My husband and I began to attend a large United Methodist church as we approached our thirties. He had grown up in a small Methodist church, and I had grown up in boarding schools where attendance at services were required, but neither of us had been inside a church building, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, in over a decade. We were a pretty typical Yuppie couple ~ a corporate lawyer, a corporate computer guy, living in our first home, traveling as extensively as our paltry vacation time permitted, and wedded to late breakfasts and the Times on Sunday mornings. No children in sight, although we were thinking that we would like some.
It went something like this:
I woke up one morning and said, "We should find a church."
I don't really know why I said that. I think I felt that our lives had become kind of money-driven and materialistic-oriented, and that there were other things we cared about ~ the environment, poverty, education ~ but weren't doing anything to address. And that maybe in a church we would find other people who wanted to live in ways that were more balanced than ours was and more attentive to motives and concerns beyond the bottom line.
A few days later, my husband said, "We should try that Methodist church down the road. You'll like it; it looks like a cathedral. And we can watch the services on cable first, so we don't have to go there without any idea what we might be getting into."
So we watched some of the services on the local cable station. The preacher seemed brilliant and articulate and in possession of an impressive array of knowledge. Not that we knew anything much about preachers ~ but he sounded like what I expected a preacher to sound like, based on my boarding school experience. The music was spectacular ~ that I did know a little about.
Off we went, usually walking the mile or so down a bicycle path through our neighborhood. That's how we happened to go to church.
In my own little church, the one which I serve as pastor, most of the people come because they have always come to church. Their parents brought them when they were children ~ most of them, to this particular church ~ and here they have stayed. Or they were married here because one partner or the other was a member, and this is where they landed as a couple. Most of those who came in the later years of their lives had always been church members in one place or another; some have moved, while others became dissatisfied with a former pastor or community. One young man told me the other day that he had gone through a rough patch in his life for several years, and came to think that he "needed to get back with the church." There is a sort of general sense, which folks occasionally articulate if pressed to do so, that church "is where you should be on Sunday morning."
My point? There are a lot of people in church ~ most? nearly all? ~ myself included, who did not come to church in the first place out of an expressed desire for relationship with God. I'm not saying that God isn't seeking relationship with us; in fact, I believe that that's exactly what's going on. But most of us seem to arrive out of a vague sense that there's something more to life, something grander, than our ordinary, day-to-day concerns. Something that imbues the ordinary with meaning. Even the simplest of statements ~ "All we do is work," or "I needed to get back with the church," or "The week just wouldn't feel right without church on Sunday" ~ indicate a need and a desire to connect with something beyond the mundane.
Karl Rahner says that the essence of grace is found in the self-communication of God to the transcendent human spirit ~ the "this-ness" of God reaching out to us whether we recognize it or not. I think that God's reach is the explanation for how and why we happen to arrive in the doorway of a church, although it seems entirely possible that almost none of us know that.
And then what?