Over this past weekend my local congregation celebrated what seemed like the full gambit of our life together. On Saturday afternoon we gathered to celebrate a young couple’s wedding. On Sunday morning we gathered around Word and table and celebrated the confirmation of three of our teens with them making their profession of faith and one young man being baptized. We gathered again on Sunday evening affirming our belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting as we laid to rest one of our dear saints. Ruminating upon and recovering from the fullness, intensity, and significance of these last few days has me charged up—hopeful even!—about the church and our faith as we move forward, especially during this next week going into the Reformed Church in America’s General Synod. If you would be so amiable I like us to consider two topics here.
I serve a relatively small congregation, even by RCA standards. But while their number may not be large, their commitment to one another is mighty. This came through vividly this weekend. The church community made it a point to gather and to support our young people and our old. A commitment to one another, to walk with each other, to share and celebrate our joys as well as our sorrows: this should not be discounted. This is a very Reformed idea too, the covenant/commitment/community. I love how in our wedding liturgy the congregation is invited to stand and they are asked to commit themselves to the couple too. They are not spectators of an event, they are participating witnesses. And they are asked, “Will you, their friends and family, support this couple now, and in the years ahead?” This is especially true in our expectations of the church to fellow members, especially the newly baptized and newly received into community. In our order of worship we ask,
Do you promise to love, encourage, and support these sisters and brothers by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service?
It says “The strong support of God’s family.” Many churches speak of themselves as church family, and this at its worse can be trite or reinforce a club mentality. But at a sacramentally deep level it can be a rich and abiding experience of grace and love and a testimony to the call that Christ makes of us to be his body and to share in his work. I would add a radical testimony even. In a world where individualism takes precedence we say “no, not exactly.” When we are bound with God, we are bound with one another. We echo Ruth, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” I find this commitment to being community with one another is just as important across the wider church as it is at the level of the congregation.
What if that means we remain relatively small though? Perhaps. There is great consternation, much fear and anxiety about the church losing members. I get that. I too am concerned about what will allow our ministry to be sustainable and mission to grow. But sometimes I think the worry and fuss could most easily be remedied by simply being the church. What if we really just struggled and groped our way in this world by living out the promises we make in our baptism, to God and to one another? There’s a cartoon that’s been going around the interwebs that attempts to put some of the change and worry in perspective. I find it a helpful reminder.
Welcoming the Estranged By Being Real
I am certainly not saying that the church needs to hunker down in some sort of bunker mentality or close ourselves off from growth. Absolutely not! If anything, strengthening our commitment to genuine community may heighten our awareness of where and to whom we have fallen short. Having come from a wedding, a funeral, and baptism/confirmation this weekend meant I also attended the reception, repast, and parties following each religious celebration. In each gathering were those present who are not part of church community. Some came from other faith traditions. Some came from no faith tradition. But in each celebration were those who had once been part of the church, but were no longer.
Generally, religion is something one is not suppose to talk about in polite company. But as a clergyperson, especially one who wears a collar and serves in the East, I get a pass on that. I have been pleasantly shocked at times at the frankness and openness of people asking questions and sharing their story as it relates to religion, faith, or spirituality. And if it is established that there is little space allowed for judgment or “BS,” then honesty and candor is often forthcoming. I have learned a lot. This weekend’s wedding was a young couple, of the coveted (and overly discussed) millennial generation. Their childhood and school-years friends were a cross-section of Queens and Brooklyn—that is a cross section of the world—in race, ethnicity, and religion. I had wonderfully deep conversations with Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists about faith and practice. But some of the best chats were with those who fall in the atheist/agnostic category, or who believe but have no connection to religion at all. Not a few of these young people came from church backgrounds but are no longer connected. What I heard from many of them was a longing for “realness” and a disappointment at the lack of genuine community that they have experienced from religion so far. Anecdotal, to be sure. But I heard similar expressions at the celebrations following the confirmations too, and these from other generations, older, who had experienced a lack of realness with religious expressions.
I’m not making any 15-year denominational goal here or laying out any plans. I’m simply ruminating on my experience of church from these last few days, both celebrating…and to be honest, lamenting a bit too. Where to now? How do we proceed? What is important? Starting synod today, this is what I’m carrying with me. How about you? What are you carrying and ruminating on?