Our 3 year old grandson has reached that familiar stage of asking “Why?” after every answer we give to his previous question. It feels like he could go on forever in an infinite regress of “Why”s! It’s fascinating to me how clearly important it is for children at a very early age to try to get the bigger picture around what that they are seeing and hearing.
I knew a management consultant who used the same process to help organisations and their leaders to understand and articulate the core of their business.
What happens when we are asked about our own life activities, including spiritual practices like going to church or praying?
For example let’s say you use a gym regularly and you are asked why you do. There’s a high chance your answer would be some version of: ” to keep me healthy/ feeling good/able to keep active.” The default answer about our chosen activities is often the benefit we experience for ourselves.
But imagine a 3 year old child, or my management consultant, pressing you with a further series of why questions. There is a bigger picture to uncover. Reasons for using a gym regularly might include keeping fit enough to achieve and enjoy wider life goals; such as, looking after your family, furthering your career successfully, or giving you the energy to cope with the demands of more difficult and draining obligations in life over which you have little choice at present. There will be a bigger picture, often taken for granted or assumed until spelled out.
In the same way, when you are asked why you go to church (if you do) the chances are your first answer will be about the benefit it brings you; such as, ” it gives me peace”, ” makes me think about what’s important”, “recharges my spiritual batteries”, “sets me up for the week ahead”, or, “keeps me in touch with some good friends/neighbours”.
And yet there is a bigger picture around regular churchgoing too. Some levels of it may be not very much different from other life activities of choice, like gym membership. Providing you with greater focus or resilience to look after family, do well at work or study, cope with other demands of life – these can be part of the bigger picture reasons why you might go to church or pray.
But that is not the whole of the bigger picture around churchgoing. Going to a gym is about being healthier because that’s what gyms are set up for; and the bigger picture is all that can flow from a healthier life. So the total bigger picture around churchgoing and praying comes from what churches are set up for. The clues to the purpose of churches are found in what is said (and sung) in the worship and prayers of the Church. In a nutshell, it’s clear (though there’s a variety of ways to say this) that churches are to grow communities and individuals whose priority in life is to share the love of God for the world.
For example, the Diocese of Oxford describes the purpose of its churches as:
“To join with God in creating a caring, sustainable and growing Christian presence in every part of the Diocese, enabling every Christian and every Christian community to live and share the love of God, seen in the life of Jesus Christ. ”
This captures what churches are for. In short, they are about living with love for God and for neighbour. Neighbours means people both far and near with whom our lives are connected.
Just as not every gym member attends the gym often enough to get healthier: not all churchgoers become more loving of God or neighbour sadly, But there is no question that is what a church is for. So then, what is the total bigger picture around churchgoing; bigger than the default answer of immediate benefits to yourself? I believe It will be all that can flow into our communities and the world when more of us live with greater priority on putting love for God and neighbour into action.
At All Saints Church Wokingham, like many churches currently, we are embarking on a process to make a new plan of action for the next few years. The new plan will set out in detail our priorities for action and how will we use the gifts and resources available to us. It will be a plan which works for the here and now of where we are. Most importantly the plan will help the church to serve the bigger picture of putting into action love for God and neighbour.
If you are in touch with All Saints Church in March you will be asked what you think, both about what All Saints Church does currently and also what it could be doing in the future. The answers we all give will help us all decide what the priorities for action as a church will be going forward.
But,and finally, there is a risk in this process. It could happen that we will all give only a default level of answer. That is, we will answer only about what All Saints does or should do in terms of the benefits to ourselves. Of course we need to hear that; but we need more. Let’s be like a small child, or an insightful consultant, and ask why and why and why? Why do we go to church? Why do we want our church to do what it does or to change what it does? Are we thinking about the bigger picture?