Why People Go To Church

A few days ago, Episcopal Café posted a story on “Why People Go To Church.” A Gallup poll asked people for the top reason they attended church. Here’s how Jon White describes the results: “What was the top reason people gave for why they attended worship? Music? Volunteer opportunities? Nope. The top response was Sermons. ‘Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture’ and ‘Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life’ were nearly tied at 76% and 75% respectively.”

As the focus of my new mission is on the theological education of people preparing for ordained ministry, I am trying to think through the implications of this study for how we educate priests. I’m certainly not suggesting that a seminary’s curriculum ought to be determined by a poll. But I do wonder if we are emphasizing enough the formation of priests as preachers and teachers.

I raise this question against the backdrop of a growing frustration I have with the way many in the leadership of the Episcopal Church speak of the education of clergy. I can’t tell you how fed up I am at the numerous clergy conferences I attend where I am presented with the challenges facing our church, and then given managerial solutions to these problems. The presentations usually come with power point slides filled with trends, statistics, and polls (!); warmed over business school ideas from a decade or two ago (if I hear another reference to Jim Collins’ Good to Great I might choke); and a sprinkling of inspirational quotations that seem cut and paste from wikiquote.

The underlying problem, as I see it, with these presentations is the idea that clergy need to be better managers. I’m not saying that clergy ought to be poor managers. I am saying that holding up a managerial ideal of priestly leadership as something to be esteemed in the church is deeply problematic. It downplays the roles of preacher and teacher, which are inextricably dependent upon and shaped by the particular faith, practices, disciplines, hopes, habits, dispositions and virtues of the Christian tradition, and lifts up the role of bureaucratic manager, which, in its supposed appeal to facts and efficiency, is utterly devoid of theological content.

In Alistair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, he shows how the ideal character of “The Manager” is tied to a fractured and fragmented society that lacks the intellectual resources to make coherent moral claims. In such a society, the prevailing moral philosophy is emotivism, which “is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” When a society feels that it can no longer provide rational justification for objective and impersonal moral claims, we are left with people expressing their preferences and asserting their wills. In such an emotivist society, the bureaucratic manager is esteemed, because absent any rational criteria by which we can distinguish between right and wrong, manipulative and non-manipulative exercises of power, bureaucratic authority appeals precisely to its own effectiveness. And what this appeal reveals is that the authority of “The Manager” is nothing other than successful power.

Which is to say, I do not think it a good idea to have as a goal for theological education the formation of clergy as good managers. The church is not an emotivist society. I’d rather try to train priests as preachers and teachers, who are captive to the Word of God and loyal to the faith and practice of the Church, than efficient managers of a group of people who can only tell us what they feel and try to jockey for power.

In After Virtue, MacIntyre also identifies two other characters that are esteemed in emotivist societies: “The Therapist” and “The Rich Aesthete.” I rather think an analogy to the ideal character of “The Therapist” is easily seen in the church today. Stanley Hauerwas has already pointed out the problems of seeing clergy as “quivering masses of availability,” and Gregory Jones has spoken of the “therapeutic captivity of the church,” so there is no need to cover that ground again. And yet, I still see church leaders excusing a lack of serious theological education in the name of clergy being “pastoral.” Again, I’m not claiming that priests shouldn’t be good pastors. I am saying that holding up a therapeutic ideal of priestly leadership (under the guise of being “pastoral”) as something to be esteemed in the church is deeply problematic. It ignores the moral wisdom of the Christian tradition that could actually help people with the confusion and chaos that causes so much pain in modern life, and offers not much more than a Rogerian acceptance and positive regard for preferences that have been formed more by the crassness and cruelness of contemporary society than the beloved community of Jesus’ disciples.

{I’m not too sure if there is an analogy to MacIntyre’s character of “The Rich Aesthete” to be found in the Episcopal Church today. Perhaps there may be something like this in the way many clergy turn liturgy into a fetish. However, I haven’t thought this one through. Let me know your thoughts. Any analogies to “The Rich Aesthete” in the church today?}

The Gallup poll is pointing to something important. The top reasons people go to church are for the sermons. I think these reasons are pointing to a deeper desire to participate in the distinctive faith and practices of the church because good preaching and teaching are inextricably tied to the specifics of the Christian tradition. Ideals of theological education which seek to form priests as “good managers” and “good therapists” are lacking from this perspective and will not meet the genuine needs of the Christian community. They may also indicate that the church has become more like our generalized emotivist society than we care to admit. I rather think an educational ideal that esteems clergy as good preachers and teachers will do a lot better. I suspect such an ideal may produce better leaders and pastors as well. I’m not saying that a theological curriculum should be determined by a poll. But I do think regular churchgoers are telling us something very important in the reasons they give for going to worship. The leadership of the church ought to listen to them.







