What does church look like?

When you envision “going to church” perhaps you expect a quiet, orderly sanctuary filled with well-dressed people quietly listening to organ music.

That was your grandmother’s church experience.

These days, church means so much more. Yes, we are here faithfully on Sunday mornings (join us! Everyone is welcome!). The dress code has relaxed and rarely includes the suit, tie, dresses, and shined shoes that I remember from my childhood. The music might include the organ but will just as likely feature exuberant children, guitar, ukulele, piano, and bells. We do manage to get to “quiet” but only after the deacon patiently – and sometimes repeatedly – calls the congregation to order. There is a joyful sense of community as people of all ages greet one another. They have gathered for respite, reassurance, learning, fellowship, and the life-giving assurance that they are loved and lovable. Through God’s grace, we are forgiven; we can share that hope with others.

How we live out that hope brings us to other church moments. “Church,” thank God, doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings. Church can be in the orderly chaos of a clothing sale in a huge room filled to overabundance with used clothes. Church means partnering with the high school’s volunteer group FRESH (Family Related Effective Solutions for Humanity) to make a difference in our community. These teenagers are dedicated to combating poverty and hunger in our area and put their ideals to work as they hauled, sorted, and displayed clothes. Residents from local homeless and domestic violence shelters are invited to come for a free “shopping spree.”

“Church” happens in the kitchen when volunteers prepare meals for anyone facing life’s challenges. Church can be delivered in a microwavable container. It can be a warm meal that reminds recipients that they are loved and cared for.

“Church” can take place in our local park when we gather for “Tuesdays at Twilight” for outdoor worship in the beauty of God’s creation. Bike-riding children, parents pushing strollers, fishermen passing by can wander into our circle as we listen to the birds overhead, watch the ducks make a splash-landing on the water, and marvel as the evening sky is reflected in the pond. “Church” happens whenever and however we share God’s love. I believe we are invited to constantly discover new and different ways to be the church in a fractured, busy world. Church might mean Bible study in a classroom and could also be conversations about God, faith, and life at a coffee shop.

How will we do church? We will honor our traditions and we will look for new ways to reach out and connect with God’s people. We will continue to worship together in our sanctuary on Sunday mornings and be open to other times and places where we can learn, grow, rejoice, and serve together.

Church will take many new forms in the 21st century.  Who knows what “church” will look like next!

What does the church do?

“What does your church do, anyway?” It wasn’t a snide comment or a rude question, but an honest inquiry from someone who isn’t involved in a faith community and can’t really see any particular reason to bother.

It did make me think.  Especially since this coming Sunday we will be holding our annual congregational meeting, a time when we review not just logistical questions about budget and building upkeep, but take some moments to ponder – what did our congregation do this past year? What have we accomplished? What difference have we made?  Because really – if we can’t answer those questions, then what are we all about?

I tried to frame my answer in a way this person would appreciate. But where to start? Should I describe our showcase event, our Fourth of July Jamboree when hundreds of people gather on our common for music, fellowship, and old-fashioned fun? Or should I describe more serious efforts like supplying food, clothing, toiletries, and gift cards to the homeless and domestic violence shelters as well as to local families.

Should I talk about our public ministries like weekly worship that offers inspiration and fellowship or is our behind-the-scenes work more important? How do we measure the importance of visiting the sick, praying with and for the dying, and offering comfort to the lonely and mourning?

What is it that we do?  Is anyone grading us or keeping track of our actions? If they are, would they like to know about the school backpacks that are filled and delivered in September or presents that are carefully chosen and wrapped at Christmas time or perhaps the Easter baskets that overflow with bounty and compassion? Or would they be more interested in meals and cards delivered to the homebound or the efforts of our children and youth as they rake leaves and help with home repairs.

During the season of Epiphany we are encouraged to take our Christmas gift – the love and compassion of God – and share it with everyone we meet. Don’t, Jesus instructs us, hide your light but let it shine so that God’s glory and love may be experienced and felt. That’s our job. That’s what we are meant to be about.

Do we do it perfectly? No. There is always more to do and there are endless needs that go unmet. But we try to live out God’s commandment to love our neighbor. We endeavor to make a difference in our neighborhood and across the globe.

