As I listened again to Simon Sinek speak about the “Golden Circle” and explain that the key question to thriving in any area of our life, business, or ministry is “Why?” I was struck by the thought that so many people don’t really have a “Why?” related to their church attendance. Without an understanding of their motivation its no wonder that the previous decade has seen the waning of attendance across the theological perspective. We in ministry have a pretty good idea of “what” we want to do, and even “how” it should be done, but few of us really understand “why” people show up in the first place. Sometimes we are answering questions nobody is asking.
When I look back over twenty plus years of ministry I have seen three consistent reasons “why” people show up on Sunday morning. Some show up for “religion,” those systemic and ritualistic practices that they have grown to find comfort in. Some show up for “relief,” they are seeking a spiritual or emotional analgesic, a Band-Aid for their soul. Some are actually seeking a relationship with God, looking for the path to find the Savior who desires to be in relationship with them.
Religion: a practice that we have become accustomed to. The textbook definition of religion is, “A system that requires devotional and ritualistic practices that contains a moral code.” There is comfort in following a system. There is comfort is following a well-established pattern that is predictable and understandable. When life gets difficult, when everything around us is changing we begin looking for something that isn’t changing. If you ever wondered why there was so much controversy when the order of worship is changed, when the music stylings are altered, when the pastor goes “off script” it is because there is a feeling that even this bastion of stability is being rocked.
Somewhere along the line we begin replacing religion with “religiosity.” If we aren’t careful the place and the practice becomes more important than the Person of Jesus Christ who we are called to worship. The building takes on some sacred value far beyond its brick and mortar. The furnishings move from being tools of worship to icons. Emotional connections begin to be made to the items of worship and not to the object of worship.
Not only does the place and furnishings take on an inflated value when the shift toward “religiosity” is made, the practices become valued above their symbolic meanings. Don’t get me wrong practices are vitally important. A culture is made up of beliefs, language, and practices (that’s another blog for another day), but when the practices supersede the focus upon the Person of Christ we slip into a form of Christian-ism instead of Christianity. Practices inform and can transform us, but only if the practices are done in the context of something larger, a relationship with the Creator and a community. Disconnection here is when the place and practice becomes more important than either the people being served or the proclamation of the gospel.
Relief: pain we want to alleviate. People come to worship when their life is in crisis. Every pastor can relate a story of someone in the midst of spiritual, physical, or emotional crisis who comes to the safety of the church to find sanctuary for their soul I mean, that is what the church is called to be, a community of believers seeking to bring God’s “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” The church is meant to be a place of refuge and healing, thanks be to God, but that's not all it is. Receiving relief for our souls is essential, it gives us the second chances we need in life, but that should be the beginning of a spiritual journey, not the end.
Disconnection here is when we come seeking relief but avoid the complexities of relationship. If we aren’t careful the church becomes a therapeutic organization rather than a spiritual one. This means we end up creating dependents and not disciples. What I have discovered is that when folks show up amidst a crisis in their life, and never build the spiritual connection with Christ or the community, they don’t stick around long. As soon as the crisis subsides, so does their spiritual interest. The church becomes a spiritual “Urgent Care” center. Both those seeking comforting stability and those seeking spiritual relief are really seeking deep, abiding relationship, they just don’t know it.
Relationship: passion to be connected to something more. We, all of humanity, are designed to be in community. We are formed for relationships. Even those of us who are introverts know, intrinsically, we need some relationships to stay healthy. From the earliest days of human existence anthropologists tell us that we were tribal. We gathered in groups for protection, affection, and connection (that’s also another blog, but you know I love a list!).
Some of us show up because what we are seeking, what our heart is calling for, is relationship. We desire to get closer to Christ and community. Maybe we have had a profound experience in the past where we let God find us (I don’t believe we find God, we just realize God is already there). Where we embrace the forgiveness and freedom offered in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Once we experience that relationship it calls us into community. There is no such thing as a “solo-Christian.” Christians are made for community, even though community is mess. When we experience real relationship when we realize that everything we have, all that we are, all the good in our life is a gift from God. That is what grace is, God’s complete, self-giving, unconditional love calling us into deep, abiding, ongoing relationship with Him and into accountable, formational relationship with Christian community. I believe that regardless of whether its for religion or relief what they are really seeking is relationship.
So “why do people show up?” There are as many reasons as there are people, but regardless of their “why” our “why” as the people of God is that we exist to offer them a relationship with Jesus, and a relationship within our spiritual family. If we get clear on “why” we exist, other things will take care of themselves. I remain:
Consumed by the Call