I’m starting to realize what my problem is with church. It is self-sustaining. It is self-centered. I don’t just mean my parish or denomination. I mean church in general. I mean The Church.
I went to a “lay ministry appreciation day” a few years ago. It was the second such one that my diocese had put on. Every parish from all over the diocese was invited. That is 45 different congregations. At least 150 people were there. I felt something different this time than I had the first time. I felt like I’d wasted my time. I felt cheated. I felt like maybe my church was on the wrong path. I’m starting to wonder if church in general is on the wrong path. I felt like I was seeing behind the scenes for the first time, like in the Wizard of Oz.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still very much for Jesus. I just think the church has gotten in the way. I think the church has become more interested in keeping the church going than in being the Body of Christ.
I’d gone to the first Lay Ministry Appreciation Day and not felt this. I was swept up in learning about how to be a lector and an acolyte. I think I heard a little about how to be a chalice bearer but I wasn’t one yet so I didn’t pay much attention. There were classes on everything that is done in the church to make it go.
There was a grand procession where we all wore our vestments and marched around the cathedral carrying banners and crosses. The Bishop celebrated the Eucharist and chanted it. There was incense. There were Sanctus bells. It was everything I’d ever wanted in a communion experience. It was as high church as you can get and not be Orthodox. The worship experience at my parish is very simple, so I really appreciated this different way to worship God.
Then the last year I went it was the same but I was different. On the evaluation form I wrote how sad I was that we spent so many hours learning how to do church but not learning how to be The Church. We talk about Christ, but we don’t learn how to be Christians. That feeling is getting even stronger every day.
My husband and I have been checking out other churches over the past few months. They are still Episcopal churches, currently. But I’m seeing a horrible trend. When I look up their websites I see the same things under the “ministry” tab. They are all about “inreach” rather than “outreach.” The vast majority of ministries are about making the church go. Setting up for church (altar guild). Participating in the worship itself (lector and chalice bearer and acolyte). There are opportunities for different groups to eat out or go bowling or shop. Perhaps there is a Zumba class. But there is nothing about social outreach, or if there is, it is marginalized. Even our pastoral care is about taking care of people who are already members of the church. Something feels missing here.
Church is not a social club. Well, it is, kind of. But the goal has to be to build up the Body of Christ. We can hang out with each other while we are doing something that is what Jesus said to do. Feed the hungry. Welcome the immigrant. Visit prisoners. Clothe the naked.
I went to a retreat recently and I noticed that in the instructions it said to bring snacks and an “adult beverage.” There was no mention of bringing a Bible. Wine wins over Word. I find this very sad.
I’ve heard that very few Episcopalians read the Bible. The argument is that we hear it every Sunday. The Bible is broken up into four readings every Sunday, and there is a three-year rotation. There is an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle (a letter), and a Gospel reading. If you’ve gone to church every Sunday for three years, you’ve heard a good portion of the Bible. But you haven’t heard all of it, and hearing it isn’t the same as studying it.
Look at Luke 4:1-13, where Jesus was being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Even Jesus read the Bible. He knew how to counter the Devil with the Word. Any time the Devil pushed him to do something wrong, he knew how to answer him with Truth. In order to do that he had to have read the Bible and fully understood it.
I think this is important to note. He was the Son of God. He was the Word made flesh. And he read and studied the Bible. If Jesus, who is so much higher than all of us, took time to read and study the Bible, then we should study it all the more. We need to be able to think for ourselves to counter the challenges we get every day. The Devil himself doesn’t come up to us and challenge us, but we certainly get tempted and sidetracked from the Way. We need to know how to respond to those challenges. God means for us to use the brains He gave us.
In the Orthodox Church, every person is expected to read the Bible for themselves. Their pope is considered to be equal with everyone else and is not considered infallible. People are expected to keep him in line by knowing the Bible for themselves. If he says something that isn’t true, they are expected to recognize it and speak up. What a different idea that is! If it weren’t for the fact that they won’t ordain women, I’d consider joining.
Within church there are about 10% of the people who do all the work. There are so many who sit in the pews, every week, and do nothing. I wonder what they do during the week. Are they active in their faith? Do they treat everyone they meet with the same kindness that Jesus did? Or are they as passive on Tuesday as they are on Sunday?
And then there is the idea of money. I don’t want to give to the church. I want to give through the church. I don’t want to support a machine. I want my money to go to people who need it. I’m busy, working 40 hours a week. I don’t have the time to help everyone who needs it. But I expect the church to help me with that. I expect the church to have determined people who need help and my money to go towards helping them.
When we had a stewardship drive, they mentioned that they were down. The amount of expenses were over the amount of pledges coming in. So they said we had two choices. Either pledge more, or get a friend to come to church with us and get them to pledge. No. There is a third choice. Cut expenses. When everything broke one year at my house (water heater, A/C and heater, and roof) we cut expenses. We had to get a second mortgage, and to pay for it we stopped eating out. We cut out the home phone. We cut out cable. I sold my car and got a cheaper one. This is how I run my house. I didn’t expect a renter to move in to pay the bills. I didn’t go to my boss and ask for a raise.
The vestry had a plan recently that they thought was great. “Adopt an expense.” So, on top of your tithe, you could decide to “buy” a line expense. You could pay for the copy paper. Or the electricity. So what does the tithe go to, if it isn’t paying for that?
Then there was a time where there was a debate about going to one service. We currently have two services during the school year, and one during the summer. The hope was that we would have one service year round. We have a nave that will seat 300 people, but only about 60 show up to each service. It would be nice to have one service. For me, I’d like it because I’d only have to schedule one service – with just a few people who are stepping up to the plate to serve, it would be great to just have one service. It would be nice because we’d all be together. It is hard when there are two services – there’s half the church that doesn’t know the other half.
But the argument was that we should only have one service to save money on heat and electricity. That nave is huge, and it takes a lot of power to heat and cool it. At the same time they were having a “Bunco” gathering in the church. The ladies of the church were meeting to play a gambling game with dice. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I was opposed to that. So we have electricity and heat for a gambling game, but not for a second service? I’m still angry just thinking about it. We also have wine tastings. Imagine the look on Jesus’ face when he shows up at our door and says “You’re doing WHAT in my Father’s house? From Luke 3:8, we hear John saying “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” I’d hate to think that Jesus died so we can play games in his Father’s building, and have wine tastings.
I do pay 10% of my net income to the church. I pay it electronically every month so I don’t even notice it. It isn’t a hardship. But I won’t give more. I volunteer in church – I’m a lector, a chalice bearer, and an acolyte. I schedule the lectors and chalice bearers and train them. But I won’t do more there like that. I think others need to step up. I’ve been asked to be in charge of the Sunday School. I’ve been asked to be on the altar guild. I’ve been asked to be on the vestry. I think others need to fill those holes.
I volunteer by tutoring ESL kindergarteners. I have volunteered with Second Harvest. I have learned CPR. I have become a severe weather spotter to help out the National Weather Service give severe weather reports. I’ve taken a pastoral care class. I’ve attended numerous interfaith gatherings. I’m active. I wrestle with my faith and encourage others.
I want my church to do more. I don’t want to start a new church. I don’t want to have to find a new church. I want the one I attend to get caught up in the Holy Spirit. I want it to come alive. I want everybody in my church to take it seriously. I want people to see God through us. I want us to take the words of the dismissal seriously – to go forth to love and serve the Lord. From John 3:17-18, “17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
I’ll end with this.
Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)
There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
I’ll work on and with this church for another year. If it doesn’t bear fruit, then I’m gone.