The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Saturday, April 30, 2016

What the church should be trying to do

I get to preach this Sunday, and the main text is from Acts 16, the part where Paul gets called over to Macedonia and ends up preaching to Lydia. (Note: Isn't it interesting that the first European Christian turns out to be an incredibly capable businesswoman?)

As I sat down to do some thinking and writing, I picked up a legal pad with notes from this year's Winter Convocation. Here are some fairly undigested notes from one session:

  • Lots of our neighbors don't have God in their lives, don't know how to change that, and are full of fear that if they show up at church, good "Christian" folk will pass judgment on them and make them feel guilty.
  • God is working in the world, and we are called into the world to invite those who are being drawn by God.
  • Our purpose is not to invite people to our church, but to invite people into a relationship with God through our church.
    • It's not about the money to keep our budget going or the bodies to fill the pews; it's about a spirit of openness to people's needs.
    • We need to learn how to be comfortable speaking with our neighbors about our faith—and that doesn't require a lot of specialized knowledge, but it does require knowledge.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Things are not the way they seem

I recently heard of someone who had visited our parish website and was very attracted by our diversity, but when this person arrived at church on Sunday morning, we were—well, we looked pretty old and traditional. We sing standard hymns with an organ accompaniment. Several of us are getting on in years. Though I used to wear flowered bell-bottoms to church in the 70s, now I'm more likely to wear a jacket and tie.

Sometimes the diversity lies below the surface, so here is a deeper look at us.

Women in leadership

It's easy to forget just how revolutionary it is for a woman to lead a congregation. (Ask some of your church-going friends: many of them attend churches in which women are excluded from any leadership position whatsoever—minister or member of the leadership council.) In the business/academic world, women leaders are extremely common, and we will probably have a female candidate for President of the US, so it might not strike you as unusual that St. Matthew's has a woman priest.

Rev. Ashby was one of the very first women in the Episcopal Church to study for the priesthood; now, when you attend a Diocesan event (such as Winter Convocation), you see a lot of female priests, so it all seems so normal. And for us, being led by a woman is normal. It's just business as usual for women to be part of our lay leadership council (Vestry) and for a woman to be our Rector.

It wasn't always business as usual. From what I've heard, a number of people left the parish in protest when the national body consecrated our first female bishop.


More people left when Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Right now, our usual Sunday morning attendance is somewhere between 30 and 40 people, and by my count we have four regulars and three more who attend occasionally who are gay. It's just another non-issue for us, and not something that comes up often in lunchtime conversation, so a visitor might not notice them. (Trust me—political affiliation is a much more lively topic than sexual orientation for conversation.)

A few years back, I remember one of the older women commenting that "We just need more gay people in this congregation."

What else?

We have a lot of educators, a couple of nurses, and a retired judge, but we also have a couple of farmers, a couple of small business owners, and a firefighter. Look at our parking lot on Sunday morning and you will see a Lincoln and a couple of pickup trucks. Over the years you would find our members volunteering at the Grace Episcopal Food Pantry and the Ashland Center for Nonviolence. Some of us attend Pride Parades, and some of us support conservative political candidates. For us, that invisible diversity is just business as usual.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Bring Them In with Guilt

On my way to work, I drive by a lot of churches that put up signs with cute slogans. (Is there a book somewhere? Those things are really annoying and trivializing!) The latest on one church has been up since the day after Easter Sunday:
Now open between Easter and Christmas!
This is an outfit that has had signs that specialize in groaning puns and double meanings.

I have to wonder just what this snarky message was trying to accomplish. Surely everyone in the land knows that Christians do something every Sunday morning. This church is in a blue-collar neighborhood in central Ohio, which at least has cultural ties to Christendom—almost everyone has a relative or friend who goes to church.

I can only imagine that they are trying to push the guilt button: "Wow! I'm supposed to be at church! I have really fouled up."

My mother had a similar thought about giving money to the church. She had a box of those little envelopes on the kitchen table, each envelope dated by Sunday. (Note: We're discussing whether to bring those back at St. Matthew's.) She would look at those and talk about how she "owed" the pledge money for the offering. It was like paying the electric bill: had to be done every week.

Yes, it's tough to keep a church running. On a very mundane level, we need bodies in the pews and dollars in the offering plate or we will need to shut down, but something has gone missing in the "electric bill" attitude and the guilt trip.

When I was a boy, there was a strong sense that we were all supposed to go to church, mainly because it would somehow do something good to us. If God and church are only fulfilling a function of making me better, it's easy to drift away, especially if my life is doing well. As one political candidate famously said, "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t." (He's the same one who said, "When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.")

What if it's not all about me?

I'll admit that, even though I'm committed to working out in the gym, I sometimes skip. I just don't feel like it. Is church the same? Getting out of bed on a Sunday morning and pulling myself to church is sometimes unappealing. So is going to work on Monday morning. Are they all in the same category? Work, church, gym?

Not really. When I think about Sunday morning, I remember that I'm the one who drives Mike to church. I'm the one who gets the coffee going. This Sunday, I'm the one who leads the congregation in the "Prayers of the People." That's still an obligation/guilt thing, but it feels different. It feels like my little contribution is necessary for the body.

"I'm still here."

Sometimes I need to do something in the church building during the week, and I'll walk into the the darkened sanctuary to get a book or fix a light or something. That candle is still burning in the red glass—the sanctuary lamp. I always take that to mean God is saying, "I'm still here."

That's a much better reason to show up than feeling better about myself.