I have belonged to many churches in my fifty-seven years, beginning with St. Pius X in Warren, Ohio, and most recently to both a Presbyterian congregation and a Catholic parish. I hear at least a hundred sermons a year, and the act of listening to a priest or a pastor expound on Scripture is always good, even if the sermon isn't.
Going to church, I've learned, is a gift-a gift that teaches us how to give to others. Everyone-every single person reading this and every person in the world-needs to belong to a church no matter whether they believe or not.
First, church gives its members a regular occasion for concentration on the biggest questions of them all – questions that have been asked since the beginning of time for the simple reason that we are made to wonder about this world and our places in it. Those questions and that wondering are not served-reliably and seriously-anywhere except in a church. And thus that deep, deep hunger is fed only through life within a body devoted to answering these enormous questions of why the world is the way it is and how we ought to live in it.
The second gift a church gives is a community of people-far from like-minded and usually very diverse in terms of social and economic backgrounds-who are inclined to care about these big questions and because of that inclination to act in particularly civil ways. Real communities are very hard to come by. Workplaces are organized for profit, and neighborhoods are far from the stable, multi-relational centers of life they were even a few decades ago. Not so the church.
Church begins by offering the gifts of important conversations and real community, but for those who stay longer than a few weeks, it soon begins to teach gift giving, whether it is some- thing as simple as teaching Sunday school to three-year-olds or helping out with the ushering, or second-level gift giving of dollar contributions or mission work, or third-level commitments of fellowship in a small group or an international mission. A healthy church will be all about gift giving and learning to give. And before you know it, you will be both giving and receiving in quantities you had never ever imagined.
Energy, enthusiasm, and gratitude-three of the seven gifts outlined in my book The Happiest Life-should be evident in every worship service, even the most contemplative. Prayer and singing, the readings and indeed every aspect of church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, should be infused with these gifts, though, of course, we are susceptible to "going through the motions." The great worship director or liturgist, the terrific priest-homilist or preacher will be known for the energy and enthusiasm in proclaiming the gospel, and every participant will at least say the words of gratitude that are at the heart of every Christian service, thus setting the tone for a week ahead lived in accordance with the practices of collective worship.
Generosity is a learned behavior. The habits of giving and volunteering that are part and parcel of almost every Sunday school in the country do not go unabsorbed by the children on whom they are conferred and to whom they are modeled.
How much happier people would be if, regardless of their beliefs, they showed up at the same church most every Sunday, said the same prayers, chatted with the same people, heard the same sermons, attended the same potlucks.
Listen to me. This is the key to renewing your life if you are unhappy. Pick a church. Practically any church. Go and go and go again and again and again. Even if you are shy, force yourself to say hello to the greeter and find a second gathering there-a Bible study, a class, a lecture-and go again. After a month you will have seamlessly evolved into a churchgoer and your life will be almost inestimably better.
There are huge theological divisions between churches, but they hardly matter if you are unchurched. Here's my advice: pick the biggest church within five miles of your apartment or house and just go there. Stick there for a year. Then decide if you need to change because of theology. If you are a cradle Catholic, find your closest Catholic parish. Familiarity will make the first few visits easier on you even if you are shy beyond belief.
People want to talk about God and about this crazy world with all its terrors and pains. And people do talk about God and about this crazy world with all its terrors and pains, every Sunday and often throughout the week.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show heard in more than seventy cities nationwide and a professor of law at Chapman University Law School. He is the New York Times best-selling author of If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat. Hewitt received three Emmys during his decade of work as cohost of PBS Los Angeles affiliate KCET's nightly news and public affairs show Life & Times. He is a weekly columnist for The Daily Standard, WorldNetDaily.com, and the online edition of The Weekly Standard. His website is www.hughhewitt.com. "The Happiest Life" is published by Thomas Nelson.