I did my time

I was 24 and serving my first congregation, and one of the tasks that position held was as chaplain of the fire company next door. I would occasionally go over for a beverage and talk to the men (only men at that point) and listen to their stories. I happened to get into a conversation with one man, the father of two children in our Sunday school who never went to church, even though he was a member. When I asked him why, he told me “I did my time”. My face must have betrayed me, because he got defensive and explained how busy he was, etc, etc. Too late buddy: you made your confession. Church, to him, was like jail. And he isn’t alone; I have heard that story, in various ways and many times, for 38 years, and it never fails to hit me where it hurts. No matter what we as the church do in worship or for the community, there will always be people who think of organized religion as punishment, and that is partly our fault.

But it is also partly the individual’s fault. I was talking with a woman just the other night who had been very active in a couple of different local churches over the years but was now not attending church. She and her husband went from church to church depending on what their kids needed, and when those children grew up, they stopped going. This couple does good work for others who are in need. They are exceptional people. And yet, I realized that their understanding of their spiritual needs wasn’t based on their own growth as people of faith, but on what the church could do for their families. This is both wrong and right, I think, because it points out that the church has been complicit in turning itself into a commodity. We have gone along with the idea that if kids go to church and Sunday school and youth group, they will turn out just fine. This magical thinking has victimized schools as well. We have seen the expectations of teachers and educational systems expand over the year to the point that they have become de facto parents for many children. 

The second problem is that this kind of “you make my kid good for me” thinking teaches children that spirituality is something their parents don’t do once they are grown up. This “do as I say, not as I do” approach to life was soundly condemned by Jesus, who told His disciples that some Pharisees said the right things, so they should be listened to, but they didn’t always do the right thing, so don’t emulate their behavior. Parents who drop their children off at church and go elsewhere are showing their children that spirituality is a kid thing, not an adult thing. I get that church isn’t always (or ever?) exciting, but we are adults here; spirituality isn’t supposed to be entertainment. It also shouldn’t put us to sleep.

I believe that children and adults need the church, and the church needs them. The work of God is done by the collective congregation, not just the pastor and a few devout laypeople. The church needs to do better at getting rid of the things we do that don’t feed us anymore, and church members need to stop expecting a circus every time they walk through the church doors. Worship, education, and fellowship activities prepare us to do God’s work for the rest of the week, and we are never done. And being involved in a church isn’t about guaranteeing us a spot in heaven. Being spiritual AND religious is a journey, not a destination; to expect that we will one day get it perfectly right is a fool’s dream. As more and more people decide that they’ve done their time, and more and more congregations close, the work of the church lessens, and the needs around us go unanswered. The church will change and become something different, but without people, it will stop being church. You and I aren’t done yet. Don’t give up.

Prayer – We are the church, God of all; we are Your people. Show us this new thing You call us to do. Amen.

Today’s art is a church window on canvas by the infamous and amazing Banksy.

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