I have been thinking about church lately: about our church and more generally what church is, or should be. My theological and religious beliefs have changed over time, as I have shuffled through the messages I received as a young child in the church. At least, I no longer believe that red letter words in the Bible are Jesus words verbatim!
I grew up in the fifties. As a kid, I spent most of my weekends at my grandparents’ home outside of Temperance Michigan. They lived on about 10 acres, with a large garden, maintained by a tractor!!!!! There were woods and a creek, the ideal place for a little dyke to develop her outdoor skills. Every Sunday morning, I would crawl out of bed, cold as I waited for the coal furnace to kick up its heat! I would force myself to put on my dress and prepare myself for the early service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The church was small and even though it was 8:15 AM, there were a lot of folks in the pews. There were even more folks, I assume, at the later service. More people came, the church became crowded, and the New St. Paul’s was erected at the edge of town. More people came. They sang hymns to music played on an expensive organ and brought money to pay off the mortgage for that new temple to God. At the end of the service, they went home, prayed some, and enjoyed their black and white TV, big cars, and appliances that the 50’s brought to their lives.
When I was at home, my parents sometimes took me to an EUB church (my dad’s dad was an EUB minister). That church was packed with people, even more people than at my grandparent’s church. They also prayed and gave thanks for all their 1950’s stuff. The Lutherans have a lot of rules, and since I mostly went to the Lutheran church, I pretty much thought the rules were not only created by God, but maintained by him also. In the Lutheran church, you do not take communion until you are in Junior high and have been confirmed. Confirmation meant that you had learned the rules and could recite them from memory. In the EUB church, communion was open to all. Of course my parents expected me to eat that bread and drink that juice. What was wrong with these people? They were in church but they did not follow God’s rules! No one told me that different churches had different theological views about things like communion and baptism and that God was pleased with all the ways in which we honor and praise him. I really thought God would punish me for drinking from that cup.
As I got old enough to strike out on my own, probably about 8, I went to the Lutheran church in my neighborhood with my best friend. That was God’s church and I felt safe there. No one shoved bread in my face before they knew I was certifiably confirmed! This church was a small church packed with people. That church grew and a beautiful, big expensive replacement was build. A new expensive organ was implanted, but the same old lady from the little church played it.
I loved the church. I was confirmed. I went to Luther League. I said my prayers. I played softball. I went to church dinners. That is what Christians did.
When I got to college, I started to think of the church as a place where people went to make themselves feel better than other people and a place where massive amounts of resources were dumped into buildings. Couldn’t that money be better spent? I stopped going to church.
When I got involved in social justice groups in the community, I met Chet Chambers, a United Methodist pastor. I began to get an idea of what the church could be: a community of people who came together to worship and to reach out to those who are marginalized in our world.
When Cindy and I came back to the church, we became United Methodist. A far cry from the Lutherans with all the rules. We do have the book of discipline, so I am not totally far from home. I like the flexibility of the Methodist and UCC Churches. Both denominations let the people think for themselves. We have a set of core beliefs, but there is latitude within the boundaries. Most United Methodist churches do sprinkle baptisms, but there are some who actually do immersion. Just because I said that does not mean we should go that direction here. We would have to do it in the parking lot with a kiddie pool.
So, after that rambling, I think I have the idea somewhere in my psyche that church should be a big building full of people with hymns and organs. I sometimes look around me on Sunday morning and think that our church is too small. We do not have enough people to bring in lots of money to do more mission work and not enough people to praise God loud with our songs, actually our songs should be hymns, the old ones.
After going to see Paul Nixon talk about Weird church, I have been looking at my biases and trying to rethink my ideas about church.
Eric Law, who helps churches with all kinds of congregational dysfunction, has written a book called Holy Currencies. He talks about Grace Economics. The idea is that when you are in mission with people there needs to be an expectation that those who are receiving will give back in some way. St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Downtown Toledo is developing a Free Store. Those people who need clothing or food will also help with the ministry in various ways. Developing a give and take relationship with those we serve helps to empower people and take away the idea that there is a giving class and a taking class. We are working together and all giving our talents to the ministry. We need to think about this idea as we move forward with our development of ministry projects.
