Monday, January 9, 2012

Where Do You Encounter God in Church?

Yes, I am genuinely interested in answers to this question.  (And don't worry - the next one will ask about outside of church.)  (And ~ perhaps this is a worry ~  I'm focused on churches here, and not on houses of worship across the board.)

I've spending a lot of time these days thinking and daydreaming and wondering about what church is.  There is, for example, church as my congregation remembers it: a 1950s full house, the multi-generational Sunday focus of everyone in town.  (It's a very small town.)  There's our church as it is right now: maybe one-third full on a Sunday, with most folks well over sixty.  There's our church as it might be ~ but I have no idea what that is.

For most of my congregants, the word church immediately conjures up a companion word: community.   And one of the things that I've been musing about is that, for me, it doesn't.  Not at first, anyway.

An odd acknowledgment for a pastor to make?  But I didn't grow up in a church community.  I found my way into the rich life of the church via theology, and architecture, and music, and communion, and a deep sense of mystery.  I eventually became part of a wonderfully energetic mainline church community, and then another, and now I lead a third, a group of loving, capable, and committed people who long for their church to blossom again.

But what will that entail, exactly?

Longtime readers may recall that after Josh died, I started attending church in a Catholic parish ~ where no one spoke to me, at all, ever.  It's a huge, vibrant parish, with lots going on, but I have no idea how one would become a participant.  I was looking for solitude, for God in music and ritual and prayer, and so the experience worked well for me, but had I been looking for God in community, I would have been lost.

And lest I be accused of singling out Catholics, let me add that when my husband and I, in our late twenties, first joined a large United Methodist church, it was at least a year before we had a conversation with anyone other than the senior pastor.  I had no idea what a church community was, so I was not dissatisifed but, looking back, I find it rather odd that no one at all approached us.  We were eager to become involved with the mission and justice activities of the church, but had no idea how to go about doing so.  And in the meantime, the ethereal music and the challenging preaching were enough.

At any rate, I'm wondering.  I think that if I were in a position to look for a new church for myself,  I would slip into a worship service and watch for mystery made manifest.  It would probably be some weeks before I paid attention to the bulletin and its lists of activities and groups.  But I have the feeling that I'm in a distinct minority.

What about you?  If you were to walk into a new church next Sunday, what would convince you that God was present there?

Image: Prince Edward Island, August 2005


  1. No need to limit this to churches, at least from my perspective as a Board member of a large Reform Jewish congregation. We ask ourselves many of the same questions on a regular basis. Why do people join a congregation? Notice I chose the word "congregation" rather than "synagogue" or "church" because I think it's an important distinction. Let's more to add but no time now.
    We could discuss this for hours.

  2. I'm one of those community people. I grew up in Conservative Evangelical churches, and I struggled to find God in the service (I did that in my own way on my own time), but I did find God in the community. When I began going to mainline churches, I loved the liturgy, and I was amazed to discover new ways to worship, ways which fit my poetic yearnings, but struggled to find community and had trouble making myself keep going to churches because I didn't need the liturgy to find God. It was community for which I longed.

    When we walked into our present church, we immediately felt like we had come home, and when our pastor stopped and talked with us our 2nd or 3rd week, we knew we would stay. Yesterday we had 20 people in our home for lunch after church. That's what I was looking for. And God is there among us.

    What I have to remember when I tell people about how much I love church is the God part (solid Christian education for our kids, beautiful liturgy, reading of the Word, lovely, thought-provoking sermons, service in the neighborhood and city, etc.) because to me that I am experiencing God in this more liturgical service is a given (even if my conservative Evangelical friends would and do question that ::sigh::), but community is not.

  3. Hmmm... It seems I am anti-community, these days; though at one time (thirty years ago) I was very involved in a small, active church community. We were brought into the church through friends. I think that is how I would prefer to approach a church, were I looking for one now (which I decidedly am not.) Very tough to just walk into a church without knowing anyone.

    Husband and I have tried this in the past. Very difficult for me personally as I SUCK in social situations where I don't know anybody. Never end up with a positive experience...either no one speaks to me and I feel slighted, or a bunch of folks try to speak to me and they scare the bejeesus out of me. I know I'm a hard nut to crack, but I'm sure my experience isn't so different from what many people go through when "shopping" for a church.

    This comment could really become a post of its own...

  4. Great question/post.

    When I ask the congregation I serve, "what is church?" the answers are 1. we are a family and 2. community/fellowship. In two years of asking this question multiple times and multiple ways I have yet to hear that church is where they find God.

