What is the killer question for churches?
This week I am traveling to Western Pennsylvania to talk to a congregation located north of Pittsburgh. Several members from their sister congregation in the city will join us. And what is it that I find most important to share at these events, among those deeply committed to moving church out into the world as a healing force? It is the centrality of one thing – what is the first question a church should ask? Is it,”What does the congregation want to do?” or is it “How can this congregation serve?”
“What does this congregation want to do?”
This question is logical. It is the question any trained minister would by all means start a pastoral call with. And it is death.
Why such strong language? Because church and Christianity is not suffering from overt attacks from without but from a slow decay from within. That slow decay unfortunately gets covered over with various scents and perfumes that confuse activity with effectiveness. I remember traveling to one congregation in the Allentown area where during the welcoming words by the Pastor, it was clearly stated, “We do not ‘pass the peace’” here. (To ‘pass the peace’ is the begin the service with congregants welcoming one another with a handshake and welcome wish for God’s peace.) They even noted this exclusion in their printed worship program.
As a minister, I can easily envision the debate that must have swirled around this decision. The congregation obviously held a degree a pride in this decision, seeing it as a competitive advantage of sorts vis-a-vis other congregations.
The above is what often passes for the work of church. It comes in various packages – debates over carpeting, music, prayer, liturgy, and the use of technology. And yet we need to be frank – none of that appears to be of much concern to Christ. It is trivial – window dressing in terms of the work the church is called to,work closer to justice and care for others.
As needs to be said over and over again, Christ never gathered the 12 to ask “What does the congregation want to do?” What He did was fire their imaginations with the passion of service, of the lived experience of selfless devotion to the other. And then, simply, sent them out. “Go forth and make disciples of men.” In other words, he asked the second question.
“How can the church serve?”
This question places church and other groupings in perspective and creates a far more meaningful raison d’etre. It allows for breath – both in and out. Churches do in fact serve their members. The couple who invites new people to lunch after church is doing a HUGE service. And so is the person who organizes a larger community service outing. Both work hand-in-hand in the spirit of service – breathing in and out, the respiration of a healthy church.
We know very well the hard stories that bring many people to the doors of church. They need care. We know very well the hard stories out there in wider environs. They need care.
A service orientation allows us to engage in the critical and hope filled task of asking even more. (Courtesy of Richard Rohr)
- What should life be?
- Why isn’t it?
- How do we repair it?
The New Church, like many Christian churches, will reclaim its prophetic voice. That was Emanuel Swedenborg’s call from God, one unfortunately I believe we have effectively neutered. What if we take the deeper mantle again – the mantle of “service” minus the “serve us”? Christianity, in it purer forms appears to be heading more and more into a period of cultural exile, however the blessing in that exile is that it will enable us to see more clearly and maybe reclaim the faith as a distinct alternative to cultural norms destructive of human lives and spirit.
Shortly after posting this blog, I was interrupted by call from Emily Green, a local secondary school student. She is organizing a cupcake drive to benefit cancer care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. We discussed how NewChurch LIVE can help her further her project. Pass the Peace Sister!! Now THAT is church.