Chapter 15: Why Join a Church?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 15: Why Join a Church?

My dear Ted:

I have often wondered what your relationship with the church actually is, but I have postponed asking you because I have felt sure that, when you were out of college and on your own, the question would come up. I welcome your letter, therefore, inquiring why you should join a church. You say that your parents are church members and that you were christened in infancy, but that you never have made a personal confession of your faith and joined a Christian congregation. Recently, you say, you heard a sermon in which the preacher compared solitary Christians, who shun church membership, with the old railroad tickets, marked "Not good if detached." Do I agree with that, you ask. Just how important is church membership? Some ministers, I suspect, would plead with you to join a church mainly because your own spiritual faith and life need the sustenance of Christian fellowship. I agree with that. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that in his heart was "a little plant called reverence, which needs watering about once a week." I will come to that aspect of the matter later, but let me start with the plea that you should join a church, not alone because you need the church but because the church needs you.

Face up, I should say, to this towering fact: churches are inevitable. In all our American communities, and in increasing numbers of communities around the world, churches are inevitable, and whether they are good or bad, efficient or inefficient, intelligent or superstitious, Christlike or bigoted, is one of the most important questions in the world. Eight hundred million Christians on earth are organized in churches -- but what kind of churches? If you expected me to argue that you should join a church simply because you are "not good if detached," you guessed wrong. I am appealing not simply to your need, but to your strength. Mankind must have better churches, and you can help.

To be sure, repeatedly in history the death of the churches has been prophesied. In 1816 John Keats said about them, "They are dying like an outburnt lamp." He forgot something. As another put it, "The first essential of a quiet funeral is a willing corpse," and the churches are certainly not that. Behind the failures which they share with every other institution, they represent something that life cannot go on without. In one form or another, good, bad, or indifferent, they are inevitable.

Listen to this from a young mother, telling what happened in one of our new American settlements: "We tried everything we could think of to make this place something other than a real estate development. We tried organized recreation, community picnics, and square dancing. We formed a women’s club and held bridge parties, and started a garden club. We had a parents’ organization and evening discussion groups. We tried everything. But it was not until the church came that we changed from a subdivision into a community and became real neighbors to one another."

So, I am inviting you: get into some church and help make it the best possible! Of course, there are some churches which I could not join -- they would not have me! And there are some churches which I ought not to join -- they stand for beliefs which seem to me incredible, or for social customs which seem to me deplorable. I could not honestly join a fundamentalist sect; and I could not conscientiously join a congregation which declines membership to anyone on grounds of race and color. Were I to live my life over again I would certainly be a minister, not because I am blind to the faults of the churches, but in part because I see so many faults, and because the adequacy, intelligence, and Christlike character of our churches are so desperately important.

Consider our sectarianism, for example. Protestantism accepted the idea that uniformity of belief is a necessary factor in a church, so that as new formulations of belief have arisen new churches have been founded to represent them, until in the United States we have over two hundred different kinds of Protestant Christians. That divisive process was carried on with the best of intentions, and churches could get away with it in the old days of isolated communities, but now that whole sectarian system is obsolete, dangerously obsolete in its effect on the total Christian cause. Get into some church and help make it interdenominational, interracial, international, with a seven-day-a-week ministry to the community, the nation, and the world, that will at least deserve the motto of one of our electric companies: "Public Service; Light and Power."

Many people, seeing the churches’ faults and failures, which you and I see, make them an excuse for bypassing all responsibility for organized Christianity. Once in New York City, when an old church building was being demolished to make way for a new one, a man riding past the ruined structure on a bus said to a friend, "This is the first time in years that I have seen the inside of a church." I wonder what that man would have said, could I have asked him whether he was concerned about our nation’s need for a renewal of powerful, ethical religion that would re-establish faith in spiritual realities and values, and elevate the standards of personal and public integrity. I suspect that he might have answered that he was concerned. But such concern in any realm, if it be sincere, always involves responsibility for some institution. If we want better education we must get better schools. If we want better children we must get better homes. If we want better justice done we must have better courts. If we want better civic conditions we must have better government. We may not like this. It brings our ideal wishes down to earth. It plunges us into difficult problems, burdens us with institutional responsibilities. It is a thousand times easier to say vaguely that we need a renewal of genuine Christianity than it is to get down to business and face the problem of where it is coming from. There is only one place it can come from. It must come from the Christian community, from renewal of life in the churches. So, Ted, of course you are going to join a church!

Let’s get at this matter from another angle. You and I are unpayably indebted to the church. The Christian Church -- let’s spell it with a capital -- combining the Judaeo-Christian faith and ethic with the best of Greek thought and culture, has, at its noblest, been the guardian of our greatest tradition, the transmitter of a priceless heritage. Our debt to that heritage for our knowledge of Christ, our belief in personality’s inherent worth, our faith in the possibility of spiritual rebirth, our achievement of freedom and democracy, is unpayable. Ted, our ancestors in Britain were at first barbarians, some of them cannibals whose relish for certain choice portions of human bodies, like well-cooked male buttocks and female breasts, is in the historic record, and it was Christian missionaries who saved our forebears from their savagery.

