What Do You Want From the Church?

This is one of the questions our retreat leader asked us last night, and because we moved to a different, more important area, we never got to answer it. My answer was immediate: I want the church to be less petty. Clergy, lay people, all of us; we need to be less petty. Pettiness finds its way into every aspect of our community life, and it is part of what is killing us. I am not saying that every church is always petty; in fact, I see tremendous grace in many communities. What I am saying is that it doesn’t take much of this to kill a community of faith. We need to be on guard for it all the time.

What do I mean by pettiness? My congregation, for example, only allowed Elders (an official designation) to help serve communion. Deacons (also official), though no different in their service to the church, we not allowed – and everyone else? Forget about it! The church should not be a hierarchy, and the United Church of Christ prides itself in being the least hierarchical of all; and yet, this distinction continued for decades. Why did this matter? As far as I can tell, Elders were considered the leaders, and therefore were the only ones holy enough (yes, I am being snarky) to handle the elements with the pastor. We ended this, extending the opportunity to anyone who was willing to help me.

Another example: these same elders were the only ones who gave the elements to those gathered. I, as the pastor, gave communion to them, and then they gave it to others. I had come from a tradition in which I was able to give each person the bread, and I felt honored and humbled to do so. It was my wife who pointed out to me just how elitist this practice was. Once we rid ourselves of this, the Eucharist became, I think, more personal and egalitarian.

Pettiness over where we sit, or what we sing, or how the candles are lit, or how we take the offering; it seems that everything we do, once it becomes tradition, gets set in stone. We have dress codes; we have inside language; we have formality – all of these and more keep us divided, creating a status for some and not others. The church is a human institution, but the more pettiness we have, the farther away from Jesus we get. The Jesus who called His disciples friends. The Jesus that interacted with people He “shouldn’t” have. The Jesus that wept and laughed and hugged and died. That Jesus shouldn’t be involved in our petty behavior.

What would happen if we decided to stop all the pomp and division and become a place where every person was equal? What would happen if we embraced the AA model of equality and stopped worrying about nonsense? What would happen if all of our members saw service as the highest calling? What would happen if we allowed grace to happen before we jumped to judgment? We get so bogged down in what we want that we set aside what Jesus wants. We worry so much about things going well that we forget just how messy people are. I want the church to be less petty. How about you? What are you willing to do to make this happen? For me, I will continue to work to wipe petty behavior from our congregation. What about you?

Prayer – Holy and loving God, help each one of us to examine who we are and how we behave, so that those seeking community will find a place absent of pettiness and full of grace. Amen.

Today’s art is called “Amazing Grace” by Carmen Guedez.