Church: the problems and possibilities

A newspaper’s ‘Letters Page’ can generate significant debates

Rev David Clarke

One such occurred when a life-long churchgoer shared his disenchantment with organised religion.

He wrote in this vein; ‘I’ve gone to church for over 30 years, and in that time I must have heard about 3,000 sermons.

Sign up to our daily NorthernIrelandWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

‘Yet for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them.

‘So I think I’m wasting my time, and preachers are wasting their time by preaching sermons at all!’

To the delight of the editor, the letter provoked much discussion, and the topic filled column inches for weeks.

No doubt there were some who shared the feelings of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson who once confessed that he was no great churchgoer for many reasons.

It was not just the sermon, and the first prayer that put him off but ‘the chief and effectual reason is the stuffiness’.

Then one letter persuaded the editor that it was time to declare the correspondence closed.

The letter suggested that there were real benefits in regular worship which cannot easily be quantified.

The letter read something like this: ‘I’ve been married for 30 years now.

‘In that time my wife has probably cooked 30,000 meals.

‘For the life of me I cannot recall the entire menu of a single one of those meals.

“Yet I do know this; they all nourished me and gave me the strength to do my work.

‘If my wife had not given me those meals, I would have starved.

‘Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually starved.’

In defence of the practice of church-going, the New Testament scholar T.R. Glover once wrote; ‘Your shirt was at the wash last week; it was full of water and soapsuds.

‘They are gone now, but the shirt is all the better for having had them’.

That is why the New Testament writer pleaded, ‘Let us not give up meeting together’(Hebrews 10;25).

Great things can happen even to the most reluctant worshipper.

As someone observed, ‘It is good to be on the road that the Good Physician travels, even if you have no particular intention of meeting him’.

The apostle Paul had no intention of meeting Christ on his murderous expedition to Damascus, but Christ ‘took hold’ of him (Philippians 3;12) and he – and the world - were changed.

Thomas Merton was an influential Roman Catholic thinker and writer who grew up in a non-church-going family.

For reasons that he could never articulate, he put off a girl-friend one week-end, and went to church in New York’s Broadway.

Something indescribable happened inside of him that day.

‘All I know is’, he remarked, ‘that I walked into a new world’.

It can happen to you, gentle reader.