A friend of mine suddenly stopped going to church because his teenage son was arrested for selling pot. Yes, he is a scary drug dealer and probably has connections to Mexican drug cartels and has been involved in murder, abduction and child slave labor. Actually, he just sold pot to a friend who entrapped him in an effort to have his own charges dropped. Back to my friend, he was embarrassed and ashamed that this happened to his family and nobody from his church reached out to him. He admitted to me that he was an atheist and church had no value to him, he was only going out of a Catholic obligation to a nascent guilt. I disagreed with him that he shouldn’t attend because they needed him and he needed them, but he needs to work through this on his own. However, here are some generic reasons and granted, I am grasping here but indulge me.
1) Church gives you a place where you can breath. Many people will say that they don’t sing but in your everyday life, you sing. If you yell, you are using the same body parts and emotion that goes into singing. If you scream, the same. Do you speak with inflection such as you would when you speak with surprise, tenderness, comfort, imitation, sarcasm or chiding? All that is part of the singing apparatus too so, yes, you sing. The difference between saying those things and singing them though, that is where the difference lies. When you sing, you are sustaining tones which forces you to awaken muscles between your ribs, your diaphragm, your chest and head. An added benefit to actual singing is that you are taking in oxygen more deeply and richly than you would only by speaking. That increased oxygen gets in your blood where it goes straight to your brain and muscles which are nourished and repaired by the newly oxygenated blood. Singing is healthy. If you are a health nut, singing should be part of your weekly routine and church is a perfect place to exercise those muscles without the worry of someone hearing you. If your church has a pipe organ, there is even more acoustical space to hide in. Pianos and guitars have a natural decay and less secure to hide your voice therein. Once you play a sound on any of these instruments the sound immediately begins to decay, necessitating more fills and chords. But singing doesn’t work this way, and the continuity of the sung line is often disrupted. The organ’s sound lifts and sustains the voice of the congregation through each phrase and guiding each breath. The organ thrives in an open room and it fills the room almost like sunlight through open windows, the organ warmly invites even hesitant and untrained singers to join in. An amplified band gives you a directional, electronic copy of the instruments. The pipe organ needs no amplification; the natural sound of the instrument itself fills the space evenly and fully with its massive range. The organ can breathe musical life into any part of the Gospel story and your body.
1a) When you hear music, there are fireworks going off in your brain. FMRI scans have shown that when people listen to music, multiple areas of the brain light up and when participating, music engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the motor, visual and auditory cortex. Strengthening those areas of the brain allow us to apply those strengths to other activities. This also bridges the activity in the corpus callosum which regulates the left and right hemisphere of the brain. This allows you to solve problems more effectively and creatively in both academic and social settings. Because crafting music also involves understanding emotional content and message, musicians often have higher levels of executive function; a category of interlinked tasks which include planning, strategizing and attention to detail and requires simultaneous analysis of both cognitive and emotional aspects. This ability also has an impact on how our memory systems work. Transubstantiation may become more physical for after singing an hour in church you will leave a different person, more energized, alert and cerebrally attentive.
2) Along the lines of music, attending the right church is a great place to hear masterworks of choral, instrumental and organ literature from the 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century, all in one place. Sure, you can buy a CD or find classical stations on the radio but hearing it live in the space the music was designed and composed for is much better. Even if you don’t sing, sitting there gives you the opportunity to set aside some time to reflect on your life in a holy space with holy sounds among holy people.
3) You will be supporting local musicians. Many musicians in churches are volunteers but a few of them such as the director or accompanist are probably paid. Many of these people also play in clubs, bands, bars, are involved in community theater, compose and teach. By supporting them in the church, you are supporting the circle of music in the community.
4) Going to church also helps you to find community. My friend, whose son was arrested could have found support, comfort and community but unfortunately his church was also embarrassed about the situation and didn’t realize that not to act is to act. It takes a lot of courageous effort to cultivate that sense of courage to seek and heal. However, after that courage is marshaled, it will be discovered that it takes no effort or courage at all to heal. I know of another church whose pastor lives in his own house so the rectory was empty. When one of the elderly members fell into financial instability, there was no question that she could stay at the rectory free of charge. That is what church communities do for one another. So, you don’t have to go to church to find out what they can do for you, you can go to find out what you can do for them. It is in serving others that we are served.
