I know some very nice churchfolk. They really are very good people. I’ve spent many years of my life not only living with believers but working alongside them. It’s no exaggeration to say: some of my best friends are churchgoing folks. Like some in my family, I love them too, whatever they believe.
So, I attend a church service now and then (I used to lead them back in pastoral days, so I know “worship” quite intimately). There’s some fine music (and some atrocious music). There are good words. . .and. . .well, not so good–at least not so good to hear. Sometimes because I’ve heard the same stuff for a very long time. Sometimes, it’s just boring or nonsensical. And other times. . .well, that’s what I want to talk about for a minute here.
I wonder how many pastors (rabbis, priests and imams too) ever think that maybe, just maybe, there is a person sitting in the pew who is not a believer. They may be a visitor, a neighbor, a friend of a friend or a family member, but they don’t believe the same things the pastor does.
Now, what if a service starts with the pastor saying and praying,
“Let us confess our sins. The scriptures say, the one who says they have no sin is a liar and they have no truth in them. Let us pray for forgiveness.”
And if, like me, you don’t believe in sin (separation from a God who gets easily hurt or angry), how would you feel being told right up front that you are a liar without truth in you and there’s no hope unless you ask forgiveness? And what if this was a “progressive” church where even the pastor may not agree with this historical definition of sin, but says it anyway? I can tell you, it’s a strange position (and pew) to be in.
Of course, the morning scripture is read–this time it’s from the Book of Job (remember Job, the one who was tortured by God and tries to argue his case but nothing is really resolved in the end and God still comes out looking guilty?). Then a passage from Luke is read where Jesus argues theological nonsense with “the Jews” again. I admit, I’ve heard all this since childhood and I still wonder what’s the point? I heard nothing about people sleeping in their cars in the parking lot or the black man who was gunned down by police not far away or the insanity of the presidential election. Nothing about the beauty of the trees out the windows. The whole point was essentially to be a member of God’s family and be assured that when you die God will take you and we will remember you. That’s very nice. I guess it just wasn’t very inviting.
Then, in the sermon, the pastor talks about grace and healing and how Jesus is the one who teaches us (Christians) to be good, ethical people. I couldn’t exactly follow the whole storyline, something about a man who lost his hand in a farming accident. Since part of the message was about resurrection of the body, I kept wondering about that hand–would it be resurrected too?! Would it be re-attached in a heavenly hospital? There goes my heretic mind again!
This leads right into a Communion time where everyone goes forward and you (me, in this case) are sitting by yourself, obvious to everyone that YOU are NOT “receiving the body and blood of the Lord”! (except this time my wife sat with me, out of “solidarity”). Are you anti-Christian or a hater? Are you refusing to share the Lord’s Supper out of anger or spite? You’re certainly not one of the People of God. I don’t think anyone consciously thinks this, but it’s a strange feeling, I can tell you.
There is a ritual of remembrance for all those in the church who have died. The assurance is given that they are all “in heaven” awaiting US. But, not me. Not the person in the room who isn’t knocking on heaven’s door and doesn’t believe there is a door or a heaven. There is no assurance, and maybe no hope, for me. If there WAS hope for me to get in without faith, why would anyone need to have faith at all?
Let me say right now, I’m not blaming these good, well-intentioned folks. But it might, just might, do some good for them to reflect on the message delivered by their service. And I need to say, I don’t expect that every clergyperson will be “playing to the audience” every week, trying to be sensitive to who might be in the pews. Yet. . .maybe there could be a little more of that thoughtfulness? I don’t expect you to walk in my shoes, but maybe sit in my pew, once in a while.
I’ll end this critical reflection with one, perhaps more troubling, question: If I, a former believer raised in the church, a former minister who “served the church” for many years, feel this way in a “progressive” church service, what about those who drop in or linger in the back, who don’t believe the same things, yet wish to feel welcome, to be included somehow? Maybe what I’m sensing is the old Insider/Outsider divide.
Overall, it hasn’t always been awful or negative. A number of the people in these congregations ARE welcoming and friendly. Though I have the feeling they might NOT be so welcoming if they knew I was an unbeliever, I still see the goodness in them and their “family gathering.” And, finally, perhaps this is really the point I need to keep in mind:
If you’re not a member of the family (the Church Family; the Family of God) you shouldn’t expect to be completely included. Especially if you were ONCE in the family, but left.
I don’t go to church often. Now you can see why. I hope by sharing this story more Insiders and their leaders will give a thought to how a visitor might feel, and then dare to ask them what they think about it all. I think something positive could come from that discussion.
Ending on a Good Note: I attended a discussion group before the service and was impressed with how open people were about their doubts and questions. This was, in my opinion, the best part of the morning. People were honest; leaders were listening; and some of us stayed afterward talking about physics and theology. . .before someone said, “Worship is starting!” and we cleared the room.