Why do people attend houses of worship?
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 81 percent of the more than 4,700 survey participants said that they regularly attended their houses of worship “to feel close to God.” (Other reasons cited for attendance included: to provide moral education for their children; to become a better person; for comfort in time of trouble or sadness.)
For as long as I can remember, I have attended church regularly, although I did miss some Sundays when I was in university. But after a profound religious experience during my senior year, I decided I would be in church at least weekly. I wanted to get to know God better, this God I had met in that conversion experience as overwhelming, consuming love. This verse from the Letter of James spoke for me then and now: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”
Worship draws me near to God, and without it, I would quickly lose that sense of intimacy that I now enjoy.
Even when I am on vacation, as I was in July, I attend church weekly. I would never think of missing, just as I would never think of not breathing, or of not eating food or not drinking water. They are necessary to my life. So is God. So is my worship of him. Worship is that act in which I acknowledge my dependence on God, thank him for his blessings, seek his forgiveness and help and receive his grace or favor in word and sacrament. Worship is part of who I am.
I am part of that 81 percent of Pew respondents. I worship because I want to be close to God. The Sunday service is a time of holy encounter every week. Sometimes, that encounter is intense, other times more subdued. In some way, God meets me there. And I am better for it. My faith in God is stronger.
On vacation, this summer, Penny and I and granddaughters June and Christa visited Christ Church, Summit, N.J., a United Church of Christ congregation. Our oldest friends are active members.
There, we met warm, loving people who welcomed us. We learned about the ways the church was showing God’s love to others. In worship, we listened to that day’s Scripture readings and heard an edifying sermon. And we were inspired by the music.
After the sermon, the choir sang an old African-American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead,” Hymn 676 in the Episcopal Church Hymnal. It goes like this:
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged
and think my work's in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again.
If you cannot preach like Peter,
if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus
and say, "He died for all."
Soon, the whole congregation joined in singing the hymn. As I sang, I started to cry—tears not of sadness, but of deep joy. Christa, our youngest granddaughter, took my hand. I smiled. “I’m okay,” I whispered.
I was more than okay. For in the singing of that hymn, I felt God’s presence with me in a real, even dramatic way. I knew that he loved me, that he had given himself for me and my salvation in Jesus that he was with me always. And I was thankful. That hymn reminded me that God, whom I know in Jesus, is the balm in my Gilead.
Every Sunday, you will find God in a church near you. He will be there in liturgy, whatever your Christian tradition, as well as in fellowship, in education and formation and in service. Worshiping with other Christians weekly, you will know for yourself that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the balm of Gilead. He will make your wounds whole and will heal your sin-sick soul.