A visitor came to church a few weeks ago. We had quite a conversation during the hospitality hour out on the lawn. I don’t remember her exact words, but she said she was seeking spiritual truth, tired of pastors who harangued their congregations with threats of hell, tired of pastors who hypocritically demanded one way of living while behaving in another, tired of shallow, emotion filled fake worship. She wanted a church where she would finally learn something about the Christian faith, the bible and God, a church where she could ask questions and get answers. She had tried church after church, Sunday after Sunday, and was very glad to be in ours where, at last, she had found what she was looking for. She could hardly wait for next Sunday.
That was three weeks ago. I have not seen her since. Why didn’t I get her name? Why was her name not in the guest book? I don’t know. But it occurred to me that a person with a one Sunday exposure to dozens of congregations and denominations can know very little about any one of them. How on earth could she have the slightest idea about whether we were the right place for her, and all those other places weren’t?
I’ve often observed that many, perhaps most, long time church goers have gone through their adult Christian lives with little more than a not very good grade school level of Sunday School education they got as children. I guess that’s why I’ve been passionate about adult Christian education. At least I could assume that those in my classes had some basic knowledge about what it means to be a believer. We could start from there and go on. However, times have changed. There are fewer long time church goers, and more who are passing through to see what goes on and whether it might be an answer to barely formed spiritual questions.
God, Jesus, the bible, Christian teaching and tradition, none of it can be assumed, not even at the most basic level of children’s bible stories for four year old toddlers. I’m not proposing that worship be dumbed down for the their benefit, but I do think it’s imperative that we be mindful that what we do and what we say in the process of an hour or so of worship has to make sense at three levels of meaning: to those mature in faith who are able and need to be fed with real meat; to those habitual church goers for whom being a Christian is mostly a rote habit; to those who are on some kind of spiritual search hampered by a limited vocabulary and ignorance about Christianity (or any other religion for that matter).
I’d like to say that I know how to do that well, but I can’t. Maybe that’s why she didn’t come back. Who knows. Still, I think about it all the time. What happened three weeks ago was in a city far away where I was filling in for the rector, a friend on vacation. Now I’m back home and to the small rural congregation I serve in my retirement a few times a month. Just the same, it remains an important issue for me. The congregation I serve, along with other retired priests, is about thirty miles away in a town of around two thousand. While church going is still important for many in the community, the majority are among the second and third generation who have never gone, not even to Sunday School. They are, for the most part, glad we are there to hold up the facade of Christianity, and trust that if they ever need us for whatever it is that we do, we will be there for them. They have not even the knowledge of the woman with a one Sunday exposure to dozens of congregations.
I wonder how we can become better missionaries in our own back yards?