Perhaps our primary call – the purpose of the church – is to make God’s love visible and to remind people that God is near. “Emmanuel” isn’t just a pretty word for Advent. It means “God with us” and that means in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives. The church – each one of us – is called to echo the joy of the angels who said, “Behold!” Behold – God is with us. Our actions should reflect that good news every day.

Church of opposites

Can we agree that we live in troubling times? It’s hard to watch the news when we hear about

  • Bombs in the mail, spreading anger, fear, and threats.
  • Increasingly powerful storms causing widespread destruction and suffering.
  • Thousands of refugees seeking safety, food, and a better future for their children.
  • The pre-Election Day noise when candidates seem to thrive on mocking one another.
  • Rude interactions when people find it difficult to be patient, take time to listen, or pass along simple courtesies.
  • A growing opioid epidemic that is ruining the lives of too many people.

I don’t have an “app” for that.

But I do have a solution that gives me hope. The church. In this day and age of declining church attendance, waning interest in organized religion, and disdain for the damage done by too many church leaders, the church still has Good News of hope, forgiveness, and new life. I celebrate the difference the church can make in a sad and hurting world.

I would like to introduce you to the “church of opposites”. The world does not get the final word on what is true – God does. The church is called to proclaim that truth, which is often opposite of what the world seems to believe.

Just imagine what this “church of opposites” gets to say:

  • Instead of division, we offer unity.
  • Instead of indifference, we offer compassion.
  • Instead of anger, we offer peace.
  • Instead of isolation, we offer community and fellowship.
  • Instead of exclusion, we celebrate God’s welcome.
  • Where there is darkness, we will lift up God’s light.
  • When everyone just seems exhausted, tired of mindlessly rushing forward – let us offer Sabbath rest. Let us breathe in the goodness of God.
  • When people are tempted to fly off the handle, we can take a breath. Perhaps say a prayer, but at least take a moment to remember we are not alone.
  • Instead of ignoring or drowning out voices of pain, let us listen to the forgotten and lonely.
  • In times of despair, let us speak of God’s hope and God’s refusal to ever (ever!) give up on us.

This is the church of “opposites.” We are a vital voice in today’s noisy, angry world. We are called to offer God’s healing love and a welcome that values all of God’s people.

Sometimes people consider “church” to be a quaint, outdated notion that no longer matters. But I consider the church, filled with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to be a force of powerful change and everlasting hope. Strength, courage, love, and compassion – those are “opposites” we need today.

Learning about church at the Apple store

Our 180-year-old iconic Congregational church building is nothing like the sleek, white-with-stainless-steel box that is the Apple store. Yet there amidst the array of phones and monitors, I discovered inspiration for the church in the 21st century.

My husband and I entered the store early on a Saturday morning, just minutes after it opened. The place was buzzing – there were people everywhere. The ten employees I counted were busy talking with customers, offering demonstrations, and enthusiastically showing the capabilities of their products. When was the last time any church was crowded with twenty- and thirty-somethings?  Or crowded at all?

We were directed to a woman holding an I-pad (of course) who took our name and promised to quickly find us some help. As we waited, I scanned the staff. I’m willing to bet that few congregations mirror that scene. Young. Multi-cultural. Equal numbers of men and women. People with varying physical abilities. All brimming with enthusiasm about what they had to offer with the conviction that life is better because of it.

When a cheery young man approached my husband to talk computers, I drifted away to glance the displays. It was the church equivalent of someone looking at bulletin boards during coffee hour. Surrounded by people, I didn’t know anyone. I was a bit bored, felt a little out of place, and had no one to talk to. But unlike the experience of many church visitors, I was swiftly approached by a pleasant young woman. She welcomed me and invited me to sit on in a class being held in the center of the store.

As I pulled up a stool, trying to slip into the small group unnoticed, the man leading the class stopped his conversation. Long dreadlocks swung around his face as he flashed a bright smile. “Hi! Welcome. My name is Rashid. What’s yours?” When I answered quietly, a bit embarrassed that I had interrupted the session, he told me he was glad I was there and assured me that I could ask any questions I might have. How many times do folks visit our churches without ever being approached and welcomed?

