Over drinks last night at a local bar that is way more trendy than I am, my good friend articulated a question that has pretty much been on my mind every minute that I've been a minister: Why bother to do what we are doing?
This friend of mine also works in the church and is moving toward ordination in our denomination (a ridiculously and excruciatingly thorough process of jumping through dozens of pre-prescribed hoops at specific intervals, though I can say this somehow does nothing to limit the number of wackos that become ordained ministers.) Anyhow, what he was getting at was this: is this all worth it? Is there any reason to stick with this church thing? Or is Christianity just some irrelevant throwback that has little to contribute to the lives of modern, progressive people? Will all this "religion stuff" eventually peter out, at which point the rest of the world will be relieved that they can forget about all the silliness?
Both the arrival of new-atheism and recent trends in church membership might tell you that the answer to the question of "why bother?" is "don't." As it seems, the church is dying. Most mainline American denominations have fewer members than they have ever had in American history, and, while there are many guesses as to why this is, the fact remains: fewer and fewer people are going to church.
As the pastor of a tiny church on the edge of complete collapse, I could have told you that. Actually, as an average American twenty-something, I could have told you that. A quick mental survey tells me that (excluding the people I met in Divinity School), I probably only have two friends who go to church regularly. And I can understand why. Even I am not immune from the temptation of forgoing the Sunday ritual. As I pass the joggers and walkers enjoying the sun along the Charles river on my way to church each week, I often wonder if perhaps it wouldn't be more fulfilling to be one of them, or to enjoy a late Sunday brunch, or read the paper.
But something keeps me coming back. Every time I feel compelled to give it all up to become a Barista and eat Sunday brunch, something happens that reminds me of why I haven't done it yet: something reminds me that church is a little bit great.
I say a little bit great, because I don't think it will ever be very great. People in the church are just as petty and angry and selfish and afraid as the rest of the people in the world. It is not always pretty. But it is beautiful. A little bit great.
It's a little bit great because every week I go to a place in which people are choosing to be together: not because it's hip, or because there is nothing better to do, and not even because they like each other all the time (they don't), but because it brings something out in them that is good. Every week I go to a place where people help each other, not because they have to, or because it will get them somewhere, but because they can and in that remember that they want to. Every week I go to a place where people take responsibility for themselves and one another: admitting that they're not perfect, and forgiving each other for not being perfect. It's a place where stories are told and emotions shared, a place in which we are reminded of what our best selves might be. In a way, we are like the joggers on the river, training for a race of compassion, building our tolerance for difference, and fine-tuning our humility and grace. We are not better. But we are trying. And I have to believe that it's worth it to try.
For now, for my money, for as long as it lasts, I think that's a great way to spend my Sunday. That's why.