It is easy to forget an historic debt like that. Who was it said that creditors have better memories than debtors? A professor of history once sat at dinner beside a woman he had never met and did his best to engage her in conversation. Not wanting to talk shop, he tried every lead he could think of, to no avail. At last in despair he decided he would have to talk shop; so he said, "Are you by any chance interested in the study of history?" "Oh, my dear Professor," she answered, "I believe in letting bygones be bygones." Too many people take that attitude toward the Church, brushing aside all thought of what they owe her.

Others are extreme individualists in religion. They keep their Christianity in solitary isolation. They are occasional mystics. Sometimes they feel their spirits kindled, as it were, by a greater Spirit from above. They are religious. They even remember Scriptures, learned in childhood, which on troubled days come up out of the garnered treasures of their recollection to comfort them: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want," or in a happy mistranslation by a little child, "The Lord is my shepherd; that’s all I want." In a sense they are grateful for the Church. As they stroll into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enjoy its treasures, are glad that it is there, and saunter out again, friendly and thankful for it but with no sense of responsibility and obligation for its work, so they treat the great heritage of the Church.

I can’t take it that way. Christ’s life and sacrifice with which the Church started, its long history marred by failures but still contributing immeasurably to mankind’s welfare, its prophets, saints, and martyrs -- for all of this I am unpayably in debt. The Church needs us; and our children and their children are going to need the Church. Let’s see to it that the costly heritage does not suffer by our neglect of it! When one of our major women’s colleges was conducting a financial campaign, a prominent alumna was asked by the committee to send a message to back up their appeal. "Make it gay," ran the request, "something to cheer us up." The alumna wrote back that she was glad to send a message, but she would not make it gay. "Tell them this for me," she wrote, " ‘Never take your college for granted! A lot of people broke their hearts to give it to you.’" That’s true about the Church.

Have you ever been in areas on this planet where no Christian church has ever been? I have. Ideas and spiritual values which we take for granted had never touched those areas. I could acutely feel the vacuum. And when I returned home I almost wept when I saw the first church steeple. You could not remember what Adolf Hitler said in 1933, but 1 cannot forget it. "I could destroy the Church in a few years," he cried. "It is hollow, and false, and rotten through and through." That kind of thing which Hitler said then and which communism is saying now makes me feel like Nathan Hale -- I wish I had more than one life to give to the Church. My bet is that you, as a Christian layman, are going to feel that way too. For you are going out into a generation where two powerful traditions will confront each other with implacable hostility. Hitler’s pitiless racial prejudice and arrogance, and communism’s atheism, its tyrannical suppression of human dignity and freedom, are not new. That’s an old tradition with a long and cruel history. We have another heritage, however, springing from the great Hebrew prophets, coming to its fulfillment in Christ, gathering up the best of ancient Greece, a heritage of faith in God and man, of humaneness and goodwill. That heritage has been the noblest factor in our Western life, and your generation will have to choose which of the two traditions shall rule the world -- Christ or Antichrist.

Whenever I meet an American who thinks that the Church is unimportant, I refer him to the totalitarian dictatorships. See how they have tried to curb the Church and repress it, how they have imprisoned its priests and ministers, circumscribed its work, or utterly destroyed it! There is something in the Church of Christ they do not like. It looks to them so important that they must crush it. It stands for something they do not stand for -- the sacredness of human personality. It believes something they do not believe -- the purpose of the living God for all mankind. It is something that they are not -- an international fellowship out of every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. It contradicts them at every point. The maintenance of the Church’s faith, ministry, and fellowship is not unimportant. Ask the totalitarians if it is!

This letter would be incomplete, however, if I did not come at your problem from still another angle: your personal need of the Church. Ted, one stick by itself alone cannot make a bonfire. That requires a congregation of sticks! I retired from the active ministry in 1946. My place is no longer in the chancel, but in a pew. I can write to you now not as a clergyman but as a layman. I need the sustaining fellowship of the Church. Jesus, of course, was right when he told us to go into our closet and shut the door and pray to our Father who hears in secret. But he was also right when he said, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Christian faith and life are not simply an isolated, individualistic affair, everyone separately on his own. By their very nature they involve and require fellowship.

Take the matter of worship, for example. Of course one can worship by himself alone. A man who merely looks down on things below him, or looks out at people and facts on his own level, but never looks up at something above him that he reveres, is a shoddy specimen of humanity. Worship is the deliberate exposure of one’s life to the highest that one knows, and without that capacity we should be hopeless. All day long we expose our lives to the impress of all sorts of influences -- profane, vulgar, secular, commonplace. Worship, reverence, the conscious exposure of our lives to the highest that we know, is our salvation.