Rashid returned his attention to the other women sitting at the table, patiently answering questions while detailing basic knowledge about the world of Apple. This was information he must have shared hundreds of times before, yet he spoke with a passion about how these tools benefit his life. His compelling first-hand account made me wonder how many church members have that same enthusiasm when asked, “What does the church do for you?”

Throughout the store, millennials engaged older generations on their technology journey. Many were hesitant, even afraid, to dive into this foreign world of apps and home buttons. Voices of resistance – “I’m not sure I can learn something new,” were met with calm encouragement. “No worries,” the wheelchair-bound employee said, “we’ll take it step by step.” What wisdom does the younger generation have for the church? Are many churches lacking anyone under the age of 40 because we aren’t listening to the knowledge they have to offer? What if the church wondered about new ways to approach old problems?

I love my centuries-old church with its traditional beauty and treasured traditions. This is not an “either-or” scenario. It’s a question of making room for something new and trusting that God can breathe new life into the Body of Christ. We just need to be open to a new vision of what the church can be – and be willing to learn about that in unusual places.

 

Thirty years of blessings

In November 1987 I arrived at the East Woodstock Congregational Church, young and inexperienced, to begin my ministry. The congregation welcomed me with gracious patience as I made (many) mistakes. They offered encouragement as I grew into my role and discovered what it means to be a pastor.

They taught me about thoughtfulness and caring:

  1. Debbie Sherman filled the parsonage refrigerator with milk, butter and eggs. There was bread and cereal on the counter, along with directions to the (distant) grocery store. I knew I had landed among considerate, caring people.
  2. A “Pastor’s welcome basket” was set up during my first month. Every Sunday I discovered practical gifts like a flashlight, light bulbs, dish towels, cookies, and homemade muffins.
  3. Larry Grennan realized my 2-room seminary apartment wouldn’t provide enough furnishings for the rambling parsonage. He scouted furniture that helped turn that big old house into a home.
  4. George Brown fulfilled his promise to paint my office (upstairs in the brick schoolhouse, at the time) any color I chose – a cheerful yellow. George would swing by the church every afternoon “just to check” if anything needed to be adjusted, fixed, or tidied.
  5. John Davis looked at the spindly wooden chair behind my desk and invited me on an office-decorating expedition to Worcester that included reminisces about his family, work and school.
  6. Barbara Brown spent hours teaching me about relations and family connections in our village. Her gentle suggestions (“Susan, you might want to call this person”) as she reminded me about birthdays and anniversaries of happy and sad occasions helped me establish personal connections with my congregation.
  7. Kenny Marvin walked through the church every morning on the way to work to check on fickle furnaces and quirky water pumps. David Cain did endless chores – emptying trash cans, folding bulletins, raking leaves – to serve the church he loved.
  8. Evelyn Eddy dedicated her life to the missions committee, always finding new ways to help others. Barbara Klare held up autumn leaves each fall as a reminder of God’s creative presence in our lives.
  9. Barbara Barrett taught me about organization and attention to detail with her yellow legal pads and endless energy.
  10. Glen Lessig suggested the revolutionary idea of a computer to replace my typewriter and had the foresight to exchange our ancient mimeograph machine with a speedy Risograph.

They know the value of a good celebration:

  1. The noisy exuberance of children at Rally Day, Children’s Day, Christmas Pageant, children’s choir, and Vacation Bible School.
  2. Quiet beauty of our candlelight Christmas Eve service
  3. Joy and creativity of the Holly Fair
  4. Toe-tapping music of Jazz Sunday
  5. Making a joyful noise on Music Appreciation Sunday
  6. The Fourth of July Jamboree. An amazing, enduring effort that welcomes 1000+ people to enjoy old-fashioned, small-town fun.

