(Inglesham box pews, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, March __, 2012)
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious
to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them
again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and
hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ
your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Recently the Barna Group released some rather striking data on "What people get (or more accurately, don't get) out of worship." They surveyed church attendees (it was not clear in the web overview of this how this got broken down exactly, just that they "had attended church in the past") and perhaps the most distressing part of the data was that only 26% of those polled felt that their lives had been changed or affected “greatly” by attending church. Additionally, 46% of them stated that their lives had not changed at all as a result of their churchgoing. Even more distressing was that even among those who attended church in the prior week, half admitted they could not recall a significant insight they had gained.
One could postulate that some of the folks that are "astray" are sitting right in the pews. We talk a lot about mission and evangelism, but as with all dysfunctional families there might be a need to look to ourselves a little bit.
On the other hand, some more heartening info from the study showed that 68% of them felt that attending church made them “part of a group of people who are united in their beliefs and who take care of each other in practical ways.” Sixty-six percent said that feel they have had “a real and personal connection” with God while attending church, although the data does show this to be a sporadic occurrence and rather infrequent.
When I ponder this data, what comes to mind for me is how I've seen many people over the years in churches that have experienced a difficulty in the shared life of the congregation and are not particularly happy, but hang in there and stick it out. Another phenomenon that comes to mind is when something comes along to really rattle one's faith in God that has nothing to do with the congregation per se, but stay in the hopes that this somehow rights itself. They are occupying a pew, they may even be participating in the work and worship of the congregation, but it is, in so many ways, going through the motions.
In my own shared life in our parish, I have thought many times in the past about people I know that are going through some form of loss, yet seem unapproachable, or the people I don't always see eye to eye with, but find myself respecting their hanging in there and sharing the Sacraments with me. I've thought about the people over the years who rearrange themselves in line to avoid getting bread and wine from certain clergy or certain Eucharistic ministers, or the people who moved around a certain way at the Peace to minimize the chances they'd have to share it with certain people. On rare occasions, the person being avoided was me.
What I've come to recognize, in looking at this data, that what at first seemed depressing might only reflect that as much as we want our Sunday services to be the epitome of shiny and happy, perhaps it's not such a terrible thing that they reflect the dry and mundane in our lives. I remember a time in my own life when my faith had been shaken so deeply to the core, to be able to say "I attended church on those Sundays and nothing insightful or revelatory came from it," was, really, a victory--because I hadn't run. I hadn't left. I showed up and went through the motions, and over time, slowly, imperceptibly, something began changing. Eventually it did, and I began to have the occasional episode of insightful joy again.
But when I think back, and I think about the earliest that it could be viewed in retrospect, and people close to me knew more of the story, I could not really claim any bravery or gumption when those close to me thanked me for "sticking it out." I remember looking at one of them and saying, "I wasn't brave at all--I just had nowhere else to go."
This collect is a reminder that there are so many times, so many people, and so many situations that we are powerless to "bring someone" to a place that one can embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of the Good News in Christ. This is business between God and that person. We neglect to remember, however, that each of us in the gathered body on Sunday is the base material for sacramental transformation--even if we provide the means for another to simply be in place, because they have nowhere else to go.