A Psychologist’s Perspective on Church Services

St Wilfred's Church BraytonThe days when people went to church services out of duty are almost gone. We live in a consumerist age when people always ask ‘what am I going to get out of this?’ If something seems boring and pointless, they don’t do it. Most people don’t get anything out of church services (or at least assume they wouldn’t) and so don’t go.

Many religious people deplore this modern attitude, but I see nothing wrong with it. The idea that God wants people to go to church services to benefit him doesn’t stand up to a moment’s examination. If God does want it, it can only be because he thinks we stand to benefit from it.

Some church services are enjoyable, at least at the time. But the key issue is whether they help to transform people for the better. If there are no long-term benefits, it becomes not much more than entertainment. It is the same with meditation. The key issue is not whether people enjoy doing it but whether there are long-term benefits.

Sadly, there has been very little study of church services from this point of view. The study of “liturgy” is largely historical, and focused on writing appropriate texts. There has been very little serious study of the human side of church services, how people experience them and how they might be changed by them.

This is potentially a very important subject, though it has been largely neglected in the psychology of religion. I have said something about it in a couple of books, in Psychology for Christian Ministry (2002) and my recently published Psychology, Religion and Spirituality (2017). But I have only scratched the surface and there is much more to be done.

church servicePeople get the point most easily with funerals. A good funeral helps people to grieve, and to work through their grief. A funeral needs to help people to engage with their feelings, but also help them to contain and work through their feelings. Planning a funeral that will do that requires quite some psychological skill.

There are potentially similar issues about how a Communion/Eucharist/Mass can engage and transform people. It is about how people experience their relationship with God, about the experience of distance and closeness in that relationship.

There is also a collective dimension, in which people behave together in a special way that conveys a promise of a better way of relating to each other in wider society, and helps to bring that about. It is about the transformation of society as well as the individual.

It is not enough just to theorise about all this. Good church services engage people at a deep level, and change them. Psychology has the potential to understand how that works, and how it can be done better.

–  Fraser Watts