There was not really a place for me at my old church in Chattanooga. It was big. It was busy. All the roles were filled every week. They had a full complement of acolytes and choir members. There were different lectors every week of the month. There were plenty of chalice bearers. I think I could have skipped going and nobody would have noticed.
In my current church I saw the same two people being chalice bearers for a year. This didn’t seem fair. I asked about how to be a chalice bearer and found it isn’t as simple as just filling in that day like you can in other roles. There is training, and licensing from the Bishop, and proof that you are a confirmed Episcopalian. Then one of the ladies who had served all those months got sick and someone filled in. Turns out there was a whole slew of people who were trained and licensed but weren’t taking a turn at it. Somehow this made me want to help out all the more. I was also a little bit angry at how nobody else was seeing the unfairness of making two people have to serve every Sunday for a year.
I read a book on discerning your calling that said if you notice that somebody should be doing something, then perhaps it means that you are called to do it. The fact that you notice it means it is your job to do. Sometimes I see a lot more than I think I have the ability to fix. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I see it for a reason. Perhaps talking about what I see will help others see it too.
I’m noticing a decided lack of energy and spirit in church these days. I think that others feel it too. I think this is part of why so many people are leaving church. I think this is part of why so many people never go to start with. They don’t see the point. They see the hypocrisy. They see bigger and bigger buildings that are really good at supporting themselves and really bad at doing what Jesus said to do. The buildings are huge, and are used once a week so that several hundred people listen to one person talk about what they think the scriptures mean. Meanwhile, that money that was spent on that building could have been spent on a homeless shelter. Or a place to counsel people how to manage their money. Or a place to welcome immigrants. Or a place to feed hungry people.
Yes, there is the story of Jesus being anointed with the costly perfume. Right before Jesus went back to Jerusalem in the weeks before he was crucified, his friend Mary took a jar of spikenard and anointed his feet. This stuff was really expensive – about a years’ wages worth. Judas complained – why wasn’t the money spent on the poor rather than on this perfume? And Jesus told him to lay off – that we will always have the poor with us.
I fear that this exception to his otherwise stellar example of service has been taken to be the rule in many churches. So many churches are concerned with their own expenses on upkeep rather than taking care of the commandments. They are concerned about how few people are in church every Sunday – not because they are concerned whether folks are hearing the message of God or not, but whether their tithes will be enough to pay the bills. They are concerned about getting stained glass windows and new fancy vestments. They might get a gold chalice rather than a plain one. Any church that raises itself up is following the wrong master. The stained glass windows are usually bought by members. They raised the money and donated it “to the glory of God and in memory of …….” That $5000 could have fed a lot of people. It could have trained folks how to manage their money. It could have helped folks to be better able to handle life. It makes the church pretty, but it doesn’t make it useful.
Jesus wouldn’t have used a fancy chalice at the Passover meal he shared with his disciples. It would have been plain. They were borrowing somebody else’s room to have this ritual meal in. They were poor and often on the run from the authorities. Jesus also told his disciples to not take any money or an extra cloak with them when they went to tell people the news that the Kingdom of God was among them. So why are churches building up their treasures here?
Church isn’t a social club. It can be that, but it needs to be different that just any other place people gather. It can’t be a place where people gather just to feel good. It needs to be a place where people gather to DO good. Rather than getting the teens together to eat pizza and go bowling, why not get them together to work on a social project? Surely some old person needs their yard cut. Surely a widow needs her house painted. It would be a good opportunity to teach the youth how to be ministers. We are told that every baptized Christian is a minister, but we forget this. We tend to think the term “minister” is reserved for those folks who are ordained. We have become asleep to our own Christ nature. We have become passive, where church is something that is done to us, instead of with each other.
I think it is important for folks to take an active role in church, and see that as a warm-up for the rest of the week. I think part of church is to teach you that you are supposed to be active participants. It isn’t just about showing up. I wonder if this mindset of passivity comes from the idea of having ordained leaders? Part of why the entire Reformation happened is because lay people wanted a more active role in church. So why aren’t we doing it? And why aren’t we seeing our ministry as extending into the world? Why do we forget that we are to “Go forth to love and serve the Lord” as we hear in the dismissal? Go forth. Your work begins now.
Every year people ask me to join the vestry or run the Sunday school or be a part of the altar guild. I refuse every time because I’m already doing three jobs at church. I see no reason why in a church where 150 people regularly show up, only 20 people do all the jobs. I think it is important to leave a space. I think it is important for folks to see themselves in that space.
Having a church membership is like having a gym membership. You have to put something into it to get something out of it. And church isn’t even about you getting something out of it. Yes, you need to be filled. But then you have to go and feed others. Jesus said to Peter – Do you love me? Peter said of course he did. Jesus replied – Feed my sheep. This conversation happened three times. If you love me, feed my sheep. He didn’t say, if you love me, just show up and sing a hymn saying you love me. He didn’t say to build a big church building – he wants the church body. He wants US to use our bodies. He wants us to be him in this world. It isn’t about the building at all.
This body is flabby and weak. We are Christ’s body on this earth. How can we do what he needs us to do if we are so weak? If we are so selfish and needy? If we go to church just to feel content that we have done our duty to God for the week? God wants more than just one hour. He wants everything.