My 94-year old grandmother, who is still as sharp as ever, skipped church this past Easter Sunday. When I jokingly scolded her about it, she quickly retorted, “Nathan, I have been going to church every Easter for 94 years. I don’t think God is going to mind if I skip this once.” I think she was right. Skipping church is not a sin. God can be found everywhere and a relationship with God does not require attending services. But, if that’s true, then why should we go to church at all?
When I first started college, I did not attend church services regularly. During my time in college, I have found that few Christians on campus regularly attend services. I assume that, like me, college is the first time many of them have thought about whether or not they want to regularly attend church. Like many, freshman year was the first time I had been away from my family for extended periods. At home I regularly attended services with my family, but at school, whether I went to church and how often was completely up to me.
Like many, I at first found church to be long and boring. Plus, I never felt like I had enough time to get all my work done, so I started going only when I felt I had the time. I could have stopped going altogether, but going to church helped me feel more at home at school. I enjoyed listening to the readings, singing the hymns, and hearing the insights from a good, succinct sermon. At the beginning of freshman year, I went to church when I felt homesick. Like many, I did not think that church made much of a difference in my life or my relationship with God. Going every so often felt good, but I did not think going every week made much of a difference.
Then I started noticing that my life went better the weeks that I went to church. I had peace. I was more focused. I was better able to see the good in what I was doing and express the love I had for others. I was living life and not just going through the motions. When I did not go to church, things were not bad; they just were not as good. I remember one week when I did not go to church, I fell behind on my readings and spent most of my time in my room because nothing seemed worth much effort. The conversations in the dining hall were interesting but seemed superficial. I felt very distant from people.
One gray week in winter, after going to church for the first time after a long absence, I was reminded that I loved learning and consequently enjoyed my classes that week. I felt connected to all human beings and happily said hello to people I passed during the day. Most importantly, I had faith that what I was doing was the will of God, and so I was not stressed despite my hectic schedule. What is it about church, I wondered, that could touch me in so many ways?
The value in going to church, I have found, is in the community and in the guidance of the liturgy, the prescribed rites and rituals of a church service. I love being around religious people. Faith and integrity are part of who I consider myself to be. When I am around people of faith and integrity, I am not only encouraged to be the same but I also feel at home. The power of the Spirit always seems to be present when I am worshipping God with others. It is that presence, not the familiarity of church rituals, which now draws me to worship with others in church. I have found truth in Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Being among friends, however, is not my primary purpose for going to church. Loving one’s neighbor is only the second greatest commandment. The first is “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Matthew 22:37-22:39) The community exists only to serve God. In a church, God is in the midst of the people, that they might know and worship him. Therefore, I am not surprised that merely praying with my roommates in their Lifegroup (a campus Bible study) was not the equivalent of going to church.
The guidance of a liturgy brings me into relationship with God. I do not subscribe to only one liturgy, because in my experience, Catholic, Protestant, and even some non-denominational liturgies all serve the same purpose and often follow the same form. Most of the services I have been to begin with the congregation singing and speaking praises to God and praying that the service will serve us well. We then listen to readings and contemplate their meaning until a minister shares his/her inspired perspective on the Word of God. I listen to the readings to discover Truth, the nature of the universe, and to discern God’s will for me.
I remember, once during Lent, the reading from the New Testament was about the temptations of Christ while he was in the desert. In the story, Satan tells the hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread, and Jesus refuses. I must have heard the story a dozen times, but the sermon revealed something in the reading that I had not seen before. Jesus, the priest told us, with his infinite power, could have turned the stones into bread and fed the whole world, but he refused, saying, “Man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). The priest pointed out that the story was not simply about Jesus feeding himself, but instead about God feeding the world — ministering not to the physical but to the spiritual needs of people.
Following the readings and sermons, we affirm our faith, give thanks and prayers, confess our sins to be at peace, and then share in God’s peace to prepare for Holy Communion. Before receiving Communion, I take a moment to prepare myself, and then following it, I open my heart and listen for anything that God may have to say to me. I usually emerge from that prayer deeply in touch with my love for my friends and family. The service ends by giving thanks to God and a prayer that God be with us as we leave the church. Finally, as we depart, we sing a song of praise or thanksgiving. I follow the rituals of the service, crossing myself and saying “Amen” after the reception of the bread and wine, not simply because the rituals are familiar, but because the rituals bring me closer to God.
Finally, I have found that being with the people whom I love affects my experience of church. It is not simply about God and me; it is also about the people in my life. At home, I still go to church with my family every Sunday, and I believe doing so enriches our love for one another. After my sophomore year, my sister and my girlfriend both came to school in Boston. I am thankful for that, because now that they are near, we can worship together. As I mentioned earlier, one thing I get out of church is being in touch with the love I have for others. The weeks that my girlfriend and I go to church together, we tend to fight less. My roommate and I have also once gone to church together, and I have never felt so close to him as I did then. Worshipping in a church with others brings me closer to God’s love, but it also works the other way around. Since God is love, being closer to God also causes me to be present to the love I have for others.
The last time I went to church, I confessed my sins to God and walked out in peace. I walked out conscious of and thankful for many of the blessings in my life and thankful that God loves me so much that he grants me those blessings. I loved my brother, mother, and girlfriend, and knew that they loved me. I started my week happily knowing that if I could just hold that love close, whatever I did would be what God wanted me to do.
The choice to go to church is a personal one, and my guess is that different people get different things out of going to church. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with skipping church like my Grandmother did, or only attending church occasionally as many college students do. However, I choose to attend regularly because I have found that going makes a difference in my life and in my relationships. And for that, I am thankful.
Nathan Rosenberg, Jr., ’05, president of Episcopal Students at Harvard, is a Physics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.