Justin Bieber famously got his start in the music industry at the age of thirteen after being discovered on YouTube. Several multi-platinum R&B records later, he is now twenty-one, and frequently mocked on Late Night for his bad boy antics, which include: vandalism, an arrest for drag racing his Ferrari while intoxicated, and carrying a pet monkey with him wherever he goes. In a recent interview with Complex magazine, the Biebs attempts to reinvent himself as a self-aware recording artist and emerging adult.
Portions of the interview in which Bieber talks about his Evangelical Christian faith have gone viral. In Complex, Bieber says that he loves Jesus and wants to be like him, and that Christians have left “a bad taste in people’s mouths” by being “overly pushy with the subject, overly churchy and religious.” At this point, I think everyone is tracking. He then says, “It doesn’t make you a Christian just by going to church.”
Finally, he drops the following analogy, which has since spread online, “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell that doesn’t make you a taco.”
It feels a little unfair to parse the words of Justin Bieber, but wouldn’t it be more analogous to say, if going to Taco Bell doesn’t make you a taco, then going to church doesn’t make you a communion wafer? A is to B as C is to D. Hell, I don’t know.
But the larger question is a good one: “Does going to church make someone a Christian?” Certainly, it doesn’t make them a saint. Someone could be an evil person who goes to church every Sunday, or a living saint, whose shadow has never darkened the door.
And yet, the Millennial generation, of which I am a part, can be too quick to dismiss churchgoing as a meaningless exercise in keeping up appearances. We are a sometimes spiritual, but never religious generation. When it comes to religious affiliation we are Generation None. Justin Bieber is emblematic of a larger culture of Americans who think that we don’t need worship, organized religion, or church.
But isn’t that precisely what we need?
Christians go to Church to Worship
For one thing, to be a follower of Jesus is to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s to go to a sacred place, designated by the community (or by God) and bow down before the Almighty. In the not too distant past, going to church for worship was considered by many to be the most important thing they did all week. Jesus went to temple. So we do as he did. We go to an appointed place at an appointed time, and stand before a mystery. We confess that there is a God and we are not it.
However, we don’t simply go because it is what we have always done, though there is something very primal and ancient about this gesture. We go to church to pay obeisance to the God that created us. That is, to acknowledge the order of the cosmos, and the reality that we are dependent upon that order.
And we don’t go alone. We go as part of a community, or body. As Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). After all, the Holy Spirit didn’t descend upon one apostle, it descended upon all of them. When we go to church to worship, then, we situate ourselves within a cosmology, or theoretical framework, that helps us understand what it means to live life as a follower of Jesus.
Of course, this idea of ritualized worship doesn’t fit so well with the modernist assumption that reduces Christianity to an ethic. There is definitely an ethic involved. But the reductive move of equating Christianity with a social ethic is typically followed by the evacuation of all that is Christian, never taking too long to examine what that ethic would actually look like without the Gospel to inform it. The famous passage from James (2:14-26), “Faith without works is dead” assumes faith as its starting point. Without a firm foundation in the teachings of Jesus and a community with a memory to perpetuate those teachings, we’re left with a vestigial ethic, or vague compassion, which may be easily done away or misinterpreted when times get tough.
Christians Go to Church to be Formed
At its best, then, the theoretical framework of the liturgy not only demonstrates to us our place, before God, and in the universe—it also helps situate us in a practical or ethical framework. Most Americans thinks that religious practice is expressive rather than formative. We have little sense of what is being expressed, and none at all that the expression is itself formative.
But it is. Christians don’t go to church to express how great we are, but rather how small. We don’t go because we’re “good”, “nice”, “decent” people who want other people to know what good, nice, and decent people we are. We go to admit our dependence and need. We go because it’s the last place on earth (except perhaps the therapist’s office) where it’s socially acceptable to cry in public, or to say out loud that we’re sinners in need of mercy, or broken and in need of healing.
My Catholicism is not unlike a twelve-step program. I go to Mass week after week, like a drunk goes to AA, because I need to. I don’t usually feel like it, and occasionally I miss, but mostly I keep coming back to get my chip.
I kneel, not because I’m humble, but because I’m proud. I pray, not because I have all the answers, but because I’m seeking them. I exchange the Sign of Peace, not because I love my neighbor, but because Jesus tells me to.
Ideally, going to church and participating in the liturgy—saying the same words that have been repeated for thousands of years—is about being formed in virtue and schooled in faith. And it doesn’t always work; the formation often takes a lifetime, sometimes more, so we keep at it.
I don’t know if God needs my prayers, but I know that I do. The act of praying, with all of my beauty and ugliness exposed, brings me closer to the truth of my life and the reality of God’s transformative grace.
To go to church is an act of self-love, but it’s also an act of self-accusation. Maybe that’s why I often don’t want to go. And yet, without self-accusation (in the light of God’s love), you can never really know who you are, you can never really be free.
Catholics, like Jews, are more comfortable than Evangelical Christians with this emphasis on ritual and practice. Mary Karr recently said of her faith on NPR, “For me, being a Catholic, is a set of activities.” I think that’s right. It’s not a state of grace, but rather a pilgrimage, or way, with all the pitfalls that such a journey entails.
Someone can be a non-practicing Jew, or a fallen-away Catholic, because a life of faith in these communities doesn’t demand perfection for participation. You can live the life, in the midst of a faith crisis or dark night of the soul. You can keep showing up, even when you’ve lost your way.
I wonder if anyone in my generation would say you could be a yogi without ever doing yoga, or a mountain climber who doesn’t climb? Or if Justin Bieber would say you don’t need to write music and perform it, in order to be a performer? There is something about going out there, under the lights, and doing the work, that’s so different from staying home and singing in the shower.
Either way, I’m off to church.
Anna Keating is the co-author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to The Daily Acts That Make Up A Catholic Life (available from Penguin Random House wherever books are sold this February). She runs thecatholiccatalogue.com and co-owns and lives above Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio in Colorado.