    That is my quick answer this morning before I head off to a COM meeting. I may write a post about this after collecting my thoughts a bit more.

  5. These are such great, thought-provoking responses. I have to head for an all-day meeting, but I hope to respond myself to you all, and I hope some others, later tonight.

  6. One thought: a church is where we find God in the people in it, the way they serve others, their reaching out to many and to individuals and in all the things I personally love, liturgy, music, prayer, a message that makes me think, study with others in small groups. Most of all, it should be a space where we can feel a sanctity and acceptance, I think.


  7. I encounter God in the church we belong to in many different places: worship, study, music and even in meetings.

    However if I were looking for a new church I would be like you: looking first for mystery made manifest in the worship service. Worship is the heart of the church. If its not authentic, then there will be problems with most other aspects of the church in my opinion.

  8. Carol, I wish I had thought of the word "congregation," since that is of course what I meant. A group gathered to worship God and engage in related activities: care for one another and everyone else, education, fellowship. I was not trying to limit it to any particular tradition, and I was trying to steer clear of the Catholic distinction between church (the overall one) and parish - which Protestants would call a church. Although we would also call a denomination a church.

    "Congregation" is a much better word across the board; it also helps to minimize the association with a building and to emphasize the community.

    The question remains essentially the same: What religious impulse or desire draws (or doesn't) people to gather together?

  9. Wendy, I love your observations. I have been thinking lately that one of my big challenges is to recognize God's presence in others, both individual and community.

    We have been part of a tremendous community that originated in our Methodist church 24 years ago (I know exactly when, because the Lovely Daughter was a newborn.) I'm not sure that I appreciate how much that community reflects God at work.

    OTH, beautiful liturgy seems to be a very deep need of mine.

  10. Lisa, your response reminds me that I made an assumption at the outset of this post: that people are looking for God, or something about God, when they approach a church. But perhaps the question should have been articulated more broadly: What, as far as you (anyone) know are you looking for when you approach a congregation?

  11. But Purple, I wonder, is it a matter of language? Perhaps they mean that they find God in community. And perhaps some of the other things, those that Eve and QG list, are just not that significant.

    I am really pondering a lot here, for both myself and my congregation. But I am completely wiped out for now. More manana.

  12. So, Eve, for you, it's the whole ball of wax?

  13. QG, although I know how much you love music, I was actually surprised by your answer -- because your church is so incredibly mission oriented. One of my seminary professors said that he used to teach that there were four essential elements to a church: worship, mission, education, and pastoral care. But he's boiled it down to worship and mission and says that everything else falls into one of those two categories.

    Yesterday I listened to a pastor talk about how she hopes to guide her church into becoming an intentional community focused on one mission (because they are so small). I have many similar aspirations, but when I got home last night and read these comments, I realized that she had said nothing about worship. Now maybe she sees that as a given, so it isn't part of her dream plan; I don't know.

    At any rate, these comments are all great!

  14. I like your professor's analysis about the essential elements of the church, but I think THE essential element is worship. In our church the emphasis on mission flows from worship.

    Great question and fascinating discussion!

  15. Hmm, I do seem to want a lot, don't I?

    Perhaps because I am in a church that is so active in so many ways and has so many ways to serve and learn along with three main Sunday services that include contemporary worship (think puppets, a rock band, that big screen that slithers down from the ceiling) and is still growing, I am spoiled.

    My service of choice is the bell, book and candle one that features full liturgy, large choir, traditional hymns, lots of prayer, children's sermon and seems to include that Mystery of the Presence that comes with this, or at least it does for me.

    Being Methodists, we also have many opportunities to eat and our Lenten Wednesday soup lunches, (which are free, but there is a small place to donate if one wishes) draw people from many other churches, including both of the Catholic churches in town.

    Your church is in a small rural community. Do they do many all inclusive lunch or dinner events? Friday evening suppers with a take-out option was one idea that brought people to us. Even though take-out seems to be defeating the purpose, it brought in new souls, especially young families as long as the price is right. Spaghetti works. Soup is super. Curiosity sometimes brings 'em in.


  16. music music music
    the eyes of my friends
    sometimes the sermon and readings

  17. Stratoz, I said in my Christmas morning sermon (!) that for me the music is always first.

    And yes, the stained glass.

  18. What would convince me that God was present?


    If there was a mishmash of people and the way they looked, dressed and interacted I'd feel pretty confident of God's presence.