“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
How I think about “church” has changed dramatically over the years. My earliest impression, formed at a Swedish Lutheran church in Portland, OR, was that church was an ‘activity’ one attended, like going to a movie or going roller skating. It took place in a special building with special seating. There were unique behaviors expected of both adults and children. In a predictable pattern, the offering always followed the sermon, which is when (to my young mind) people paid for their tickets. I recall purses being snapped open, and checkbooks withdrawn, and checks hurriedly written during the singing after the sermon – before the plates were passed. It later occurred to me that, since the plates were always passed at the same time, those checks easily could have been written before church. I concluded that the dollar amounts written on those checks served as some kind of rating system, reflecting the perceived quality of the sermon – a concept that was often reinforced by the conversations between my parents in the car driving home after church!
Later, as my Coeur d’Alene, ID, congregation embarked on a capital campaign, my concept of “church” expanded to include the ‘building’ itself. Much attention was paid to selection of carpet, and there was a huge debate about whether to go old-style or modern with the stained glass. Our Confirmation Class visited the church buildings of other denominations, and later in my trips abroad I spent time in amazing Gothic cathedrals. I marveled at how these could have been constructed without modern power equipment. I understood that, in a world where even most royalty could not read, and where the church service was conducted in a language that most did not understand, there was power in conveying a sense of the Almighty through architecture and art.
As an adult, I have added the concept of ‘faith community’ to my understanding of “church”. I have felt it as I (and my funky set of unique gifts) have been welcomed and loved. But I also feel it when I observe inclusion and love being extended to others. Two illustrations:
In 1989-90, I lived in Madison, WI, and attended St Mark’s Lutheran while going to grad school at U of WI. They had your typical church choir, but they also had “The Shower Singers” who treated us to a musical selection once a month. This was a tone-deaf, off-key group of highly enthusiastic singers of all ages. One particular middle-aged lady simply radiated her joy at being able to sing with the group. She evidently had experienced some type of cancer in her facial bones, and after surgery and radiation, her face lacked structure and her mouth opened no larger than a 50 cent piece. But she sang out with them, loudly and off key, praising God. And not a person in the rest of the congregation batted an eye about her appearance. This was definitely my kind of faith community!
In 2019, while traveling in England with my granddaughter, we went to the ancient walled city of York, founded before the birth of Christ, with Roman and Viking ruins from the first millennium CE. We attended Sunday worship at York Minster, a congregation since the 300s whose cathedral has been built, remodeled, burned, rebuilt, etc, over the past 1700 years. An awe-inspiring structure! We were suitably impressed! Being early and obvious tourists, the usher escorted us to the “choir” seats and struck up a conversation with 11-year-old Alexa. “What is church like where you go?” “Do the kids ever get bored?” “Do they let the kids help out?” “What is your favorite way to help?” AND “If it’s OK with grandmother, would you be willing to help us with the younger children this morning? We have lots of little ones who get bored, so we have the older children do activities with them during the sermon, then bring them back for Eucharist.” Well, you didn’t have to ask HER twice!! She joined the littles during the children’s message, then headed out with them for the next 30 minutes, helping the usher’s own granddaughter lead activities. Wow! She was made to feel part of the faith community, thousands of miles from home!
I do not mean to sound dismissive of the “activity” or the “building” aspects of church. These are necessary infrastructure, glorious, inspiring, spiritually-nourishing. I love going to worship and am moved by art and architecture. But, vital though these are, what I really need at this moment of my life is to be loved and prayed for and heard and seen and valued by others, as we all serve the same God. In retrospect I’m sure I received this as a child and a teen, when my understanding of “church” was more limited. I am just more aware of it now. And I am convinced that I am not the only one who feels this need of a faith community.
Lord, empower me to nurture those in my faith community. Help me to notice when you would have me provide your hands, your hugging arms, your attentive listening, your compassionate words. And let those actions of “faith community” extend beyond my besties, to those whom I don’t know all that well and to guests who visit my place of worship this December. In your name and with your help. Amen.