Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Why people attend an evangelical church

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Among the frequent misperceptions about Christians in general, but about evangelicals especially, is that we're rather simple, mindless creatures who accept unquestioningly the existence of God and every tenet our churches teach.

I've always found this caricature lazy at best, condescending at worst. Anyone who sees evangelicals that way hasn't bothered to actually know many of them.

It's true that evangelicals sometimes proclaim, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." In daily life, though, this typically works itself out as, "Maybe God said it. I kind of believe it, today. I'm not sure what it settles."

Lately, I ran across two pieces online—an op-ed on the New York Times' Web site and an "On Faith" video on the Washington Post's site—that emphasized how nuanced evangelicals' faith can be.

In the Times, T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, wrote about her lengthy study of evangelicals. Theologically liberal Christians (not to mention secularists) often misunderstand what drives these other disciples, she said.

For instance, Luhrmann found that evangelicals tend to embrace religion for its practical benefits more than to resolve abstract, philosophical questions.

"Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists," Luhrmann wrote. "In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God's realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: 'I don't believe it, but I'm sticking to it. That's my definition of faith.' "

Theological liberals and secularists, Luhrmann said, assume that people go to church because they strongly believe in God and a set of tenets.

"And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches," she said. "I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it."

That's what she meant by evangelicals being more concerned with the practical. They wanted to fix a problem, such as their lack of joy. They weren't automatically sure God was real or that all their church's teachings were accurate.

The same day I read Luhrmann's essay, I happened across a video interview by the Washington Post's Sally Quinn with Kay Warren, cofounder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., which draws 20,000 worshipers each week.

Kay Warren is married to Rick Warren, Saddleback's senior pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life. They're evangelical poster children.

Quinn asked if Warren ever entertained doubts about God's existence.

"More than once. Absolutely," she said. "There are times that I feel like it's all a big cosmic joke, you know?"

She didn't mention it in this interview, but Warren has endured two life-threatening bouts with cancer. In April, months after the interview was taped last August, the Warrens' youngest son shot himself following a long struggle with mental illness.

Quinn asked how Warren would eventually like to be remembered.

"I think I would be very happy if somebody said that she was a seriously disturbed and gloriously ruined woman who chose to live her life with joy," Warren said.

Which echoed Luhrmann's explanation of why many evangelicals attend church: for the joy it offers, more than for the sure-fire answers it tries to promote.

Quinn asked how Warren could reconcile human suffering with Christians' belief in a loving God. Warren said she couldn't, that the older she got and the longer she endeavored to serve the Lord, the less she possessed answers for much of anything.

Still, "for me," she said, "I would rather ... walk in the darkness with a God who in some ways remains a mystery, than to try to walk in complete daylight without him."

These might not be the responses you'd expect from a visible and respected evangelical leader. But they're common sentiments. I've heard the same thoughts within my own congregation.

There are many reasons people attend evangelical churches.

An absolutist, lockstep faith is not the most common. Some people have that kind of faith. They're a minority.

The rest of us go to church because we believe more than we don't believe. There's a seed of faith, or else we might as easily have joined Rotary or a book club instead. But many evangelicals are critical thinkers, and struggle with their beliefs.

We also go to church because a well-functioning congregation becomes a family. Sometimes it's literally so; people attend with their parents or kids. Yet it's still a family if we don't have any kin there. We're spiritual brothers and sisters. Church is, or should be, a place you're welcome even if you're "seriously disturbed and gloriously ruined."

We go to church because it's uplifting. Usually it imparts joy and strength, and challenges us toward higher standards.

We go to church to build up our lagging faith. As with Warren, many of us feel that a feeble, imperfect belief is preferable to our own alternative: bitterness or nihilism. That said, we'd like our faith to grow stronger.

We go to church because, in a frequently unforgiving society, it provides hope, redemption and healing. A lot of us have gotten our fractured souls put back together, and then have been able to help others.

I once heard a critic sniff that our brand of Christianity was merely a "crutch."

A buddy of mine, a new convert, beamed, nodded vigorously and said, "Yes! Exactly! When you're crippled, a crutch looks pretty good!"