Faith Works 12-10-16
Are we the sum of our choices?
According to the State of Ohio, the results are in from the November elections.
Yes, I know, there's a number of implications of the last national trip to the polls, but I'm interested here for a moment in a different element of our voting last time around.
We are told that of all the ballots cast, a third of them were early votes.
By mail and absentee, at the Board of Elections offices around the state, or at special "early voting centers" in some locations, a third of the votes that decided the presidential race, and also county commissioner and school levy and other local decisions of immediate import were all cast before the dawn of November 8.
All indications are that these numbers will continue to increase; in fact, some argue that we should be putting more time and civic resources into making voting easier, and earlier. There are a number of points to be made for and against that, but for now, let me just rest on the current state of affairs: one in three voters who did take the time and effort to be participants in the national, state, and local election of this fall did so on their own terms, at a time of their choosing.
The nature of an election is such that there has to be some kind of framework around it, for when the races are set, at which point voting can begin, and when it ends. Election Day is no longer a beginning, but an ending; it's not a national ritual of participation en masse, but the conclusion of a lengthy partisan conflict.
I do wonder about what happens when people are starting to vote before the local campaigns can even get going. Presidential races can take care of themselves, and I understand (even if I don't personally agree) when people just want to get it over with. But you may have been hearing about candidates for the big races for months: have you learned anything about who is running for city council, or why the fire service is asking for funds? Surely we need a little bit of space within which to let campaigning and educating of voters take place before we go and cast ballots from some knee-jerking set of assumptions.
And I reflect on all this as a pastor because I see how the same forces are pushing and pulling on Christian worship, and church community. It's been well-rehearsed that neither Wednesday evenings nor Sunday mornings are set apart by the culture for the convenience of the churches. That's done, and we have to ask our own to make the choices they will, for worship and study and service.
What is a growing pressure on even fairly small congregations, though, is to offer additional services, more options for when to come together, when you can take time for prayer and communion in community (of a sort) through the week. The Catholic community has long made its peace with the "vigil mass" that takes the Sunday obligation and stretches it out back into Saturday afternoon, and this is effective for them.
My own congregation offers two times of service, but the question often comes up – and I think much about – of a third option, for those otherwise occupied on Sunday mornings. Jobs and activities which are not in and of themselves trivial are often in conflict, so why not add choices? The stores are open 24 hours, there are many other services now available online at any time, so how could the experience of worship be stretched out? Why do we have to do that on Sunday morning before noon, anyhow?
You can see where these trends and expectations could take us. And there is, to a significant degree, a lessening of social ties in any congregation that offers multiple services, and different ways are tried to weave them together, but for the most part, those who see each other share more with each other. Online worship is not, in fact, something I reject out of hand, but in general and over time, I wonder at what kind of Christian formation it engenders.
The expectations for choices and personal autonomy are high; the need for closer community is real. The balance between those two poles will not be found in an insistence on one service, I'm fairly sure, but how far can multiple alternatives go? We will all wrestle with this question in 2017, I'm sure.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about variety and options in worship services you experience at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.