I was sitting in the park knitting yesterday evening and having an imaginary conversation with a friend of mine. I do this a lot, actually. I’m not crazy or anything, but the conversations help me to sort of process my thoughts, and this conversation in particular is one I’ve more or less had — in reality — with a number of different people.
Anyhoo, this conversation was with a certain friend of mine — let’s call her… Cordelia? Cordelia. Like many of my friends and acquaintances, Cordelia isn’t a very religious person. She may believe in something beyond the tangible world, but doesn’t necessarily buy into the organized religious aspect of spirituality. In our conversation, she was a little uncomfortable and even semi-apologetic to me for this, knowing that I am very religious and somehow expecting that I would judge her or think less of her for not being “churched.” I assured her that nothing could be further from the truth, and went on to observe that, in his letters, Paul lists faith among the different gifts of the Spirit, leaving open the suggestion that some (or many) people won’t have faith. But we all have gifts and we are all moved by the same Spirit and I told Cordelia that I knew she had wonderful gifts, gifts I have personally seen her share with others to teach and nurture them and help them grow. I told her that I believed that God created all of us and loves all of us no matter what we believe, and that nothing could be more pleasing to God than that God’s gifts be used for the good of others. Then she asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer. “Why should I go to church, then?” Well… why should she go to church?
I’ve heard a LOT of people in my generation ask this question, but I haven’t heard many good answers. I think church comes across a lot differently today than it did to previous generations. The church used to be such a social center and such a pillar of community that religious participation and membership were both presumed and desired. Nowadays, although the church continues to be very influential, it isn’t the only place to find the things people once came to the church seeking. A sense of community is one of the big things, I think — a place to feel loved and accepted. The tragic irony of this one is that many people have come to see the church as the exact opposite of this — bigoted and exclusive. And on an even broader scale than this is the fact that my generation just doesn’t buy into the sort of institutions, like the church, that have been such a staple of civic life — Kiwanis, Rotary, even the YMCA — membership just isn’t that big a deal to us.
Don’t get me wrong — most of the people my age I know are highly civic-minded and invested in the community. It’s just that we don’t see the value in a formal organization when we can throw together, say, a community garden or a bike kitchen or a craft group via social media like facebook. Sometimes the overhead of an organized institution seems to just get in the way. Why do we need the church, we ask, when we can easily engage in community with others across the globe and organize service projects and find all kinds of spiritual resources on the Internet?
It’s a good question.
For me, a big part of the reason why church is important goes back to Paul and his list of gifts. Nadia Bolz-Weber delivered an amazing sermon about this a few months ago, elaborating on the idea that God gives faith and other gifts to communities and not necessarily to individual people. Just like any secular community, we are strongest and most whole when we regularly come together as a community to use our many and varied gifts for the common good — just like Cordelia, with her gifts for creativity and education. As a whole, we hold our gifts in common, a sort of spiritual collective. This kind of reasoning works for me, but I already have faith. For whatever reason, it’s a gift I’ve been given. So yes, I come to church, but I come to satisfy a spiritual hunger, not just to engage in community — there are many other ways for me to do that.
How do you feed someone who doesn’t appear to be hungry?
What do we tell people whose gifts don’t seem to include faith when they ask why they should come to church? How can we convince them that the church is important and relevant and that they should be part of it? Should we be trying to convince them? And do we really, truly, honestly believe ourselves that the church is important and that they should be part of it? And if we do believe that, do we know why? What is the draw to church for the non-faithful if not faith?
I really don’t know. Maybe there isn’t an answer. Maybe there is — I hope whoever knows it reads my blog and lets me know.
Either way, these questions are still worth asking. And I’m inclined to think that they are questions to be lived into. I’m reminded of a great quote by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Maybe one way to live into the answers as a church is to start asking ourselves new questions, like: What is the church? Who are we? What are we inviting people into?
I’ve talked a lot about my confirmation class at church (which sadly, has ended for the summer). One thing I remember from last fall before I began teaching the class was that I was told there were a number of parents who were sort of disenchanted with our church’s confirmation program — after 3 years of collective soul-searching and temporary pastors, they felt like some confirmands had sort of slipped through the cracks and didn’t get the most they could out of the program. Some had even moved to different churches. My pastor and I had conversations about the best way to reinstate confidence in the confirmation program, how to get people to reinvest in it, and what I said then is what I still feel now about confirmation and about the church at large: “I think the best way to reassure them is to do a really good job of teaching confirmation.”
This is the plain truth: there is no secret trick to bringing people “back” to church or bringing them to church at all. It isn’t praise music or contemporary worship services or PowerPoint presentations or megachurches or charismatic preachers, or any of that other stuff. We just have to do a really good job of being the church. And maybe it’s time for us to remember and to reflect on what that means. We need to renew our commitment to be the body of the loving, risen Christ, and to do it with joy and fervent sincerity. We need to live out the Gospel in a way that fascinates rather than frightens, in a way that leaves a mark of love everywhere we go. Exactly how that happens is something I think every congregation needs to consider based on the community around it, building open, honest, trust-ful relationships with people in and outside the church.
I don’t know if Cordelia — or any of the many many other folks like her — will ever come to church, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to give her a good answer as to why she should come. But I do know that this fills me with an even greater desire to talk about what I have been blessed to find in the church and to share it with the world. We can evangelize. We can do mission. And we can leave the rest in God’s most capable hands.
“For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
1 Corinthians 13:9-12
Let’s get to work.