Selfish reasons and selfless reasons to go to Mass

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: 

In an article entitled, “Why Middle-Aged Americans Aren’t Going Back to Church,” published in the August 1, 2023 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Clare Ansberry wrote that “Church attendance for Gen Xers has dropped off more dramatically than other age groups. Americans in their 40s and 50s often identify with a religion, but they’re also in the thick of raising kids, caring for aging parents and juggling demanding jobs.” 

Citing a survey of 2,000 adults conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, the article says that the “percentage of people ages 39 to 57 who attended a worship service during the week, either in person or online, fell to 28% in 2023, down from 41% in 2020,” the largest percentage-point drop of all age groups examined in the survey.

Well, Gen Xers are not the first generation needing to deal with the demands of raising children, caring for aging parents, and juggling demanding jobs. In fact, Gallup Poll reports that church attendance levels have been declining for decades across generations, with less than half of U.S. adults belonging to houses of worship in 2020, compared with 70% in 1999. So why are people not coming to church?

People quoted in the article offered lame excuses rather than convincing reasons for not going to church. For example, John Newman, 41, a Catholic who lives in the Chicago area but no longer attends Mass, said he stopped going to church because he disagreed with the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. He said, “I’m not interested in hearing those sermons.”

Well, the Bible tells us that a lot of people walked away from Jesus because they did not like the way He challenged them to repent and live a virtuous life.

Marlon Eddins, 45, who was raised Baptist but now attends a nondenominational church in Memphis, Tennessee, says, “I go to church, but not as often as I probably should. . . . When you got faith, you got faith. I just don’t think going every Sunday makes you who you are.”

Attitudes such as these reflect an understanding of religion described as moralistic therapeutic deism, a term that was first introduced in the 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by the sociologist Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton. The authors describe moralistic therapeutic deism as being “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent,” as opposed to being about things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering,” and further as “belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs – especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” In fact, moralistic therapeutic deism places belief in a false god, not the God of Christian faith.

While studies have shown that there are therapeutic benefits to going to church, in the end coming to Mass is not ultimately about therapy or making us feel good. 

So why should we go to church? Well, there are selfish reasons and selfless reasons, which we might also call imperfect reasons and prefect reasons. What do I mean by that? Well, we refer to an imperfect act of contrition as being sorry for our sins because we do not want to go to hell. A perfect act of contrition, on the other hand, is to be sorry for our sins because they offend God.

Similarly, an imperfect or selfish reason for going to church is because we do not want to go to hell, since missing Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin. Intentionally missing Mass on Sunday without a valid excuse-such as serious illness-is a mortal sin because the Third Commandment of the Decalogue commands us to keep holy the Sabbath, which for Catholics means to go to Mass on Sunday. Refusing to keep God’s commandments is an act of disobedience by which we are not only rejecting what we are obliged to do, but spurning the God who gave us these commandments, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden.

Our obligation to go to Mass on Sunday is a matter of justice. The virtue of justice means to give others what is due or owed to them. We owe worship to God to thank Him for creating us, for sending Jesus to forgive our sins, and for sharing His love with us. Failing to give to God the worship that we are obliged to offer as a matter of justice is deadly to our relationship with Him, hence it is a mortal sin.

A perfect or selfless reason to go to church is to express our thanks, praise, and love for God in return for His creation and for the love He has shared with us and continues to share with us in the Real Presence of Christ who comes into our hearts every time we receive Holy Communion at Mass. Going to Mass also expresses our love for our neighbor, since our presence helps to support and strengthen the faith of the other members of the community of faith.

It is virtuous to go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation since a virtue is something good that we do out of habit. People of faith who love God and their neighbors in the community of faith do not even have to think twice about whether to go to Mass, since there is no question that this is something we must do as a matter of love. In the end, we should want to go to Mass because we want to spend eternity with God and all the angels and saints in heaven.May God give us this grace. Amen.