I was hoping for an international church experience in Japan—but I got a very different outcome instead.
We were running out of time.
It was Sunday morning in Osaka, Japan, and my sister and I were hurriedly trying to figure out where to go. We had already walked 15 or 20 minutes to a bus station (which according to our map was supposed to have been a train station), found the train station, looked for the right train unsuccessfully, and asked an employee for directions.
We thought we had given ourselves plenty of time to get to church, and yet between all our mishaps we were cutting things awfully close. But after running around the train station some more (while, I might add, carrying heavy backpacks), we found the train that would take us to our destination.
Boarding the train, we plopped down in our seats and stared out the window while trying to catch our breath. We would still be late since we had missed earlier trains, but if we hurried when we reached our stop, we might get there in time to take the sacrament.
About 20 minutes later, we stepped off the train and booked it to the church meetinghouse. Finally, we walked through the church doors—and realized there was no sacrament. Instead, some muffled sounds were coming from several rooms. Walking down a hallway, we peeked through the window of one of the doors and saw general conference playing on a TV. While my sister and I knew it was conference weekend, due to the time difference we had incorrectly assumed that the members in the area would be watching it another time.
I wish I could say I didn’t mind that church wasn’t being held as usual, but I was pretty disappointed. We had worked so hard to get to that meetinghouse, and I had been looking forward to singing the hymns in Japanese as well as hearing talks from the local members. During some of my other international travels, going to church had been a memorable experience for me: I loved learning from the perspectives of Latter-day Saints who have very different experiences than I do, and I was hoping to create similar memories that day in Osaka.
On top of that, the previous week my sister and I had taken the bus to get to church in Tokyo, only to find the building locked and the parking lot empty. After some research we realized it was stake conference, and due to travel constraints we wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting. But even though I didn’t get to listen to any local speakers or sing alongside the local Church members on my trip to Japan, this experience made an impression on me that perhaps is just as significant for other reasons.
I might be the only one, but I’ve found that going to church is such a regular part of my Sunday routine that it’s practically automatic. I don’t have to plan it into my day like I did in Japan where buses, trains, and significant walking was necessary to get to a chapel. For most of my life, I’ve lived five to seven minutes away by car from a meetinghouse. (Yes, I know that’s pretty specific, but when you’re running late to church every minute counts.) But thinking about the effort that many members put into going to church every Sunday has made me think about why they are so committed. And by extension, it has made me reflect on the reason we all go to church—whether or not it’s physically easy to get there.
The Reason for Church
President Dallin H. Oaks’s October 2021 general conference address called “The Need for a Church” sheds some light on the blessings we receive from going to church. He taught, “Church attendance can open our hearts and sanctify our souls. … [It] gives us the strength and enhancement of faith that come from associating with other believers and worshipping together with those who are also striving to stay on the covenant path and be better disciples of Christ.”
Additionally, President Oaks said that the restored Church “helps us grow spiritually. Growth means change. In spiritual terms this means repenting and seeking to draw nearer to the Lord. … Crowning all of this are the authoritative priesthood ordinances necessary for eternity, including the sacrament we receive each Sabbath day.”
Opening our hearts, sanctifying our souls, partaking the sacrament, being among fellow Latter-day Saints, growing spiritually, and drawing nearer to the Lord—these are just some of the blessings that can come from our worship on the Sabbath. It’s why we go to church.
And it’s also why we go when maybe we don’t want to.
We may have many reasons for not going to church—perhaps you’re not sure if you belong or you feel like your testimony isn’t strong enough. Or maybe you’re afraid of having to sit alone or are worried that someone will judge you. In fact, there are likely more people who feel this way than we realize. In an October 2018 general conference talk, President Henry B. Eyring shared how he learned this for himself. He said:
“Many years ago, I was first counselor to a district president in the eastern United States. More than once, as we were driving to our little branches, he said to me, ‘Hal, when you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.’ Not only was he right, but I have learned over the years that he was too low in his estimate.”
I have to think that if that’s too low of an estimate, then chances are pretty good that the person in front of you, behind you, or even right beside you on the pew is going through something. Or maybe you are that person and have been for quite some time. But you know what’s remarkable? On any given Sunday, people show up at church. Even if they didn’t want to and even if it was hard. And I believe that we will receive blessings for doing that.
Elder Dale G. Renlund has said, “The only way faith grows is for an individual to act in faith.” Maybe sometimes, going to church feels like an act of faith—but when we do go, I believe that God notices. And maybe it will take a while for that faith to grow into something more. But I believe that it will, eventually, grow into the faith we are hoping to have.
Committed to Christ
That day in Osaka when my sister and I discovered that church wasn’t being held as usual, we did meet a member in the foyer. He was with his son who was probably four or five years old, and I couldn’t help but be impressed that they were there that day. That father very easily could have watched conference from home, and I imagine it probably wasn’t very convenient to get ready for church as usual and bring his little boy along with him. But he was there anyway. And I like to think it’s because whatever was happening in his life, and whatever his responsibility may or may not have been that day, he was truly converted to the gospel.
In a 2019 general conference address, Elder Dale G. Renlund spoke about how commitment can shape our identity as members of the Church. He said, “Being converted unto the Lord starts with an unwavering commitment to God. … Eventually, this commitment becomes part of who we are, embedded in our sense of self, and ever present in our lives. Just as we never forget our own name no matter what else we are thinking about, we never forget a commitment that is etched in our hearts.”
Of course, our journeys are deeply personal, and it is not our place to judge whether someone is attending church one Sunday and not the next—or even many more after that. And we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we’ve missed church and are trying to get back on track. But I believe there is value in remembering the reason behind our commitment of going to church and in being intentional in making that choice. Because as we do, we may find that our worship is more meaningful, and that we will more earnestly strive to become the people God wants us to be, with our love for Him so deeply a part of us that we will never be able to forget it.