Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Why bother with church?


Some years ago, two signs were posted on the gates of the Anglican cathedral: in Winnipeg, Canada, "The Anglican Church Welcomes You" and "The Premises are Protected by Guard Dogs."[1]

Churches easily send mixed messages about welcoming people. But mixed messages cannot explain the dramatic decline in church attendance since the 1960s. Illustratively, Sunday attendance at Holy Nativity over the last sixty years has declined from 2000 to about 100. Dire prognostications even suggest that US church attendance this century will approach zero.

Nostalgically yearning for the good old days of full pews is a common reaction to declining attendance. Feeling depressed about the state of the church is another understandable response.

Instead of nostalgia or depression, ponder why people, including yourself, attend church. Whether you came voluntarily or were dragged here by a family member or friend, what benefit can you expect to gain? To answer that question, consider the big picture, not the details, of today’s gospel.[2]

Crowds of people flocked to see and hear John the Baptist and then Jesus. Obviously, in an era long before radio or television, curiosity drew some people. Others came because they wanted to be part of what was happening. Neither factor motivates many people to attend worship today.

John and Jesus’ initial and most loyal followers had one or more of four motives, each instructive for congregations that would grow today.

First, people gathered around John and Jesus longing to experience God. In both men, hearers discerned a charism, a gift or presence, that they wanted for themselves. People especially remembered, and probably exaggerated, Jesus’ miracles because they perceived what happened as a manifestation of God’s powerful presence. In time, the identification of Jesus with God’s presence became so complete that people described Jesus as fully human and fully God.

In my first parish, I was surprised that an atheist who taught math at a nearby community college became a regular attendee. At first, he attended occasionally with his family. Then his attendance increased as our friendship grew. Ultimately, he found Sunday worship a time to search for answers to his questions about God. He was like the those who flocked to John and Jesus, and like many of us, attending because we hope to encounter God. Good worship helps people to center themselves and to contemplate the mystery of God’s presence and God’s otherness, God’s love and God’s justice.

Second, John and Jesus attracted listeners interested in understanding the meaning of life. The circumstances of first century Jewish life were generally much more depressing than are empty pews. No independent Jewish state existed. Most Jews eked out a subsistence lifestyle. Yet the Jewish scriptures incongruously described an Almighty God who had chosen the Jews as God’s favored people. John’s call to repent of sin presumed that Roman domination was God’s punishment for Jewish sins.

Today, less than a quarter of Americans believe life has any meaning. Accumulating research, however, shows that people who live with a sense of purpose enjoy better health and thrive more abundantly than do people who live without a sense of purpose. [3] The cosmic meaning of life is frustratingly elusive. Nevertheless, you can discover the meaning of your individual life by developing a clear vision of personal purpose, a sense of who and what God is calling you to be and do in 2018. Do this by focusing on your education, talents, interests, skills, and personality as well as your personal awareness of God. Living into one’s personal purpose is the best New Year’s resolution anyone can make.

Third, people flocked to John and to Jesus because they heard a clarion call to action, empowering them with hope for improving the world, or at least their little part of it. Jewish and Romans elites opposed both John, whom they beheaded, and Jesus, whom they crucified, because these elites believed John and Jesus represented threats to the established order.

While the audience takes their seats for a symphony concert, the musicians “tune up.” Each player does his or her "own thing," hearing how they sound, ignoring the other musicians. The result is cacophony. Only when the conductor leads do the individuals blend into a greater, and sometimes wondrous, musical whole. Individually, few if any of us can improve the world, or even our neighborhood. But working together we can make a difference, and other people will want to join us. [4] Congregations actively involved in mission, locally and globally, grow.

Finally, people followed John or Jesus because they, like us, wanted to be part of something greater than themselves. Humans thrive in community, yet isolation and loneliness doggedly and continuously plague us. Jesus followers were so committed to him and to one another that they formed a new community, the Church, which Christians believe is the in-breaking of the fullness of God's vision into the world. Sadly, the Church often falls short of that vision.

A recovering alcoholic’s story is instructive. He pointedly observed “that, after his life-changing experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, his local church was unbearable. ‘After I had at last been part of a real community where we loved each other enough to be honest, to sacrifice our time and energy to aid others in their struggle with alcohol, the sweet superficiality of my church was repulsive. When I tried to share with them some of the insights gained from my own struggles, they looked at me like I was crazy, like my struggle was a purely personal problem.’”[5]

Come, then, and follow the example of those who flocked to John the Baptist and to Jesus. Come and commit yourselves to sharing a weekly meal together, united in the hope that God is present; come and learn to discern God’s specific call for you as individuals, while concurrently, confidently, and collectively welcoming all as you work to move the world closer to God’s vision. Amen.

[Sermon preached at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI, on the Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018]



[1] Richard Lederer, More Anguished English (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1993).
[2] Mark 1:4-11.
[3] Dhruv Khullar, “Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One.” New York Times, January 1, 2018, citing Kobau, R., Sniezek, J., Zack, M. M., Lucas, R. E. and Burns, A. (2010), Well-Being Assessment: An Evaluation of Well-Being Scales for Public Health and Population Estimates of Well-Being among US Adults. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2: 272–297. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01035.x.
[4] Garret Keizer, "Reasons to join," Christian Century, April 22, 2008, 31
[5] Thomas H. Naylor, William H. Willimon, and Magdalena R. Naylor, The Search for Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 209.

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