I’m hanging out at the house today because I have a cold and I feel terrible. I have a couple of committee meetings to go to at church tonight, so I’m saving my strength. Our church is a part of something called The Timothy Project, a visioning emphasis of the Mass. Conference of the UCC to help thriving churches do even better, and our Timothy Team is gathering to talk about what happens next. My other meeting is our Stewardship Committee. Other Tuesdays of the month I meet with the Youth Team, the Diaconate, and the Christian Education Committee — and that’s not all of them. As I’m getting ready for those meetings, I can’t get the gathering I saw in the ice cream parlor Sunday afternoon. I’ve stumped myself trying to think of the last committee meeting I went to at church that was focused on something other than perpetuating the institution or taking care of our own.
I can’t remember one.
My friend Gordon, over at Real Live Preacher, just posted a great article on church marketing where he talks about the words we choose to describe ourselves. He starts by talking about church signs. When I was in high school in Houston, the church where my dad pastored had one of those signs where the slogan changed every week. I never knew who put the slogans up, but they were all cutesy and full of bad puns. The week it said, “It is no sin to cheat the devil” I came home and told my father I was going to change churches if he didn’t make the sign guy get a grip. I’ve never met anyone who said, “I joined this church because I love the little sayings on the sign outside.”
Jesus doesn’t fit in a sound bite.
I’m struggling to see how Jesus fits in a committee meeting where we only talk about ourselves. I don’t want to come across too judgmental because the folks in these meetings mean well and we have some important work to do, I just don’t think we are ever allowed the luxury of working on only one side of the equation of faith. When we talk about how we are going to challenge one another to give more to meet our budget deficit, we need to talk about how we are going to give away more at the same time. How could any church gather in the next day or two and not spend time talking and praying about the miners in Mexico and the victims of the mudslides in the Philippines?
I don’t understand enough about prayer to grasp how praying for faraway people in pain helps them, but I do know it changes me. If we make a point of having those kind of prayerful conversations each time we gather, it will change us as a church as well.
We have two slogans that show up in words, both printed and spoken:
“A growing church for a growing community.”
“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”
I think we put them out there with good intentions and we work to mean what we say. The challenge comes when life calls us to parse the phrases more closely than we had anticipated. We, like many churches, mostly think about how to get you through our doors, not so much how to knock on yours.
If you’ve read this blog much at all, you’ll understand when I say my problem is how to go into these meetings and not sound like Johnny-One-Note. I come loaded with thoughts on chocolate, free trade, being Open and Affirming, mission trips — and I’m grow quickly weary of the ease with which we spend money on windows and pew cushions. I struggle to find the balance between speaking a prophetic word and sounding like a pompous ass. I’m not the only one in the world — or in my church — who is worried about the people trapped in the mines and the mud. I’m nowhere close to having the corner on compassion. I’m afraid I get so busy looking around the world I don’t always notice the people in the room, people who have spent their lives in our church with great faith, love, and intention.
More than one time in my life I’ve been called back to the movie Mass Appeal, a story about a young seminarian working in a church with an older priest who has allowed himself to settle for comfort over faith. The seminarian is determined to change the congregation, but tries to do so with a flamethrower, rather than a pastoral word. He learns the folks in the pew, which he sees only as rich and clueless, are hurting and searching as much as he is — they just talk about it differently and have found different ways to cope with the pain.
You’d think, twenty-five years out of seminary, I would have finally learned that lesson.
The church needs my voice, but as part of the chorus of voices, not as the paid soloist. And I will only sing well if I’m listening hard to those around me. Then we have the chance for harmony. Without taking the choir analogy too far, one more thing: every choir that sings well rehearses a great deal, working on both the big picture and how things go measure by measure.
(The last paragraph was aimed mostly at me; take what you need.)