Undoing Church So We Can Be the Church
As liberal as I am, I am a traditionalist. I find comfort in knowing what to expect in certain situations. I find peace in anticipating my dad making French toast on Christmas morning. I still make my bed the same way I was taught in Sunbeams as a kid. There is almost nothing that brings me contentment on a Sunday afternoon quite like grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup while I watch the Bears game, just like I’ve done for the last few decades.
My deeply-rooted desire for tradition fits nicely into my denomination. There is an endless list of traditions that are as second-nature to me as can be, and for years, I loved that it meant that while I might find pews instead of chairs or a single minister instead of a married minister, I could go into almost any church and know that the terminology would be the same, the song arrangements the same, etc. When I was in seminary, planning a Sunday morning worship service was taught like science: we were to have x sings, y verses of scripture, and z minutes allowed for the message. The cue sheets for worship services were timed out to the minute, complete with scripted transitional phrases and if a meeting was “too long,” elements were to be cut or shortened to fit. I should mention that in terms of church styles, we are NOT a liturgical denomination, but all the planning made it feel very much like high-church to me.
Then I got my congregation.
A congregation that was in shambles.
A congregation that was largely illiterate.
I came into the picture after years and years of fighting and feuding. Songs that I thought everyone would know were new to them, and they had a hard time reading fast enough to sing them. The person who offered to do the A/V didn’t know how to minimize a window on the computer, so I ended up having to do the A/V from the pulpit most Sundays. Every week, I planned out the service similarly to the way that I had experienced Sunday mornings every week for the previous 32 years.
Song, song, pray, offering, song, pray, scripture, message, pray, sing, go home.
Or some variation on that.
Then, on February 2, 2013, the 17-year-old in my congregation was pronounced dead in the pediatric intensive care unit. She had been left for dead by a pedophile. I’d been in the hospital with the family since she had been found a couple of days prior, and I was a wreck. I was angry. I was empty. I had no idea at all how I was going to “do church” the next morning. How on earth was I going to walk into the chapel and lead them in singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” when I could barely even close my own eyes to pray? Knowing I had no strength of my own to say anything, I prayed for God to tell me what He wanted me to say. I found a few scriptures that I could do something with and went to sleep.
My homiletics instructor would weep knowing that that’s all I’d done, but what I’d prepared earlier in the week just wasn’t going to cut it.
The next morning, I walked into the chapel. It was silent. There sat her family, another parishioner who had known her for her whole lifetime, and my parents, all in the back pews of the chapel. I took a music stand and walked back to stand nearer to them.
I confessed that I hadn’t had a clue what to say to them, because I knew that we were all devastated. I told them that what I had concluded is that what we needed in that moment was not to “do church” like we always had. The purpose of the church is not to work peacefully through the cue sheet and hope that the Holy Spirit does Her thing. The purpose of the church is to care for and instruct one another while we worship. That morning, we needed healing. The kind of healing that cannot happen anywhere else.
I spoke of the death of Jacob and the grief process. I spoke of not holding anger in our hearts towards the person responsible for her death. We didn’t sing a single song that morning. There was no offering collected. I played some music while we had time to pray and left it very open in format – they were welcome to pray out loud, with one another, silently, through some kind of artistic expression at a table I’d set up in the back, to pray at the altar… whatever we needed. We cried a lot as we prayed individually, and then I prayed before we all left.
It wasn’t “church” like I’d had before, but it was the first time that the congregation there felt like it was the church. While all I have is a skeleton of an outline, it remains the best sermon I’ve ever preached.
Since then, there has been a lot of trauma in the congregation, a lot of church discipline, and nearly everyone has left or been dismissed. The few who remain are starting over. I have no idea how to do that, feeling totally lost on how to build on ashes, but the times that we have stopped “doing church” so that we can be the church have been the most effective. When everyone was sick and the service consisted of me and one widow, it was the first time that she opened up about how I could really pray for and support her. This morning, when it was just my parents and me, a family that left 8 months ago came back. Instead of singing the songs I’d planned, we listened to the kids and celebrated their good news and listened to the heartbreak of the grandmother who needed someone to hear and to care about her burdened heart.
I’m not advocating getting rid of worship services altogether – I really do like them – but what I’ve learned is that being the church sometimes looks very different than doing church. A recent Facebook friend referred to her church as a “MASH unit” for those who have been hurt. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe those times that I’ve ditched the cue sheet. For a million different reasons, people are hurting, and they need somewhere to go for healing. They need a MASH unit. They don’t need a perfectly executed cue sheet; they need to encounter the church in the form of its people who are ready to love them.
I hope and pray that that is the kind of church my congregation becomes.