6 thoughts on “Why People Go To Church

  1. Very thoughtfully expressed, Joe. In my 40+ years as an Episcopalian in fewer than 10 Episcopal churches in 3 states (just to give a framework for what I will say next!), it seems to me that priests generally fall into one of three categories: Good shepherd, Good preacher, Good CEO. In larger churches, it is effective to have priests who can cover each of the three bases; in smaller churches that can only afford one priest, a church is very lucky if it can find a priest with 2 of the 3 attributes. Perhaps ideally, a “CEO” type can be culled from the congregation to serve on Vestry and maybe as Senior Warden to advise the Good shepherd/Good preacher priest on the management and stewardship of church assets. So, from my limited perspective, it seems to me that if we are to raise up effective priests, it would be lovely to focus on sermons and shepherding. However, at the end of the day, perhaps it comes down to the talents that God gives to each seminarian. Some are just born preachers or born shepherds or born CEOs. I hope that seminaries can provide a good blueprint for each of these three fields while encouraging and growing the particular talents that each seminarian brings to our Episcopal faith.

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  2. I would, I am pretty sure, go to church even if I didn’t care for the sermons, but I go to church with enthusiasm and regret missing, when the sermons are excellent. And excellent, for me, means being entertaining enough to catch my attention, and then challenging me and making me think – ideally in ways that hadn’t occurred to me. Until the two of you came to St. Anne’s, we had not had a rector who (in my opinion) delivered consistently excellent sermons since Ed Berger, and I was a young teen when he left, so my concept of a good sermon then was probably pretty different from my view now. You were (are) both consistently excellent – different but both wonderfully good. By the way, Tim has so far seemed to me to be very good. Now pastoral care is quite important to me too – the times when we really needed it in the past, St Anne’s clergy was very good. The Therapist is an important role. I suppose the reason for the emphasis on business school type education for seminarians is because for a lot (most?) of people who go to seminary, “management” is not natural. It requires a different mindset. And being the rector of a large parish does inevitably involve management. (which the two of you were also good at here). Actually, at the Naval Academy, we call it “leadership.” “Management” is (at least was in my time) a dirty word at USNA. We academics thought that there was a lot of BS in the Leadership Curriculum (as did a lot of the mids). There are some things to be learned about dealing with and leading people, of course, but I would certainly hate to have seminary education dominated by that material. Good theological education (so the preacher has something to say) and good delivery of that material (so I pay attention to the message) are what draws me to church and stimulates me.

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    1. Dear Eric, thanks very much. Your response is quite helpful and important, informed as it is by your experience in the Episcopal Church and the USNA. I agree, and I hope I did say, that I think priests should be good leaders and pastors as well as good preachers and teachers. However, I want to also point out, drawing on the work of MacIntyre, that ideals of clergy as “Manager” and “Therapist,” are deeply problematic because these characters have currency in emotivist societies (i.e., ones that no longer have the intellectual and moral resources to address substantive moral issues). The ideal characters of “Manager” and “Therapist” flourish in a societies that reduce all moral statements to expressions of personal preference. I very much think that the Christian tradition does in fact have the intellectual and moral resources to speak about things realistically and coherently and is not an emotivist society. I think the desire expressed in the Gallup poll for good sermons is not a desire to hear the personal preferences of the preacher, but to hear something that is true and meaningful. This is an important indication that people don’t come to church to participate in an emotivist society, but in a community and a tradition that is larger than their own preferences and connects them with God, the world, and other people. I don’t see how one can be a good preacher and teacher without participation in this larger tradition. I, therefore, also want priests to be good leaders and good pastors, but with the very important provision that their leadership and the pastoral care are deeply rooted in the same Christian tradition. I know from experience and from the history of the Church that priests can be very good leaders and pastors, as well as preachers and teachers in this sense. My worry, and it is a serious worry, is that the current penchant of many of the leaders of the church today to grasp onto “managerial and therapeutic” ideals for clergy that have cache in our emotivist society but little to no grounding in the Christian tradition is not a good thing. It betrays a lack of knowledge of the Christian tradition and a lack of confidence that the church has something true, distinctive and transformative to say. This is not good formation for clergy and will not be good for the church. Check out MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Love to know what you think. Grace and peace, Joe


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