be divorced. This is what is so glorious about the Heidelberg Catechism. Its structure is that of Scripture: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What more can be said? The pursuit of Law here seems to be the back-end result of something, not the front-wheel drive.

But when Law, instead of Gospel, drives us it seems to characterize us as well. Law seems to characterize most of American culture and cult, from diverse self-improvement gospels to various intensities of cultural-political gospels, left and right. It seems to be in the DNA of American piety and very hard to resist. But no voice that presumes to speak on behalf of God earns the right to spur us to any measure of Law if the true Gospel has been one iota circumvented. And it has always seemed to me that if a voice is genuine in this way it ironically seems to become less and less concerned for any measure of mere self or social improvement. There seems to be at once a fine line and wide gap between a piety bent on betterment and one driven by an inglorious yet sincere gratitude. One tends to be boisterous and brash, the other, well, not so much.

These are likely concepts well beyond the typical covenant child. But I have never been discomforted by the idea of anyone having to grow into something beyond his immediate or complete understanding. Whatever else the sacrament of baptism signs and seals it seems to suggest at least that much. And much as my answer might befuddle them when they ask why we go to church, it is one thing to be temporarily confused by a right answer but another to be eternally mis-lead by a wrong one.

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6 Responses to Why We Go To Church: The Intuition of Law And The Counter-Intuition of Gospel

  1. Rick says:

    Zrim, this is a nice article. I can think of a lot of people I would like to see read it.

    But why are those Pilgrims bringing guns to Church?

  2. If we don’t communicate truth in a dynamic way sot the listener can understand, we have failed.

    That’s way God gives some the gift of teaching. If someone takes the Living, Active Word of God and makes it boring, shame on them. Let’s work hard to communicate the Gospel in a fresh, life-giving way, with the Holy Spirit’s gifts fueling us.

    When I was growing up in the church, I was blessed to have creative Sunday school teachers who would use any method at their disposal to communicate Biblical truth to us: Fun songs, storybooks with drawings, flannel graph, and, thankfully, I don’t ever remember dreading a trip to church. As to sitting in the sanctuary during the worship service, I can testify that being from a charismatic church doesn’t make it any easier as a kid to appreciate…it was a struggle, because we were immature (“When I was a child I thought like a child…”)

    I somehow detect here a bit of defensiveness on your part, zrim. — “Yeah, our services are boring, but that’s a good thing.” Ugh… There must be a middle ground here somewhere.

    The message stays the same but the methods of delivering that message must be fresh and relevant, or we’re not doing our job.

  3. Zrim says:

    Rick,

    I don’t know. When I reserached the image it said something about “life being harsh” in those times. Evidently, it is a famous image.

    Al,

    I completely understand, since I had your same assumptions for a spell. But it seems to me that such is really only good for being a better American than Christian. The whole “message stays the same, method changes” line of thought is not only a classic divorce of form and content, it presumes that man is somehow a different creature across time and place–an assumption I don’t see one iota in Scripture. We are all the same, in every place in every time (see my comments to Rube in his post right below–you and he seem to have more in common than you might think!).

  4. Echo_ohcE says:

    Albino,

    I don’t think the Word of God is boring either, and to be sure, shame on boring preachers.

    Of course, you and I probably don’t mean exactly the same things when we say that.

    E

  5. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    Yes, just as there is irrelevant and then there’s irrelevant (wink-wink), there is boring and then there is boring. We Reformed are nothing if not conscious of these sorts of dualities. That said, the boringer the better.

    (Speaking of “boring” preachers, our church is in the throes of filling her pulpit. It has been over two years since our minister left to head up Calvin Sem’s Center for the Excellence in Preaching, a post well deserved to say the least. Scott was one of the most boring preachers I have ever heard.)

  6. Echo_ohcE says:

    Albino and I don’t have the same notion of what it means for a sermon to be boring.

    To me, a boring sermon is one that is rambling and does not properly exegete the passage; one that is full of pseudo-psycho-babble therapy and moralism; one that does not properly demonstrate how the passage points to Christ, his person and work, and relate it to the present audience. To me, the opposite of boring is not necessarily exciting; to me, the opposite of a boring sermon is a properly done, Christ centered message that demonstrates the riches of Christ and the passage at hand, and the glory of God’s self revelation.

    I’m not sure Albino would disagree with anything I have said here per se, but I don’t doubt that his conception even of what I have said here would differ from mine. His idea of a non-boring sermon and mine may be, but don’t have to be, the same thing, and I suspect they are very different.

    Yet I would not venture to suppose that it would be wise – or very polite – of me to assume what Albino’s view of preaching is. Although, I am quite sure his view is different from mine.

    The drama of redemption is anything but boring, at least to those of us who perceive in it our very life, even the greatest story ever told.

    But not everybody understands that good expository preaching should not be boring. Although, I might wonder if those who thought it was boring had ever heard good exegetical preaching.

    That said, not all preachers are great preachers, even if it is done properly. But even the worst preachers, if they properly handle the Word at all, should at least produce a sermon that is interesting. After all, the Bible is quite an interesting book, to say the least.

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