By Cole Hartin
Running has been a lifeline for me.
Over the past decade of my life, amidst the stresses of vocational ministry, doctoral study, and family life, running has been a solace. Throughout my struggles with anxiety, fear, and spiritual churning, running has been a constant comfort, as kind of bodily flight from things too heavy to bear.
Because of this, I really value running regularly. Studies have long shown the benefits of exercise in reducing stress and boosting immunity. My own experience tells me that for the most part, I simply feel better after having gone on a run.
It might sound odd, then, to tell you that I don’t always like to run. In fact, most often, I’d rather be inside sitting on my orange lounge chair from the 70s reading a book. Occasionally running makes me feel nauseous. And, with three young sons, mustering up the energy to put on my running shoes has at times been an insurmountable obstacle.
The benefits far outweigh the challenges most days, and so I regularly make time to run – usually two or three times a week. I make room in my life for running because its something I value.
Most people, most of the time will make time for what is important to them.
One of the odd trends I’ve noticed over the course of the past few years in my pastoral ministry is a considerable number of people on my parish rolls who identify as Christians, and who – when I talk with them – seem to hold their identity as Anglicans close to their hearts but who seldom come to church.
Now, I am not talking about those who are sick and are unable to climb the steps to the altar. I am not talking either about those who miss a Sunday here or there because they are travelling or have emergencies come up.
Moreover, I am not talking about folks who once strongly identified as Christians but who do not any longer. I don’t have in mind the rapidly growing “nones” who have no religious affiliation, or the agnostics who are still formally tethered to the Church through some kind of family tie.
Rather, I am thinking of people who tell others they are Christians, who give money to the Church, but who seldom seem to show up to Holy Communion.
Why might someone staunchly identify as a Christian, an Anglican, but seldom attend church?
Perhaps they might find the Sunday morning routine boring. Fair enough.
Anglican worship at its best is awe inspiring and beautiful. At its worst, it’s the country club muttering in a cold building on repeat each week.
I can understand why folks might not find the latter compelling.
Still, my experience has shown me that very often, those who seldom worship with me on Sundays are not drawn to catchier, glitzier churches. They are not absent from the pew because they’ve found theatre seating and espresso machines more compelling.
Perhaps, then, these folks don’t come to church Sundays because they have other things going on. In Canada, at least, it seems the body and blood of Christ can’t compete with the hockey rink. And there’s brunch, too, on Sundays. For young parents with a lot on the go, this “second Saturday” as a friend called it, is cherished time together as a family.
There is a lot happening Sunday morning, or rather, nothing happening Sunday morning, and missing out on hockey or sleeping in is too steep a price for many parishioners.
It goes without saying for many who identify themselves as Christians that going to church is important, as long as literally nothing else is competing for their attention.
I started this essay by writing about running.
Sometimes I find running boring. I know what to expect before I head out on a run and save for the odd day that is exceptionally beautiful, it’s mostly drudge work.
I run, still, despite its repetitive nature, because I know that it’s good for me, and has value for my life.
Sometimes, I’d rather be doing something other than running. It’s a sacrifice to take an hour out on a Saturday, or to rush outside after everyone’s asleep.
Yet, because I value my health, I make these sacrifices most of the time.
I make time for what is important to me, for what I value, like most of us do, most of the time.
I think this is the heart of this issue when it comes to prioritizing church: Most people who identify as Christians but who seldom go to church really don’t find it all that valuable. Or, more precisely, they find sports, or brunch, or sleeping in to be more valuable than hearing the word of God, receiving the sacrament, and then probably drinking percolated coffee that tastes like copper pennies.
All this is true enough, but why the self deception? Why do some many self-professed Christians – Anglicans in my case – have trouble admitting that they love hockey or a slow morning more than worshiping God?
“Woah,” you might be thinking, “hold on a second. You are conflating the Kingdom of God with institutional Christianity. You can love Jesus deeply without having to go to Church most Sundays, or even at all. There is more than one way to love God.”
I will grant you this for the sake of argument.
You can worship God at home, do a Bible study in the locker room, present your offering of praise at the golf course. The reality is, however, that those who don’t show up on Sundays are not saying morning prayer as a family at home when they miss church. They are not cracking their Bibles on the couch while they drink coffee and catch up from a week stuffed too full. They are not kneeling beside the golf cart to confess their sins.
In my experience, attempts to worship outside of the of the local church either never happen, or become quaint nods to the Divine before we get on with our lives.
What am I getting at here?
If it’s true that most of the time most people make space in their lives for what they value, a sizable minority of Christians simply don’t value ecclesial life.
Many Christians are leading disintegrated lives in which the values they profess to hold do not match up with their lived experience. Recognizing the ways their beliefs do not cohere with their pattern of life is an important step to spiritual growth. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” There is little incentive to draw nearer to God if one feels that one is close enough.
Grappling honestly with the low value these same Christians place on coming to Church is beneficial to the Church as well. So much of the innovation in liturgy and worship is propelled by well-meaning attempts to coax unchurched Christians back to church. If the underlying reason for their distance from Sunday worship is not a commonplace liturgy, but rather a set of competing priorities, then it appears that a novel Sunday service is futile.
Churches would be much better off putting their resources into articulating why Sunday worship is so significant for the life of the world, rather than using gimmicks to ply people who do not plan to come anyway.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.