Many clergy are scared to death that people are not coming back to Church.
I’ve talked to lots of people who seem to like having Sunday morning off. Not getting dressed. Not having to herd a wayward family to get their ass in gear to get to the Church on time, in one piece. How much easier to sleep in, enjoy a leisurely brunch, catch CBS Sunday Morning or Oprah. Why bother? What is the value add on going to church? With a nod to Edwin Stars’s “War”: Church. Good God, y’all. What is it good for?
Before you reflexively say, Absolutely nothing!…..let’s pause.
Weekly, I coach clergy from across the country, from New York to LA, and I don’t mean Louisiana, though I have a priest I work with there on the bayou. They come from a number of different denominations, even independent churches. Black, white, Hispanic. A common denominator is that they are scared. In a culture where the coin of the realm is “convenience”, are people willing to put out the effort to get to the church house when the habit has been broken?
When I coach them as they prepare for the start up of the Fall season, I am encouraging them. It may be that this disruption into the default mode may have indeed raised the question: Why do I go to church? And the answer may be surprising. Could be good news, could be bad news….who knows?
Normally that question arises in transition moments. When one goes off to college, when one relocates, when life circumstances change. There is nothing bad in raising those questions. What value do I derive from going to church? What do I get in exchange for the time and effort that is required to get to the church? It’s healthy to assess all our activity every once and a while.
Now, my generation of boomers may have gone a bit overboard. We ushered in the whole reality of consumer-based church, asking pointedly: What have you done for me lately? What’s in it for ME, or MY Family? I have seen families change churches due to more attractive children’s and youth ministries, pulling up stakes to go where the action is. We are running short on denominational or local church loyalty. In my experience, that ran out with the passing of the World War II generation.
But the question posed presently seems more existential. Is church a worthy expenditure of time?
I immediately remember the central role the church played in my family while I was growing up. We weren’t quite like Steve Harvey’s family that was in church every time the doors were open. I laughed at his routine, with a litany list of all the activities they would attend on each day of the week. Such an total involvement can set up a reaction, breaking free of the bounds of gravity, or it can drive deep spikes of habit in the soul. As Emmylou says, you just never can tell.
For me, the church was a wonderful experience of community, where folks seemed to sincerely love on another.
We could rally around the Elder family, as the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, went through tough chemotherapy and eventually died. We gathered to support the family, a grieving husband, and children. It was an organic body of people, loving and caring. Impressive.
We could imagine the work of caring for a refugee family from the aftermath of the war in Viet Nam. I remember my contemporary girls loving on the young children of this refugee family. I recall the heroic efforts of members assisting in the training of this new family. It was our way of being “ambassadors” of Christ, even in a counter-cultural way. Impressive.
But we could miss the mark when it came to grasping the radical nature of the Gospel, firing our beloved pastor for his public stance on the most volatile subject our country at the time, and arguably even now, race. When the pastor opened the doors of the church to ALL people, even folks of color, well that was a bridge too far. Or perhaps, more accurately, a wall too close. This was impressive, as well, but in a negative way, to the point that the blatant hypocrisy drove me to vow that I would never go back. One of many vows I have retracted or broken.
Not knowing it at the time, church provided me a safe place to discover my self. I was allowed a social field in which to interact, with boys of my age, learning what was good behavior and what was unacceptable. I grappled with how to be a part of a group while maintaining one’s identity. Playing basketball, hanging out in the proverbial youth lounge, riding on the Blue Bird bus, going on mission trips. The youth choir gave me the opportunity to try out my social wings with the opposite sex. There was nothing quite like holding hands with a girl for the first time, in a church pew, of all places. And church youth group parties were unchaperoned and made for some interesting encounters, some that could have ended up in Tennessee Williams Southern Gothic tones. I did not know it at the time, but Flannery O’Conner was lurking just around the corner, waiting for the proverbial slip.
But, the church grew me up. Teaching me how to be accorded as a human, a young adult, not just a child, or kid. My adult teachers provided me excellent role models as to what a person should become. Mr. Holt was a stiff, well-dressed Rich’s furniture salesman, a former boxer. He had a practical Christianity that impressed me, as he gave his time to teach us suburban urchins. Ron Lane and T. Lee were adult males that were responsible but knew how to have fun. These men were gifts to me in my development as a man and a person.
Later, I demanded more of the church rather than merely a developmental social platform. And I was fortunate, lucky, or blessed, depending on your cosmology, to come across a church that fit the bill. I first discovered it on a Sunday morning in the Sigma Chi fraternity house, recovering from a Saturday night that Elton John sang about. I had grabbed a Coke, my scholarship sponsor and settler of upset stomachs. I was sitting alone in the dank TV room, designed for other activities. Turning on the television, I saw a round, pie-faced chalky man, talking about Jesus. I knew it was a sermon, as I recognized the furniture. But he was talking about my cosmic friend, Jesus, in a way I had never heard. It was in the context of a Folk Mass, something with which I was unfamiliar. I remember “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” being sung as a hymn, which intrigued me. Bottom line, in retrospect, I was hooked by this preacher being real, present in the moment.
I called the church and made an appointment with the pie-faced guy who I came to know as Tom Bowers. I spent a couple of hours that week, with him, talking to me about the Bible, Jesus, and the church, and most importantly, what the church was doing in this city of Atlanta.
It was feeding the poor and homeless daily. It was providing education for those who did not have a high school diploma. It was providing care to people who were in distress. It had a food bank to distribute produce, cans of food, and the ever-present government cheese to those in need. It was trying to make the city a better place to live for ALL people. It resonated with me.
Somewhere, Matthew 25 floated in my consciousness, planted by my South of God church, listing what were the things that Jesus thought were worthy actions that was distinguishing sheep from goats. It made sense to me in a fresh way, and I knew this was the place for me.
It took a while and a circuitous route for me to come back to a home that I did not know I had. It was not limited to a denominational designation, or a location, or class, and certainly not a color, but I recognized the church as my home base, the place from which I would live out my life, for good and for ill.
The church has been sponsoring of my growth, inhibiting of my freedom, linking me to that which was unfamiliar and unknown, limiting me, blessing me, cursing me, ignoring me, including me. It has been transcendent in values espoused, bureaucratic in execution, consistently resistant to change, anchoring in storms.
The ancient image of Mother Church prompts a perverse thought that I am forced to repress, due to my raising as a proper South of God boy, but I am inching toward a freedom that would allow even that. But not yet. I’m not there quite yet.
Church for me remains a valuable investment of time and energy. I am trying to figure out what that looks like now that I live on a barrier island. It has to be about growth and spiritual development. It must be about grace, not only because it is crucial, but mostly because I need it. It will have something to do with community. And it will have to do with connection, helping me to be aware of my connection with God, with neighbor, and Creation.
And that Matthew 25 thing still rings true from the Master’s teaching on what will differentiate the sheep from the goats. It really is about orthopraxy as opposed to orthodoxy. Simply put, it’s about how deeply and how widely one loves, as opposed to how “right” one is in defining the terms. Capiche? Dig? Get it? Not everyone does. Not when Jesus was walking in Galilee, nor when his teachings are uttered today, or electronically sent on social media.
A Church that lives out of that Matthew 25 vision seems critical. That will make it worth the time and energy, and even the hurt that is sure to come.
So, what is Church good for? It’s good for connecting your soul to others that are on the journey. As a sheep in training, it’s good to find a healthy herd to help you find your way. And, it’s more fun to wander and wonder with others.