Ghostly Counsel

Unhappy churchgoing

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

For many people, attending church is not a happy experience! Although the call to worship the Divine is one that many respond to, they find that the church is full of people, and wherever there are people, there are problems! If into the pot-pourri of human peculiarities we add a mix of theological and liturgical differences, there are countless reasons for feathers to be ruffled and noses to be put out of joint. What follows is a practical response to some of the most frequent moans.

First, a hopeless priest! Speaking as a priest, I have to say that priests are universally hopeless. As soon as a man is ordained, he is doomed to fail. Priests are there as a constant reminder of God's grace and not as paragons of human virtue. The priest may be hopeless but it doesn't prevent the Lord from using him as a means of grace. If a relationship with a priest has broken down completely, there might be a good reason to worship elsewhere. But this is rare, and moving churches should always be a last resort.

Second, the worship/preaching/ building etc. is not helpful. There are two responses to a general dissatisfaction with the experience of church. The first is to remember that the prime purpose

of worship is to give honour, praise and due service to God. This means that the subjective experience of God is secondary. The second is to ask this question of the complainant: 'What is your contribution to the worship?'

It is vital to grasp the truth that worship is not a consumer activity; worship is active participation in the work of the people of God. Hymns are meant to be sung, sermons meant to be listened to and prayers meant to be prayed. Coming to worship in a meanness of spirit will only lead to a negative experience.

Thirdly, other people - this can range from the man who sings loudly and out of tune, to the woman who wears noisy jewellery, to the annoying children and their annoying parents. There are two ways to deal with this in a positive and gracious way. (The alternative is a growing resentment that damages the whole church community.) The first is to be thankful - the church community is the Body of Christ and it has been brought into being by him and bought with his precious blood.

Be thankful for all those in church - you are one with them by God's call. The second response is one of self-examination: what is it that irritates you? Reflect on this source of dissatisfaction within your heart. Ask for God's grace in it all, and let him use the problem to draw you closer to him. It is a sad truth that the people who moan the most pray the least!

It is important to have realistic expectations of churchgoing. Please do not expect attendance on a Sunday to meet all your spiritual needs. This is not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide an opportunity for corporate and personal affirmation; to play an active part in the building up of Christ's Body and to feed on him in his Body in the sacrament and in his word. Come to church thankful for the gifts of faith, freedom and health, and, being thankful, be generous to your Heavenly Father and to your brothers and sisters.

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