Church membership and attendance numbers are down nearly everywhere, and I’m not all that surprised, really. Church often gets a bad rap, and I sometimes feel the need to defend it. Many people view church as nothing more than a place where irrational people come to worship a mythical Being. And for many, the stereotypical image of God and Church is an in-your-face, repent-or-burn-in-hell perspective which isn’t very inviting, and something I’d rather not be associated with, either. While I do not want to be critical of anyone else’s beliefs, the traditional image of God as a supernatural “Being” out there who plays favorites and has a “worship me, or else” agenda is an image fewer people are able to accept as meaningful, myself included. But “Church” doesn’t have to be defined by that image of God. That is not the only image of God there is. So, in my defense, and the Church’s defense, I want you to know why I am involved.
1. To Seek. Simply put, I find meaning in the journey of seeking what Life is, what it means, how it is possible, where I fit in with it all, and what we are to do with it. Many churches provide multiple styles and opportunities for those who seek more. I could choose to seek on my own, at home, in the woods, or any other environment, and often I do, but I have found a benefit in sharing that walk with others.
2. To Fellowship. The cool thing about a good church is, it is filled with people who strive to treat others with kindness, Love and compassion. It is community. We are not without our share of individual problems as well as our collective problems, but we try to work through them in healthy ways. We share meals together, we share in each others’ celebrations and in our sorrows. We help raise each other’s children in a safe, trusting environment, teaching them the same values of kindness, respect, Love and compassion, thankfulness, hope, and the joy and happiness that comes from that way of life.
3. To Share. Everyone has something they can share that will help the world around us. It can be a few dollars toward a project that supplies mosquito nets to those in Haiti, or for a local organization housing battered women. Sometimes it’s hands-on, like building a wheelchair ramp or helping someone with their grocery shopping. Sometimes it goes so far as taking in a child who needs a loving home. Churches sponsor charitable and volunteer opportunities in their local communities, and often globally, as well. Young and old, their members help staff soup kitchens, patch roofs and provide the voluntary giving that defines compassion. Compassion feeds something very important in ourselves.
4. To Love. For this last one, I’ll finish with a story about my friend Michael. When Michael was in middle school, he and his mother came to our church through a transitional program for homeless families. They were literally housed in our building for a week which gave them a safe place to stay and assisted with finding a more permanent housing situation. Michael had a rough time with being bullied at school, and being homeless doesn’t do much to help a teenager’s self-confidence. But even after he and his mother had transitioned out of that program and into a home, Michael came back to church. On Sunday mornings, as the youth would gather in their meeting area with doughnuts and drinks, Michael would be there, often off to the side, not saying anything. He didn’t want to participate or speak up, but he wanted to be there enough to come.
And Michael kept coming back. The other kids welcomed him because that’s what the Church taught them to do. Through small acts here and there, just like we try to do with every teenager in the group, we welcomed him and treated him as we would want to be treated. And over time he found hope. He found friends who cared. He found talents he was unaware of. He opened up and found self-confidence. Michael graduated from high school with honors and was accepted to college on scholarship, pursuing talents and gifts he didn’t know he had before. It scares me to think where he might have ended up without the church, in a different crowd, pushed out instead of invited in.
Michael was changed. But was he changed because we prayed for him to a God who decided to intervene and help him succeed? I don’t see it that way. Michael was changed because he was loved. Love did for Michael what nothing else could do – it overcame the obstacles. Love overcame the pain, sadness, bullying and insecurity. Love overcame the lack of money, housing and acceptance. Love overcame all the things that were pulling against Michael. That Love came to Michael through ordinary people simply willing to share it. To see that kind of change happen is joyous, and to know you had a small part in it is gratifying.
I believe Love is the ultimate trump card. I have experienced the results of it first-hand in places all over the globe, from coal-mining towns in the West Virginia mountains to Hungary and Cuba and places in between. Love wins. It defeats anger and hate with nothing more than a soft smile or an outstretched hand. It’s so simple a child can do it. God IS Love, it is said. Maybe it can be that simple.
Church is like everything else in life: You get out of it what you put into it. I don’t believe in a God who is going to punish you if you don’t show up or get involved. But however you want to do it, and whatever you want to call it, I firmly believe that getting together with friends to seek, to fellowship, to share and to Love will bring you meaning, fulfillment and many rewards.