Why I Go To Church
February 22, 2004
At first glace this question, “Why do I, your minister, go to church?” has one blindingly obvious answer: It’s my job. I am here to serve this community. There are, however, a great variety of other reasons beyond that one basic, rather pedestrian answer. I am called to this work, I am drawn to be in this community in this particular way. And here is what I really want to talk about: I suspect that my reasons as to why I come to this congregation are not all that different from yours.
Why are you here? Why do you come to church? Perhaps you show up out of habit, church attendance can be habit forming. If this is the case for you, can you recall the original reasons as to why you are here? I can imagine many possibilities. Some of us come for inspiration and insight. Some, for ethical encouragement. Some show up because they want to stay connected to friends. Some come to grow and become a better persons. Some, for spiritual or personal healing. And some are here to take part in the justice-making work of this community. Likely you come for a mixture of these and other reasons. I have owned each of these reasons at several points along the way in my own journey. A religious community meets different needs for different people. Of course we are not all things to all people, but in a way we are a little bit of a social club and a civil activism group, and a support group and an institute of higher learning all rolled into one. And yet, in a radical way we are nothing like any of those groups.
Our mission states who we are. Our mission statement is printed on the back of the order of service almost every Sunday. Take a look at it. Amid the poetic imagery about sun and wind and rain there are statements about educating ourselves and our children. There are statements about putting our faith into actions at the local and the global level. It says we are a safe and nurturing community. It says we celebrate beauty and support one another in times of sorrow. It says we are guided by truth in a search for justice. It says all are welcome. It actually says a lot of stuff. It is a long mission statement.
I sometimes wonder if there might be a shorter version hiding inside. I wonder if there might be a single concise statement that could flash through like lightening, alive and dazzling. There is a passage in the gospels where a lawyer tries to trick Jesus by asking him which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus responds, (at least in Mark’s account of the event,) by saying the single greatest commandment are these two! To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself. I just love how he did that. But do you think we could do something like that with our mission statement? What about this? “We gather in a supportive and nurturing community to create opportunities for all to grow and to serve.” “We gather in a supportive and nurturing community to create opportunities for all to grow and to serve.” That is probably not a perfect rendering of the regular mission statement, but it is an easier mouthful and has many of the important components: growth, service, support, creating opportunities.
One part of all this I want to lift out is service. We are a voluntary association. People choose to associate with this community of their own free will. We run by congregational polity and the democratic process. The people who have chosen to join this congregation are the people who create this congregation. Much of what goes on around here happens because someone among us makes it happen. The more you put into it the more you have to work with. The more you give, the more you will receive. When you join a community such as ours you are asked to make a pledge of money. Everyone in the room pools a little of their money together into the common pot. Then you decide what you want to do with that money, and then you do it. But this is not just about money. When you join this community we ask that you give of your time, talent and treasure. We ask you to volunteer not only your money, but your time and your talent as well. We ask you to serve.
Have you ever heard the concept of tithing applied to your time? What percentage of your time do you give to the various demands and passions of your life. A forty hour work week is nearly 25% of the 168 hours in a week. You could make a case for not including the hours when you sleep in your total. That would be akin to the difference between gross income and net income, I guess. For the sake of argument, let us stick with the 168 hours. A tithe of time would be a little over 16 hours which is a lot. 1% of your time in weekly terms is about an hour and a half. That covers the worship service and part of the coffee hour each week. How much time do you spend here?
Many people volunteer significant portions of their time to sing in choir or organize a put luck or manage the endowment funds or videotape the service for rebroadcast. Why? What is the reason behind volunteering? There are a couple of prominent perspectives on that.
One perspective on why you should volunteer is because your congregation needs you. We have all these things going on and we need someone to be doing them. Someone has to make coffee for all these people. Every Sunday we need ushers and greeters and focal point makers. Someone needs to help out on the membership/outreach committee and the Library committee and so on. There is work here to be done and no one else around to do it. To a degree this perspective is true. If someone does not step up and do these things they will not get done and that is not a happy thing. But in the end, if these various activities do not get done, it’s not the end of the world. People do not come to church for the church’s sake. We do not come to church to do tasks. We do not exist for the church, the church exists for us.