We need money to pay our bills and we have a pretty lean operation here. Our pastor is part time, we pay rent for our space, but we do not have building maintenance or a lot of other costs that we could have even with a rental facility. Eric Law suggests that we will give more if we realize that our giving contributes to our own wellness as well as the wellness of others. Perhaps we should identify how our church does or can contribute to our own wellness. Are there needs that we could meet to enhance the wellness of our body? We have had a prayer group and we have Pub theology to feed us spiritually. Do we need other groups for our spirit or for our bodies and minds?
We come together on Sunday morning to worship. We say we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, but if we mean that, we will take the next step. We will work hard to become the community that is truly the living body of Christ in our world. The body of Christ for each other and to those outside our circle. If we develop groups to feed our needs and ministries that put us in relationship rather than putting us in the constant giving only mode that leads to the gas tank running empty, I think we can do a lot as a small body of Christ. As our scripture tells us, we do not need a lot of folks. Two or three people and the spirit helps us to heal and create. I do not think that means that the spirit is not present with one of us, but that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The body of Christ as a community is much more powerful that what each individual brings to the table. It reminds me of our Stone Soup campaign. When you throw a bunch of veggies in the pot and simmer it for a few hours, comes out as something way better than simply a bunch of hot veggies!
At conference, there were presentations about new church starts. Most of these were small communities, with a specific mission focus. It was an outreach to an underserved group of people. There was no interest in building huge buildings with high steeples. Just a place where people could meet to connect and to become the body of Christ. In the presentation with Paul Nixon, we heard about the Black Cloister Brewery. The Brewing Company in downtown Toledo supports a small community of young Lutherans. They gather for worship and mission in the taproom. They are young and do not have a lot of money, so the brewery profits keep their community viable. This church speaks to the need for community and spiritual development of the young people among us.
Paul Nixon in his book, Weird Church addresses our cultural change around church. Those of us who grew up when everybody went to church are confused by the current trend to stay away from church. When I was a kid, our school music repertoire included Christian hymns. Faith of our fathers, Christian Christmas Carols. The assumption being that we were all Christian. Now people are leaving church or have never attended church. But Paul Nixon reminds us that there is still a deep interest in spirituality and also a desire for community in people today.
Churches that offer real community are attractive. The small group can easily offer community if the members are willing to take the risk to develop intimacy. I think we need to take a look at this issue in our church. People decide to leave our community and do not feel the need to talk to anyone about the fact that they are separating from the community. I might see a person at the grocery who has not been to church for a while and she says, Oh, I decided to go a different church or not go to church at all. I was mad because Pat offended me in her sermon. Or no one visited me when I was in the hospital. I say, you were in the hospital? She says: Yes, I did not tell anyone that I was having surgery. We cannot offer help if a person does not feel safe enough to let us in our life. Whose fault is that? It is easy to put it off on the other, but are we building barriers to open communication and intimacy? We all need to do much more than say good morning to each other.
Do you remember Spyder? I often think of him. He was a kind and gentle soul and he loved his kept skunks. He once told me about all the varieties of skunks. Who knew? Spyder used to come to church and then he stopped. He was in a care facility and we did not know. He was in hospice and we did not know. I ask God to forgive me for not pursuing his absence.
I think we get so used to people leaving that we just take it for granted when they disappear. Oh, well, another one out the door. I am not happy when I try to connect with someone and then they just walk away.
Community means connection. Community means family. Community means we are the body of Christ in the world.
If I am offended by someone, even our pastor, I have a responsibility to say something. Often there is a misunderstanding that can easily be addressed. Sometimes there may be a more serious matter that cannot be resolved. As community, we will never all be of one mind on everything. We can disagree and still come together in love.
By the way, I mentioned that our pastor is part time. She cannot meet all our needs all the time. She could not do that even if she was full time. As a community, each member must take responsibility to reach out, to be vulnerable, and to use our talents to move the body in a positive direction.
I hope we can all work together to create a community that speaks by action of our love for each other and for those around us. A community that is generous in giving in all kinds of ways. Remember: The spirit is in our midst and we are the body of Christ in the world.