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