If you could sum up your reason for going to church in one word, what would that word be?
You might respond that you go to church purely out of HABIT. There would be, of course, reasons for getting into this habit, and reasons for staying with it; but habit is what gets you up to go.
Another possible one word reason would be GUILT. You know you should be in church every Sunday, and you feel guilty if you are not there– so you go.
A third possible reason for going to church might be summed up in the word FORCE. Perhaps you are forced to go to church against your will. This might be the case for some children and teenagers who are still following the rules of their parents, and going to church is one of those rules.
Another one word response, and one that could certainly be a part of those first three is FAITH. You believe in God, and so you believe it is important to worship Him. Closely related to that would be the one word response OBEDIENCE. The third commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy, and the biggest part of that remembrance is to remember to worship God on that day. Faith and obedience are certainly two of the very best reasons for going to church.
There are many other possible reasons for going to church, and most of us go for not just one reason, but several. Many people may well worship out of habit, but that habit was begun and is continued out of faith and obedience, and they would feel guilty if they were not in church on Sunday.
But on the very deepest level, we all go to church for the very same reason. We go, because Jesus has called us. Jesus calls us to himself, and until we are with him in person, Sunday morning worship is one of the most basic ways of paying attention to Jesus. In Mark 2:17 Jesus speaks of this call to himself. To those who were critical of who he was spending time Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” SINNERS. Jesus came to call sinners. Those who go to church are those sinners who have answered that call.
Even the littlest among us are sinners. When little babies are baptized we pray that God would “wash away their sin.” Sin? What sin? What can a baby do anything wrong? But think about it. Though outwardly babies are cuddly and cute, is there anything more self-centered and ill-mannered than a baby? How many times isn’t the peace and quiet of the worship service interrupted by the cries and squawking of a baby? They don’t care if you are trying to have church. If they want to make a racket, they will make a racket. If they want to be fed, they don’t care if you are busy with something else or if you are trying to sleep, they will demand your attention NOW. All babies think about is themselves. They are sinners, even if they don’t know it yet. So even when they are coming to church at only two weeks old, they are coming to the right place. Jesus has called them, just like he has called all sinners, unto himself.
But babies can’t really help it, can they? Are we really ‘sinners from our mothers womb,’ as the Bible says? Well, what happens as soon as those cute little babies do know what is going on? Immediately, they begin to resist their parents, and, they continue to be demanding. Two of the very first words every child learns to say are NO and MINE. Rebellion and selfishness, two of the central characteristics of sin, are in us right from the beginning. And so these little sinners come to church, being led by the hand, perhaps even pulled along a bit. Some of them might even, at times, say they hate church. And so they sit here, sullen, determined not to get anything out of it, and muttering to themselves that when they are parents, they for sure aren’t going to put their kids through this. Ten years old, and they lack experience and expertise in so many areas of life; but in one are of life they are already experts. They are sinners: defiant, rebellious, selfish, sinners.
A few years later they are still sinners, but now they are more aware of their sin than any time previously in their lives. Perhaps they have been out with their friends the night before, and there is a big difference between the conversation and activities of Saturday night, and the Sunday morning worship– and they know it. They know about the sin within themselves– deep dark sin, dirty thoughts, mean thoughts, thoughts about things you are supposed to even think about at all. Conversations with friends grow more crude, and they are ashamed, but will admit it to no one. Sin? Yes, they know about sin, and they have heard that Jesus forgives sinners. But they don’t want any part of that now. They are not interested, and that is the worst part of their sin. But Jesus keeps the door open for them, too. That door is always open, to all sinners.
Sinners from college come to church, too. They are breaking away from home and from rules, but not yet completely. They are thinking new thoughts now. They are beginning to have doubts, calling into question everything they at one time might have believed in. Maybe all this religion business is a sham, and if it is, why should they waste their time in church? And still they are welcome as Jesus welcomes all kinds of sinners, even doubters and despisers.
The next age group of sinners in church is the young adults, many of them now married. No longer is sin simply an inner struggle for them. Now, someone else is right there, all the time, someone who might be more than willing to point out and remind them of their sins, shortcomings, faults, weaknesses, immaturity, inconsistencies, and foolishness. Not everything pointed out would be a sin, but much of it would be. And not always is one’s spouse right, but many times they are, and they might even know you better than you know yourself. In marriage, and then in child-raising, one gets many opportunities to think about what is right and what is wrong. We are sinners, all right. Still, there is in a good marriage the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven, and one begins to understand a bit more of what it means that Jesus calls sinners.
There are lots of middle-aged and elderly sinners in church. They are past the rebellion stage of sin, but perhaps they are by now spending at least a bit of time looking back over their shoulder; looking back at mistakes, regrets, things that might have been done differently, times and ways one could have been more faithful, more loving, more caring. Faith begins to matter more as one gets older, and morality is more understood and valued. Seeing the foolishness of the young may, for many, bring back memories of one’s own wrongdoings. Looking back over a lifetime can make one thankful that Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners.
However varied are the reasons for going to church, we go because Jesus calls us, and we have answered that call, sinners that we are. For sinners are the only ones Jesus is interested in. He said so himself. He said he did not come to call the righteous. In churches all around the world Jesus calls sinners to himself, so that he can speak to them all, to us all, a bit of good news. So keep your ears open each Sunday morning and this is what you will hear: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Exodus 20:8 — Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Mark 2:16-17 — When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
1 Timothy 1:15-16 — Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
–Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871)