They know how to share God’s love. These are the people I depend on in times of joy or tragedy. They live their faith by

  1. Creating beautiful Thanksgiving baskets
  2. Keeping a well-stocked food pantry for times of emergency
  3. Hosting beautiful funeral receptions, surrounding families with love
  4. Providing rides, cooking at the Community Kitchen, visiting the homebound
  5. Holding vigils in times of loss and mourning
  6. Walking with one another on life’s journey
  7. Choosing to become an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming all of God’s people

They have made East Woodstock my home. I am grateful for

  1. Celebrating my marriage with a contra dance
  2. Creating a safe and nurturing place for our children while allowing them space to learn and grow without expecting them to be perfect
  3. Supporting my continuing education with sabbatical leave – 3 times
  4. Reading and discussing my research during my Doctor of Ministry studies
  5. Making it possible for my family to travel to Bolivia, birthplace of our oldest son

There are words and experiences that I will always associate with East Woodstock:

  1. Molasses cookies. Cake walk. Basket social. Chicken barbeque. Men’s chorus.

When I step into our sanctuary, I know I am on holy ground.  This is a place where births and baptism are celebrated, couples unite, teenagers are confirmed, and memories are shared to mark a life completed and a soul gone home. There is a cloud of witnesses offering strength and love to the vibrant, active congregation that gathers to worship and serve.

  1. These are not-perfect people led by a not-perfect pastor, but somehow through the grace of God, together we are the church. And I am so grateful.

Thanks be to God.

How does the church work?

As a small-town pastor, I marvel every day about our church – this unlikely collection of volunteers who allow the love of God to shine through them. Our church looks something like this –  When I arrive early on a Sunday morning, the building is empty, locked and dark.  I begin the weekly process of resuscitation by opening the shutters and unlocking the doors. The real vibrancy arrives as people drift in. There’s the guy who makes coffee each week, here are a couple of people who baked cookies and cut up fruit for fellowship time following worship.  The choir, those impossibly busy people who somehow squeeze in weekly rehearsal time, clamber into the choir loft, eagerly anticipating their anthem.

Dedicated parents and grandparents are organizing paper, scissors, and glue sticks, anxious to share Bible lessons and crafts. The sanctuary hums to life as someone flips on the sound system, another carefully places flowers on our communion table, and some friendly volunteers welcome visitors and regulars alike.  The building is brimming with activity now, as neighbors greet one another and weary young mothers grab precious moments with a kindred spirit. Gray-headed seniors lean in for conversation as teenagers casually compare phones and screens.

Before entering the sanctuary, the deacon questions her ability to draw the attention of this noisy, somewhat unruly crowd to the still, small voice of God.  There is Good News to share – God has promised to show up, right here, in our little corner of CT, because we are gathered in God’s name.

Good morning! The deacon asserts boldly.

Good morning!  The congregation booms in reply.

Peace, one might even say the Spirit, descends upon those gathered, not at all distracted by wriggly babies or bored teenagers. Somehow God meets each one of us, exactly where we are this morning. God is in this place and suddenly – we become the church.  We are the people of God, flawed, imperfect, falling very short of the glory of God, yet blessed and renewed by God’s love which welcomes every single one of us. And because God names us the church, the Body of Christ, we can claim that title as well. Together we can endeavor to serve God by sharing God’s love.

That’s church on a Sunday morning.

How does it work on the other days?

  • Someone drops by to donate skeins of yarn she found on sale. Less than an hour later an older woman stops by to ask for prayer shawl materials. She leaves, eager to knit and pray for some yet unknown recipient who will receive a reminder of God’s encircling love. The church works when we share.
  • Two $50 Visa gift cards arrive in the mail. An out-of-state daughter wants to honor her parent’s anniversary by passing along the love and compassion she inherited from their relationship. Later that same day a young woman was weeping in my office, devastated by the husband who abandoned her and their two-year-old child. $50 wasn’t going to solve her problems, but it heartened her to know someone cared. The church works when we celebrate love.
  • One of our snowbirds returned from Florida, bubbling with excitement. “I discovered Tai Chi,” she exclaimed, “and I want to share it with others.” Her enthusiasm draws in 15-18 people, members and visitors to our church, twice weekly as they share fellowship and gentle exercise. The church works when people follow their enthusiasm.
  • “Art makes people feel good,” a gifted woman in our congregation told me. She has the ability to transform paints, fabrics, or flowers into beautiful creations. “More people should be exposed to art,” she declared. Her invitation inspired 20 artists to gather for a show and sale, transforming our fellowship hall into a combination art gallery and cool craft store.  Visitors receive a transfusion of color and creativity on a cold winter morning. Church works when we share our passion and abilities.
  • Meals shared, prayers offered, cards sent, clothes distributed, hugs given, a listening ear offered.