Millet, the French painter, was often hard put to it to finance his household, and he had to make commercial signs for a milliner, a livery stable, a hotel. He could do such painting without reverence, but when you think of Millet’s great works, that make his name immortal, that he loved, brooded over, and put himself into, you know that he inwardly bowed himself, like the worshipping figures of his "Angelus," before the vision of beauty that he saw. As for Beethoven, he said, "Music ushers me into the portals of an intellectual world, always ready to encompass me, but which I never can encompass." That is reverence, and it is not simply esthetic, emotional. As Socrates said, "Philosophy begins in wonder." Of course it does. And, as for religion, reverent, prayerful worship is at the heart of it.

Now one can be reverent and worship God alone, and he ought to. But how can he avoid hearing that call of the Psalmist, expressing a profound and universal need: "Come worship the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together." That is psychological common sense. All our deepest experiences are kept vital by fellowship. In a truly meaningful service of public worship one feels not only the companionship of the living, who share common needs and a common faith, but the companionship of those who have gone the king’s highway before us and have left a priceless heritage. In the Scriptures, the hymns, the anthems, and let us hope in the sermon, we feel ourselves part of an agelong, world-wide fellowship. Multitudes would bear witness that in the established habit of public worship they have found clarification and confirmation of their faith, the reorienting of their lives, the deepening of their spiritual resources, comfort in trouble, and rekindled zest for living.

At this point I can imagine you thinking of some Sunday when you went to church and got nothing out of it. The Scripture was poorly read, the hymns were antiquated, the pastoral prayer was a wandering improvisation of trivial requests, the anthems were dreadful, and the sermon was a flop. Just so! Once in Switzerland I climbed the Rigi and saw nothing. The fog was so thick that one’s vision reached only a few feet. It reminded me of some church services of worship, when the spiritual fogs drift in. Sometimes they come from the pew, sometimes from the pulpit. One goes to church and sees nothing. One cannot argue, however, that because he climbed the Rigi and saw nothing, nothing is there to see. The view from the Rigi is magnificent. There are days when one beholds the unforgettable. It is worth climbing the Rigi more than once to see that view. So it is worth the patient development of the high art of worship to secure its invaluable results. Somewhere within your reach there is a church whose fellowship will kindle to fresh fire all the best in you.

Some years ago a roistering group of boys, on jollity bent, passed the chapel at the University of Chicago, and one of them shouted, "Let’s look in!" So they burst uproariously into the chapel, straightway became quiet, stayed far longer than they had intended and, as they came out, one boy was heard saying to another, "Strange, isn’t it? A place like that does something to you." Well, I should not wish to live in a community where there was no church that did something to me. The tradition of fellowship in worship is too constant, too enduring, too creative, to be minimized or neglected. Isaiah went into the Temple and heard a voice which said, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" and the young man went out to his prophethood saying, "Here am I; send me." John Wesley worshipped one day in a little Moravian church in old London, and went out on fire to change the whole climate of English Christianity. Harriet Beecher Stowe sat in a little church in Brunswick, Maine, and deeply moved by the communion service envisioned the death of Uncle Tom and went out to write her influential book. President Eliot of Harvard, recalling the days when Phillips Brooks led worship in the chapel, exclaimed that prayer is the greatest achievement of the human soul. Ted, don’t miss your share in that kind of experience.

Just one word more. The church can be to you not only an inspiring fellowship in which your spirit is kindled to new life, but also a challenging opportunity to invest hard work. Some of the most effective service being rendered in our American communities is coming from our churches. Indeed, our European brethren sometimes criticize us for what they call our "activism," but I glory in it. As Dr. W. E. Sangster said, "I once made a journey around the world. I never once saw ‘The Atheists’ Home for Orphans,’ or ‘The Agnostics’ Crippleage,’ but everywhere I went I saw the Christian Church caring for the destitute and needy." If we rejoice in rendering such practical service abroad, why should not our churches at home be centers of every conceivable kind of helpfulness in their communities?

Indeed churches which fail in this are a disgrace. Some years ago the Rotary Club of New York City through its Boys’ Work Committee made an investigation of juvenile delinquency on Manhattan Island. They found what they considered the worst block in the city, from which the largest number of boys were haled to the courts. They also found churches all around the block. Those churches were not touching the boys; they were not even trying to do anything for the boys. All that happened in those churches was that occasionally the members worshipped together, and a preacher talked. What a travesty! Evil works all the time; we cannot beat it by talking half an hour on Sunday.

In my lifetime I have seen the churches wake up to their communal responsibilities. More and more of them are not simply talking about Jesus, but are exhibiting his spirit in practical service seven days and nights a week. They present to a layman one of the best opportunities he can ever find to invest his time and energy in useful work. So, after long years in the ministry, let me salute the loyal laymen and laywomen with whom it has been my privilege to work. They carried Christ where I could never go; they displayed the Christian spirit in relationships I never had a chance at; and they put their intelligence and skill at the disposal of the Church with results that I never dreamed were possible. Come, join their company!

Most cordially yours,