“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
Every week, millions of people all over the world attend some form of church service — whether it be at a historic inner-city building, a sparkling suburban structure, or a secret underground location. For many Christians, Sunday morning marks a time of reflection and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s also a time to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of other believers. Among many African Americans in the inner city, “remembering the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) is a prerequisite to starting the week off correctly.
It’s true that many of us attend church out of tradition or a sense of obligation. However, anything worth practicing — and anything valued enough to perform repetitively — is worth understanding. Which leads me to a question that may seem unnecessary on the surface but that is fraught with meaning for the living of our faith: Why do we attend church?
For many, the question is superfluous — the Bible commands we go to church, so we do it. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” meaning that we should often afford ourselves the opportunity to join with other Christian men and women. Some Christians agree with that notion and some do not; however, it is relatively easy to conclude that many of us attend church because it is a part of our family upbringing or because of what the church represents to our society and our communities.
I believe the truth about our theology as churchgoers is deeply rooted in our upbringing. It is apart of our cultural matrix.
We attend church because our parents attended or because our families have been members of a particular church for years. It represents a place where we all come together in fellowship and worship. One could survey any given church and interview countless parishioners capable of testifying about the positive experiences afforded to their families because of their commitment to attending service.
Ultimately we can, throughout history, point to the church as a place that has allowed all of God’s children to be a family. Even during slavery, the church represented the one place where the slave family might be allowed to go together. Slaves attended the church of their masters, and as long as the family worked on the same plantation, they could generally be assured that Sundays represented a small space in time where they could be with their families and be encouraged through the singing of spirituals and the presentation of God’s Word, and particularly what it had to say about true freedom and justice.
In the book Preaching to the African American Middle Class, pastor and homiletics professor Marvin McMickle writes: “What better way is there to view the ministry of churches in inner-city areas than as agents that both prolong life and help to avoid decay in communities where almost every other business and institution has abandoned the area?”
McMickle goes on to observe how in the wake of middle-class flight from cities, churches survive as some of the few institutions left in blighted communities, often next to barbershops, beauty salons, currency exchange centers, and liquor stores. “Almost everything that inner city residents need in order to have a meaningful life is located outside of their community,” he continues, “ranging from medical care to adequate shopping facilities to employment beyond minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
But, for the most part, the church remains.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis the African American church is often the only legacy institution that has not uprooted itself from the inner city. While the quality of life for many of the parishioners has increased — allowing them to relocate to suburban areas — the church has not relocated. I believe many African Americans continue to attend churches in our cities for that reason. The church has always been there as a part of the community, and it is viewed as an entity that will remain. It is a prototype of the nature of Christ in the community; its presence will remain steadfast and unmovable.
As we have changed and grown, so have our churches. The emergence of the African American middle class brought with it the emergence of the African American megachurch. Chicago, for instance, is home to several megachurches located in predominately African American urban neighborhoods. Congregations like Rev. James Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which boasts some 15,000 members, sits in the heart of the Roseland community (largely African American and partially Latino). The Apostolic Church of God, pastored by Dr. Byron Brazier, and the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, are both situated on the Southside and are predominantly African American.
Many scholars committed to the study of church growth and trends would argue that the birth of the American megachurch came as the result of suburban sprawl, social disconnectedness, and a rejection of traditional Protestant denominations and church models. However, I would argue that in the African American community the expansion of the middle-class and its members’ ability to participate as valuable consumers in society (meaning that we could now shop at the megamalls) also gave Black people the resources to support and become a part of larger church ministries.
We continue to attend church because it has managed to adapt to a changing culture, becoming more contemporary in its worship and diverse in its membership to reflect the surrounding society. But we also attend church to be rescued emotionally and spiritually from that very same society.
Any number of sociological arguments about the church’s role in society can be made. Certainly the economic incline of the parishioners and the rise of mega-entities have caused the church to change, and we can relate to the fluctuation. But because these arguments are easily debated, they do not carry as much weight as this argument: We attend church because of our love for Jesus Christ.
Countless scholars have harvested mounds of information regarding church membership, trends in church growth, and the theology of churchgoers, but none can easily refute the idea that many Christians simply love the Lord and desire to experience His Spirit in the presence of other faithful and desirous believers.
Church represents the one place in society where we can worship and praise God in our own way and with few inhibitions. While we might acknowledge the role of our families in our relationship with God, and might identify with the consistent and conversely changing roles of the church, it is beyond debate that Jesus is the number one reason that Christians continue to gather on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to demonstrate our need for spiritual renewal and our commitment to God’s Word as the guidebook for our daily lives.
This article originally appeared in Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary.