(My thoughts on self-esteem will continue next week.)
People who pay attention to such things tell us that “spiritual but not religious” is one of the fastest growing categories of faith. Well, yeah. It’s easy to grow when the category can mean one thing to one person and another thing to another. For some people it means that they have not found a faith community that resonates with their own deep and deeply held sense of spirit. For some it means they have been deeply wounded by church or a church and have no desire to return to the scene of the crime. For somebody else it earns they have rejected what they have been taught about faith as a child but haven’t really invested time and energy in replacing it. For another person it means they really like Sunday morning brunch and it’s not very crowded at the grocery store at that time.
(People who tell me they are spiritual but not religious sometimes tell me they are against organized religion. I congratulate them for having encountered any religion that’s organized. )
I want to share a different perspective, the view of one who is very much spiritual and religious. First, let me share some disclaimers. First of all, I have been extraordinarily blessed by the churches of which I’ve been a part. I was raised in a church that blessed me, called out my gifts and gave me places to use them, even as a high school student. (As a teenager I was both doing the layout for our church newsletter and editing the transcription of our pastor’s sermons before they were typed. Now that’s power!)
These days I choose to drive forty minutes to a church that is as family to me, and it is a family whose arms are wide. It is a rare gift of a church.
I know not all churches are like this. And I know that not all church experiences have been as blessed as mine.
The second disclaimer is that at this point in my life, I am absent about as much as I am there. My “places to serve” commitments are few and limited. But this is only a temporary time born of changes and transitions and the demands of caregiving.
To put it bluntly: I need a church. Maybe I’m just not that strong enough or smart enough. But I need a community of faith that will challenge me beyond my comfort zone, whether it’s in how I think about faith or in how I live it. It’s too easy to get too comfortable.
At the same time, I need a community that will at times wrap its arms around me and comfort me. And sometimes feed me. Or cut my grass. Or ask how I’m doing and stop long enough to listen, really listen with their hearts. They will sometimes bear witness to my tears and they will sometimes kick me in the butt. Both can be holy actions.
I need a community because it is the one place in life where there is great diversity of age. I need to learn from those who have lived longer than I have lived (and yes there are still a few of them.) I need to hear what’s life is like for our teenagers. I need to have a conversation with a child. When I left my position on a church staff it was the first time in over ten years that I didn’t have Sunday morning responsibilities. I pictured myself taking a good, long time to relish the freedom. But pretty soon I started looking for a church of which to become a part because I realized I was now living in a world where everyone was pretty much my age. And that gets kind of boring.
I need the challenges of the perspectives of other people who have lived other lives. They give me a new perspective that sometimes informs my beliefs and sometimes challenges them. This business of community isn’t always all kum ba yah all the time. It’s messy and hard. We not only learn from each other but we have to make decisions with each other. I need the discipline of listening to my neighbor while trying to hear the Spirit as well. It’s a wonderful discipline that helps me keep from assuming that God’s Spirit and I are always speaking in unison.
Finally, I need church because I need to do great things. We all do. Maybe great things that come in small packages, but great things nonetheless. To be honest, I could do them on my own – other people do. But being part of church opens many doors for many great things: making difference in a kid’s life, making a handful of people a little less hungry or making one family proud to come home to a decent home. It gives me the channel for buying a goat for an African family or providing clean water where there has been none. It gives me a way to speak a word of hope where there has been only darkness, even if I don’t know the language.
I need a church because I need to do great things and this is the place that reminds me of who I am, capable of great things. Light of the world. Salt of the earth. God’s own daughter. Sure, I can read books that tell me such things. Sometimes I even write the books myself. But I hear it with a different place in my heart and in my soul when the words are spoken out loud and when the words are sung.
I grieve for those who have no church home that feels like home for them. And I grieve for those who have been deeply wounded in the name of religion. Quite honestly, as a woman who was told by some very religious folks that God couldn’t possibly be calling me to ministry, I’m one of you.
But I’m also deeply in love with this crazy-quilt community called church. I believe that all that has been wrong is no reason to leave it all behind. It is all the more reason to invest ourselves deeply into creating healthy communities of faith.