There are any number of reasons people might give for these questions if they were being completely honest. One might be duty: you go to church because it is expected of you, and you want to do the right thing. Another reason might be consequences: you think the church has the ability to make the world a better place, and you want to help bring about that outcome. But are these the best reasons for being a part of a faith community?
Let me say that I think most any reason for being a part of a church is a good one to an extent, because it puts you in a position to hear the gospel preached. Attending worship services and being in fellowship with God’s people simply places you in proximity to what God is doing through the community he has called into being to herald the coming of his kingdom. It means that you are partaking of the means of grace, even if you’re not sure why. And when we wait upon God in the means of grace, oftentimes remarkable things start to happen with us.
There is another way of thinking about our participation in the church that is quite different than duty or consequences. I would call it the “virtue approach,” using virtue in the sense of power or excellence. When we recognize that God is a God of power, that his power is manifest in the cross and that its purpose is for forgiveness and reconciliation, then we begin to have our eyes opened to the fact that there is something God wants to do with us in the community of his people. This recognition is also about the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us; and yes, it is about the power of the Spirit within the community of the church itself. The virtue of God’s grace is the power or strength of God working in us, and this virtue is always manifest for salvation.
It’s not that we don’t think of duty in terms of our religious observance. (Sometimes it is only duty that gets me out of bed in the morning.) And it’s also not that considerations of outcomes or consequences doesn’t play a role. But to think of our faith participation in terms of virtue — specifically, God’s virtue — then we are able to prioritize things in their right order. The reason to worship God and follow Jesus Christ is because of the divine joy that is wrapped up in these ways of life. Everything else follows from that. And yes, it really is that simple.
2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new is come!” In the Wesleyan tradition, we understand the meaning of this biblical claim to be that salvation is both a present and future reality. What God will do in the future is not truly up to us. But here in the present, God invites us to receive the abundance of his grace and know ourselves transformed. The gift of new birth and the journey of holiness together make up this wonderful reality — something I write more about the topics of new birth and holiness in my column in the Arkansas United Methodist. Check it out and let me know what you think.