5) Many people, even atheists, have a nascent sense of spirituality within them. That means it is present but not active. A friend of mine was arrested (hmmmph, I know a lot of people who were arrested) and he stayed at my house for a week because he wanted to get away and hide from everyone and take time to figure out his future life while it was falling apart around him. A staunch atheist, he decided to attend church with me on a Saturday evening because I had to play and he didn’t want to sit home alone. Something touched him in the service and he went up for Communion. He said he felt close to the God he didn’t beleive in and it was comforting for him to be there. He made an appointment to meet with the priest during the week but unfortunately the Roman Catholic priest alluded that he was not welcome there but, God bless anyway. What a missed opportunity for both. Most often the biggest problem with the church are its clergy because they lack the courage to do the right thing for fear of being accused of doing the wrong thing. Not to act is to act and everyone loses. It is easy to do the wrong thing then blame the one you are ostracizing. They protest too much.
6) As I mentioned earlier, going to church may help you find purpose. An active church can provide you with the opportunity to volunteer to help where it’s needed, a way of intentionally focusing on something transcendent and on becoming a more loving person while helping others. Church’s can be a great place for social gathering, too. People are usually warm, friendly and accepting, at least in a good church! They may have groups that interest you and even have some missions which for you, even as a non-believer, you can participate in toward helping others in need. That is what is most fulfilling in life; having purpose and helping others. When two hurricanes hit my area I was volunteering to answer a suicide hotline and was moved up to handling a disaster relief hotline for FEMA. I did that for about three weeks, seven days a week, about ten hours a day. Albeit exhausting, it was a very rewarding time for me.
7) The point of the sermon on Sunday of any church is to learn how to apply scripture to your life. This is a simple concept but many clergy think they have to be creative, gimmicky and entertaining and often miss the mark of breaking open the Word. Even if you don’t beleive that scripture is true spiritually or historically, there is great philosophy in the teachings of both the old and new testaments. Even if you don’t believe in God, you can agree to a lot of the values found in scripture as great truths. Many of the stories have great lessons and you can find answers to many of your concerns and problems therein. Our lives become the stories that we listen to and re-tell. If you don’t want to take the time to read the bible, start with the Jefferson Bible which is comprised of only the words of Jesus (the red words). That can be very inspiring for those without a lot of time to weed through the historical and cultural detritus of scripture.
As long as you are not attending church to cause a disturbance, I would encourage going. The social, psychological, and spiritual benefits of participating in the liturgy and a community can be inspiring. If nothing else, you will get free food and coffee after the service. That brings up a couple of other more over the top reasons to go.
8) The bible is loaded with good horror stories. In the Bible, you can find stories of unsurpassed cruelty: murder, rape, incest, torture, slavery, cruelty to women and children, witchcraft, angry gods, natural disasters, plagues, wars, duels, mutilations, crucifixions, more blood than you can shake a stick at, and of course, eternal torment! Much of Hollywood’s success comes straight out of the Bible. If you like horror, lust and greed, the bible is a great read.
9) Church is a great place for stand-up comedy. Practically every page of the bible has something funny, ironic, dry or revealing in it if you look for it. Preachers are willing to say anything from their pulpits! Many of them start off their homily with a joke and the comedy doesn’t end there either. Seeing some fundamental clerics affirm with a straight face their literal belief in a Noah’s ark, that dinosaurs didn’t exist (a distraction planted there by old Scratch himself) or that the sun was “stopped” until some Jews won a battle, is hilarious! Yes, churches can provide hours and hours of knee-slapping entertainment if you know what to look for!
In some churches, you absolutely cannot be a member or be welcome to participate in the liturgy if you are not baptized, a member, affirming or have jumped through some other corporate hoops. The Roman Catholics have many restrictions, the Episcopalians are more welcoming and lax, some churches require background checks (they don’t want sinners), women are second class citizens in some, some are just cold, some don’t like gays, while the Unitarians will take anyone. Do some research, that might be half of the fun. Visit a different church each week, take pictures and review them on Google or Yelp and talk about the music, homily, people, art, food, windows, flowers, whatever.
In the end, you may discover that some of your hookah-smoking and beer-drinking buddies are church mice. You can share many a night around a fire-pit with those people discussing the spirituality of STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER and THE LION or THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE or STARGATE. It can become something you’ll never want to give up because even if you still don’t beleive, you’re a family. Whatever brings people together is worth exploring.
So, come, all are welcome. Well, not everyone, everywhere but, try. If they don’t want you, shake the dust from your feet as you leave (That’s from scripture. It was Jesus’ polite way of saying, well, I can’t say it).