There are many who disdain the idea that going to church is a habit. They would wish that every Christian would wake up early on Sunday morning in such anticipation for worship that they could hardly contain themselves. Who does that? Not that we would not desire it!
Thomas a Kempis wrote long ago that habit is overcome by habit. That is a good word worth repeating. It is easy to ditch Sunday morning. It happens all the time, even to good and pious people. Either we don't feel well or we don't feel like it or we have other things to do or we just choose to sleep in... An occasional broken good habit does not do terrible or irreparable damage. But the very occasional miss becomes dangerous when it happens a few times in a row. Then it becomes the norm, it becomes a new habit. Habits die hard. Ask anyone on a diet or trying to quit smoking. Habits do not die because want them to die. They die because they are replaced with other habits.
Going to church on Sunday morning is a habit. If we had good, wise, and pious parents, this habit was instilled within us when we were young. That is how I learned to go to church. It had nothing to do with the quality or lack of it at the church. It had nothing to do with will or desire. My parents did this favor for me: they taught me that unless I was literally dead, we would be in church on Sunday morning. It became a part of me and it continues still. My children attend church on Sunday morning at least in part because that is how we raised them. You could count on two hands the number of times my family missed church on Sunday morning until our children graduated high school. Good habits die hard. Just as hard as old habits.
I do not worry about those who miss a Sunday here or there. I do worry about those who miss 4 or 5 or 6 or more. They have learned a new habit. It will not matter if their minds know better or in their hearts they feel bad about missing church. They will continue to miss until the habit of attending replaces the habit of missing.
My parents instilled some good habits in me. I no longer wear diapers but use the toilet (if you don't think that was a struggle ask a new mom or dad trying to teach a child that habit). I wear clean underwear each morning. I take a shower each day. I brush my teeth. I eat my veggies. I work hard. I go to church.
You may think that missing worship does not take a toll on you and your faith but it does. It replaces a good habit with a bad one. Kids who grow up wondering if the family will go to church on Sunday morning are likely not to worship regularly as adults. Kids who grow up knowing that whether they want to be there or not, the family will be in church on Sunday morning, well, they are more likely to be faithful their whole lives long.
As a Pastor I have heard all the excuses in the book and generally with the rejoinder "I'll be back..." But they do not make it back. The habit of church has been replaced with another habit. It is not just a matter of the will, their lives have gotten accustomed to another path. Habits are hard to break. We know that for bad habits. What we forget is the power of a good habit to work for us.
We must learn in the church to speak more of the benefit of good habits. With that we must learn to encourage the faithful to fortitude, that cardinal virtue in which steadfastness for faith and goodness and constancy war against the great temptations before us and, by the use of good habits, keep us from becoming victims lost to our vices and bad habits.
Fortitude teaches us to choose right even when everything inside of us and the world around us is telling us to choose wrong. It is the pursuit of the right when it is most difficult and painful. Fortitude is no character virtue just as sin is no character flaw. Fortitude is born of faith, hope, and love, in those who have received the charity, mercy, and grace of God. Those with fortitude do not have great confidence in themselves but believe the promises of God, have courage because of what Christ has done, and love when love is hard as Christ has loved us. Church on Sunday morning is not much but it is the beginning, the new habit of the Kingdom that connects us to the grace that strengthens the new creative brought forth in us in our baptism. Do not minimize the power of a bad habit to be our undoing and do not minimize the power of a good habit to strengthen us for good purpose.
The stories of the saints are valuable to us in our struggles because they tell of those who have every reason to give up and give in, every justification for abandoning the faith, and yet, by the grace of God endured. It is in this realm that we live and move and have our beings as the baptized people of God. The more distant we are from the great stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints, the more difficult it will be to maintain the good habits of the kingdom in the face of many and great temptations. Stay and you remain. Leave and the coming back will become its own great obstacle.
I say this to those so tempted to leave. I say this to those who find it hard to hear the voice of habit calling them to worship. If the saints tell us anything, they tell us to be steadfast and immovable around the means of grace. If anything good comes in our lives as Christians, it has its source in the Word and Sacraments by the Spirit of God. Don't just give up bad habits; replace them with good.