Seminary professors call this “incarnational theology; the Word made flesh.”

I call it making God visible to the world.  That’s church.

 

*Oil painting by Karen McFarlin:  kmcf3470@gmail.com

 

 

 

What aquacise teaches me about church

Sometimes I learn about faith and the church in the oddest places.  Several times each week I attend a water aerobics, or aquacise, class.  I have always loved swimming so this form of exercise never feels like “I have to” but instead like “I get to” work out.

Lately as I engage in “deep water runs” or endless rounds of “water crunches, it occurs to me that my fellow classmates form a community much like the best aspects of a congregation.

There is great diversity in the aquacize participants. We come to class, all of us – the lame and that biblical description, the “halt” (defined in my dictionary as “one who limps”), the old and the young, men and women of every size and description.  Some people walk briskly from the locker room to the pool; for others, it is more challenging.

  • One woman rolls to the water’s edge in a wheelchair, her bright pink hair and cheery smile drawing attention away from her legs that struggle to support her and which barely move enough to allow her to get to the stairs into the water.
  • There is a man who calls himself “One-legged Dave,” who arrives promptly each morning. “I lost the leg below the knee to cancer, but that’s all that sucker got – the rest of me is still here!” He sits on a bench to remove his prosthetic leg with the molded plastic foot and replaces it with a rubber flipper. “I’ll be the fastest one in class – the only problem is, I’ll go in circles!”
  • An older woman wears thick black gloves in the water. I thought this was very odd until someone explained that she had been in a serious car accident. She was severely burned, leaving her skin sensitive to the pool chemicals.

I am in awe of the courage on display here. It would be easier for each one of them to stay home. They choose to come because they find something there that nourishes their spirits. I hope the same can be said for the church.

When this unlikely collection of people is brought together on land, one can hardly imagine that they could ever comprise an exercise group.  But then – they enter the water.

In that moment, they are transformed. All the differences and physical challenges disappear in the water.  Water, it turns out, is a great equalizer.  Suddenly everyone is the same height; all we can see of one another is our heads bobbing out of the water.  Creaky knees relax as they are lifted by the forgiving buoyancy, aching muscles ease as they are massaged by the gentle warmth that surrounds us.  People who can barely walk on land suddenly experience the freedom of graceful movement in the water.

The pool provides a release that we share with joy.  In my mind’s eye, I imagine the Holy Spirit moving in and through our class, anointing each of these individuals and binding us together as a group.

I hope people experience that kind of delight when they come to church. I hope the sanctuary is a place where all kinds of people can come together and experience renewed hope and welcome. People who are weighed down by challenges in life and those who are confronted with numerous limitations in other venues can hear the Good News – you belong here. The problems that we carry with us may not be forgotten but they will not be allowed to define us.

The pool –and the church – can be a place of encouragement where members are invited to stretch their wings and find a new definition for themselves.

Everyone, of course, has a story to tell and a reason why they show up for an 8:15 a.m. aquacise class. Some people arrive yearning for some serious exercise and look forward to the workout. Others clearly come primarily for fellowship, barely pausing in their conversations to listen to our enthusiastic instructor, who guides and encourages us with great patience and creativity.

People come to worship for lots of different reasons, as well. I hope the church makes them feel as welcome as the pool does. Church can be – should be – that place where all of God’s people are on equal footing, where all of us are enveloped by the loving grace of God’s Holy Spirit.  Church can be – should be – a place where we discover new possibilities, where we are told not what we can’t do, but instead are encouraged to be amazed by what God can do in and through us.

If you see me in class, you might think I am only trying to increase my core muscle strength, but in reality, I am learning again about how God teaches me about grace and welcome and the church in very surprising places.