During a recent “faith story” (children’s message) during worship, I talked about the significance of various people in our church and in our worship life at Old South. We began with the “here is the church, here is the steeple” rhyme, ending with, “you can have a church without a steeple, but you can’t have a church without any people.” And, then I went on to ask what would happen if certain people decided not to show up for Sunday worship. What if the music director didn’t show up for worship, or the choir, or the greeters, or the Sunday School teachers, etc.? And, then I asked, “What would happen if I didn’t show up?”
And, without missing a beat, someone in the choir chimed in, “We could all go home!”
And the people laughed.
I know it was meant to be funny, and it was, but at the same time, it was a moment that betrayed a raw and difficult reality—that even among those who attend Old South, and churches like it, a certain level of ambivalence lurks in our midst. I don’t doubt that many who attend Old South feel a sense of deep connection to the life of the church, but I sometimes worry about the threads of that connection. I know we have some people who wouldn’t be at Old South but for the choir. Friendships and relationships are important, too. And, there are a number of people who share with me the need to spend some time each week in a place set apart, when they can be renewed in their connection to God, etc. There are others for whom worship is a part of their weekly routine.
Still, a tension rears its ugly head from time to time that for at least a few of Old South’s most active participants, my role as “pastor and teacher” is not quite on the list of church priorities—especially when it comes to my post in the pulpit.
Last week, as we were preparing for this past Sunday’s worship, celebrating Pentecost and Music Sunday, with communion as well, we started to fret a bit about the length of the service. After the weekly choir rehearsal, I got a call from the church secretary (who is also in the choir), asking a question posed by another choir member: would I consider eliminating the “sermon” from the service? You know, to save a bit of time. I heaved a heavy sigh.
In these days of concern over the future of our church, as we watch our average weekly attendance decline and our average age increase, it seems that the church could use a little more in the way of what my job is, that is “pastoring and teaching.” Our holy book, after all, offers many significant lessons and perspectives pertinent to the challenges we face. Yet, there is resistance.
Resistance, I should be clear, is not a dominant force in the life of Old South. Yet, it is present in ways that ought not be ignored—because it gets in the way. It hinders new things and new ideas. It obscures the movement of the Spirit. It undermines our relationship with the Gospel.
It’s not a bad thing to experience a funny moment in the midst of worship, or to observe, occasionally, the age-old disdainful attitude toward sermons (although, I can’t help but get a little disdainful back—I mean, really, my sermons are rarely over fifteen minutes these days). But, when it starts to become more than a sporadic quip, one must ask critical questions about the overall wellbeing of the church, as a community of God’s people, devoted to the living out of the Gospel. If our attachment to our scriptures—and our desire to learn more about how those scriptures still speak to us—is not held in high esteem, as a central piece of who are and what we do, we must then ask about the point of our gathering.
While there are many aspects of our life together that contribute to keeping us attached, we must never lose sight of the fact that we gather as “church,” as a holy people, a “spiritual house,” grounded in faith and in the Gospel. That must be, and must remain, at the core of our being. Or, we are really just a club and not a church.