I’ve recently seen several posts, giving various reasons why people found it emotionally difficult to go to church and in some cases had stopped. It’s happened to coincide with a few things in my personal study, so I thought I should touch on the topic. It’s one where – for all the difficulty I have with empathy – I think I’m in some position to understand. I too find church difficult at times. Part of this is simply due to the fact that I find groups difficult anyway (thankfully people in my ward are very understanding about this). On some occasions, however, I do run into the same difficulty that I’ve seen mentioned: namely the emphasis the Church places on the family. I’m a 35 year old never married male, in a Church where one prominent leader taught that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”*. Nor do I particularly have a litany of successes outside the “home”. So when the topic turns to families, or eternal marriage, or whatever, it’s hard not to feel like some sort of failure. And I know there’s quite a lot of people in different circumstances who experience similar feelings of falling short.
I’ve seen some attempts to regard this as some sort of cultural difficulty, as opposed to a doctrinal matter. Yet I do not believe that can resolve everything. While there are definitely sentiments and so on out there that are the product of culture, culture isn’t exactly something that can be easily or swiftly steered, and certainly isn’t easily amenable to central direction (I can only imagine that governments would love to if they could). Furthermore, this isn’t just an issue of culture: the importance of the family, the covenant of eternal marriage and so on are matters of doctrine, and they’re ones the world needs to hear. At a time when such matters are increasingly depreciated in Western civilisation, the Church would be failing in its divine responsibility were it not to speak frequently on these topics. The Church’s message is true and needed, even if it may cause discomfort in those who’d like those blessings but who have not received them. There’s a dilemma here that reminds me of Jacob 2 and 3, where (as I mention) Jacob is left having to give a message that may cause some distress because other people need to hear it.
And, after all, this is not the only such thing that may cause discomfort in attending church. I’ve mentioned my own personal difficulty around groups of people. Others may feel they don’t fit in, or face some other anxiety about their situation. Many have their crosses to bear, in many cases through no fault of their own. While others can perhaps make these things easier, ultimately some individuals will be faced with choosing between attending church and incurring some discomfort, and choosing not to.
I can understand the latter decision. But I believe it is a mistake, and one perhaps grounded in a misunderstanding of what attending church is supposed to do. From the way that I’ve heard a number of people speak, there seems to be an expectation that attending church is something we do for our sake, so we feel uplifted or edified or so on. With that expectation, it is understandable that people may conclude that if it is not doing that, well, why go?
It is true that one of the purposes of meeting together is to be “instruct[ed] and edif[ied]” (D&C 43:8) and “speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (Moroni 6:5). But if that were the only reason, well we’d often fall short. To quote Bruce R. McConkie:
…We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that’s all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don’t get anything to speak of.
On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sure, it’s an opportunity to be uplifted and enlightened, and when that happens: great! But the Lord has chosen in his wisdom to staff the place with very imperfect volunteers, and so we don’t always deliver what other people need. We should try harder, of couse. But if we were to assess the Church as if we were some sort of consumer, expecting a service to be delivered, then we are bound to be disappointed.
But that’s not why the Lord has us meet together, certainly not as mere recipients of a service. Setting aside the fact that the Lord also expect us to seek to teach and encourage others also, the scriptures give us a number of other key reasons to worship together.
Firstly, it’s a commandment. If we believe in a God who has given us commandments, we have to take seriously scriptural statements that “the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft” (Alma 6:6), or (as part of a modern decalogue) the commandment “and that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9).
Secondly, as in the verse quoted above, its an opportunity to participate in sacred ordinances, most especially that of the sacrament. Participating in this is likewise a commandment, one we are to “always observe to do” (3 Nephi 18:6-7, 10-12, D&C 20:75), and a major reason for the Church to “meet together oft” (Moroni 6:6).
Thirdly, and encompassing the points mentioned above, we are to gather together not to receive a service, but to worship. The “children of God” were commanded to meet together often to “join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God” (Alma 6:5–6). They “assemble[d] themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually” (Alma 15:17). The church established by Alma at the waters of Mormon had “one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together” (Mosiah 18:25). As the commandment in Section 59 elaborates (v.10):
For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;
None of these other purposes really depend upon what other people do or feel or say. Other people might be insensitive, or unthoughtful, or unsupportive or even judgmental (though I often find people worry about being “judged” by a congregation who are actually far more worried about their own problems). We may not fit in; they may not like us; we may not enjoy it; we may not feel we have gotten the right “experience”; it may be uncomfortable or even painful. But none of that matters.
This is not to detract from the fact that attending church may require much more from some people than it does others. I sympathise with those facing that. I also know the Lord is just and merciful, and I have no doubt that He will recognise that, and judge (and bless) accordingly. But perhaps it will help us if we recognise that going to church is not about what other people do or feel towards us, or even about how we feel and whether we feel good or uplifted. It’s about about obeying and worshipping God, and Him only. Other people are involved because He has commanded us to worship collectively, and as part of our worship He has expectations as to how we treat them and the rest of his children. But whether we enjoy church or not, whether we fit in or not, whether we feel uplifted or not: none of this can stop us from paying our devotions to the Most High. And if we attend and reverently offer our worship, despite our difficulties, then we are doing what the Lord requires of us.
* Postscript: Interestingly, it seems that David O. McKay did not coin this particular quote, but was actually quoting a particular author. President Harold B. Lee also offered a paraphrase of this particularly quotation, which may be encouraging for those who are trying but feel like they are meeting little success in family life: “Remember, paraphrasing what President McKay said, “No success will compensate for failure in the home.” Remember also that no home is a failure as long as that home doesn’t give up.” (Emphasis from linked blog).