Faith Works 12-5-15
Belonging is something different
We were talking recently about the question "why go to church?"
This is a time of year faith communities of almost any sort see an uptick in the number of visitors, and long-absent folk coming back to worship.
The question has one answer I already tossed out, which is that there is something sacred going on in corporate worship, an avenue to the divine that cannot be accessed just anywhere. Some Christian traditions point to baptism and communion, acts of entrance and sustenance in one's relationship to God, as being "outward and visible signs of an inward, invisible grace."
In other churches, there are five and even seven such "sacraments," acts of the church where a connection to Almighty God is uniquely possible. (See your leadership for details!)
But as a few wrote in to ask me, what if you don't believe in the sacred? If you are rigorously non-supernatural in outlook, if you don't believe in a "life beyond life" or a world of the spirit in any way, then I've said there's no point in going, haven't I?
Well, not really. For one thing, I suspect that there are people who are looking for faith who just haven't found it yet; you could say I believe there are many who are seeking that connection, but as they seek, they don't yet know for sure. Coming to church is a way of testing those impulses out. Is there a heaven? Does God exist? Believe it or not, most churches talk out loud about such questions, even in Advent.
And whether you desire faith, or are just not feeling it – maybe you once did, perhaps something happened to drive it out of your heart, sometimes folks walk away for reasons imposed on them more than chose – you may still choose to come to corporate worship because you want a connection to people.
There are lots of people in shopping centers and college gymnasiums, but we all tend to be cheering or shopping or looking past each other in the crowd. In church, we can end up looking at each other, and asking (even if silently) "so you, too, are looking for something more in life?"
I think pastors and church leaders can miss the fact that this is a powerful reason to come to Sunday services, or other congregational events, and we have to speak as if they are in the room. If we say everything as if we all of us are buttoned-down, set for the journey, confident of the destination, then those who are still trying to figure out where they're getting a ticket to may just slip out of the station before the steam is up.
A mere acknowledgment occasionally that seekers and searches are certainly present can be a balm for a hurting soul. I've heard it many times, that a loneliness was eased by my having just tossed off an aside that presumed that not everyone was robust and certain in their faith. It opens doors, or maybe windows, for Emily Dickinson's "Hope" that is "the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words…"
And sometimes, people come to church just to sing. More on that next week!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he knows that not all who seek are lost. Tell him about your special holiday services at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.