There is much sociological data on this question, but when I look back on my life to identify the factors that are most responsible for my membership in the church, two pop up as particularly significant, and stand as lessons for the local church.
Before I tell you about them, let me warn you what they are not. There is no religious tenet, no theological precept, no liturgical form and no supernatural event that has ever swayed me toward the church. In fact, religion has been a barrier to my participation since at least the age of 7 when my Sunday School teacher tried to convince me that Noah managed to save all the world’s fauna in a big boat.
Despite all of the (what seemed like) religious nonsense, from clergy and laity alike, that had me of the opinion that the church was a place I did not belong, here I am. If I did not have parents who were dedicated church members, and who forced me to church every Sunday, I would not have ever entered a church in the first place; yet when I went off to university thinking I would never have to get up on a Sunday morning again, I soon found myself back at church, singing in the choir. Why?
The first factor was cultural. I went to a small town Methodist church with a congregation typically numbering between 50 and 70, with not a lot of other children – maybe 10-20 on average. The people of the congregation helped me to feel I belonged there. In the first place, children were incorporated into the service, and were not sent out to Sunday School; thus avoiding the mistake so many churches make; namely, giving the impression that church is only for adults. Then, after worship, ALL AGES went to Sunday School, so again, the children were assured that Sunday School was not just for kids, but it was something everyone did no matter how old.
In the second place, helped by being a small-town church, it seemed like everyone knew me and spoke to me. This communicated to me that I was not just a kid; I was a real person, an individual with a name who was an identifiable member of the group. It was s simple thing, but it has stayed with me, and now 65 years later, I am still grateful for the the people of that church for helping me to feel I belonged, even though I couldn’t believe what they believed (or what I thought they believed).
The second significant act took place 20 years later in Australia. On my first Sunday after immigrating to this sunburnt land, I went to church to the first congregation on my list of those to try. (I was determined to find a congregation that had a more progressive feel than my last one). After church, an older couple invited me home for lunch to my very first experience of spaghetti on toast. After this gracious act: an invitation to a perfect stranger home to a rather humble lunch, there was no way I was going to continue my church-shopping. This act of hospitality had me hooked, and I had found my church home. As with my childhood experience, I had been helped to feel I belonged.
From an outsider’s point of view, these would be so insignificant, they would escape notice, but they forever changed me and my perception of the church. Although I would not have used the words then, Jesus had been made real to me.
There are other factors of lesser impact than the two I listed above, and they all involve special individuals who have communicated, in one form or another, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth; his wisdom, his compassion, his inclusiveness, his courage and the ultimate desirability of the kingdom he proclaimed. Of particular note are those who have demonstrated to me the intellectual integrity of Jesus’ message, which in turn, led me into ministry. To these people I am most grateful.