Therefore, another perspective is that you should volunteer at the church because you get so much out of this community. This congregation is here for you. We have so much to offer, it is amazing how much is going on around here! You know, you really ought to give back to this community, at least to the extent that you get something out of it. Unfortunately when we start with a consumer mentality as we do in this second perspective, when we start with the idea that the congregation exists to meet your needs, then we to easily fall into the idea that we are “paying” with our financial pledge and our donation of time for the benefits we get out of this place.Yet there is something true in each of these perspectives! Your church does need you, there are many little important tasks (as well as large important tasks) that need attention. But at the same time, A. Powell Davies once said that church is where you learn to grow a soul. You are here for your own spiritual and ethical growth. But in the first case we rely to heavily on a legalistic idea of duty to motivate volunteerism, and in the second, we slip into using guilt to break away from the consumer mentality we have set up. Well, if the reason you should volunteer at this community is not about what the congregation needs because that is legalistic and at its extreme makes the church into a monster, and it is not about what the individual needs because that is consumer-oriented and at its extreme relies to heavily on guilt and shame as the prime motivators; then perhaps there is another perspective that could work.
When I was a child I used to help my mother get the church school ready each Sunday. I would follow her around as she went from classroom to classroom, there were about a dozen of them to go through. She would drop off the curriculum for that week, deliver craft supplies and occasionally rearrange the furniture. And I would help her do all this. When I was in Junior High, she started letting me do this on my own. I would take her huge key ring, I knew what each of the fistful of keys was for. I would go through the building and open up the rooms for Sunday. I made sure the glue was there, and the paper and scissors, and everything the teachers would need for that class. I loved being helpful. I loved knowing what needed to be done and being able to do it. It wasn’t fun. I wasn’t doing it because the work itself was enjoyable. I was doing it because being able to do the work meant I was a part of it all, and I liked that.
If we see the mission of the congregation as creating opportunities to grow and to serve, what would it look like for service to be an avenue of growth? What are your gifts and talents? What do you have to offer into the communal pot of our shared resources. As a junior high kid, one of my gifts was being able to follow an orderly routine and to remember that the chairs in room twelve often gravitate to room fourteen during the week and need to be brought back for Sunday morning. So simple a talent, so normal a skill. It was useful all the same and when I was found willing, my usefulness was put to use.
William Ellery Channing, prominent Unitarian preacher from the early 1800’s spoke of a seed theology. He believed that God was like a divine seed within every soul waiting to unfold, a holy potential awaiting the proper nurture and care. In his statements about religious education for children he wrote, “The great end of religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own. … Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs. … In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” For so it is with children and so it is with you at whatever age. The great end of my ministry is not to serve you, but to draw out your ministry from within that you may serve others. And this is where we bump into the phrase “Shared Ministry.”
Roy Phillips, a recently retired colleague and author of texts that have become required reading in UU seminaries, sees a shift toward shared ministry. “People now seen as members of an organization that delivers them spiritual care will come to view themselves as part of a community of lay ministers expressing their unique core of gifts and values in personal and shared ministry.” -Roy Phillips, Transforming Congregations for the New Millennium
The Unitarian Universalist congregation of Binghamton is a community of people who want to make a positive difference in the world. We have among us a vast array of resources and talents available. Imagine what we could be capable of with a little motivation and organization. I have said that I am called to serve this congregation. A calling is when your deep hunger and the world’s deep need meet. Congregational consultant, Loren Mead of the Alban Institute writes, a congregation is called to “… assist more and more people to identify what needs of the world cry out from them; and nurture and support each person and send each one forth to respond to these needs with his or her unique gifts.” (Loren Mead, Transforming Congregations for the Future)
I go to church to grow and to serve. How about you? Here is my invitation: If you have not yet joined the congregation and have been considering it for some time, come join us. I’ll be in the fireside room with the membership book after service. I’m skipping out on the receiving line, and will instead be receiving new members. If you’ve been waiting for that invitation, that gentle nudge, here it is: please join us. And further, come serve with us.
If you are already a member and have been lingering at the sides, I invite you to search within you and find your passion, find that seed within which awaits merely the opportunity and encouragement to bloom, find your ministry. What do you have to offer and how can we help that happen?
If you are have served already, if you are one who has given much to this congregation over the years and has filled many roles and sat on many committees and served many meals, Thank you. You are now our elders. I invite you to continue to share your wisdom and to mentor the new leaders along and enjoy the fruits of your good work among us. Thank you.
And to you who now sit as the heart beat of this institution, you who are now in the thick of it, remember to take time to consider the future. Consider your role as a mentor for others. How can you help more people realize their gifts. How can you, even through the work you now do, help open pathways for others to share their gifts and talents. Soon your work will consist not of doing the work, but in creating opportunities for others to be able to do their work. Soon you will serve as mentors, which is perhaps the greatest gift.
I am here to serve this community. I come to church because I am called to this work, I am drawn to be in this community in this particular way. I suspect that my reasons as to why I come to this congregation are not all that different from yours. I come to offer my gifts. I come to serve. Perhaps it is so for you as well.
In a world without end, may it be so.