Lost and Found at Church (Part 2): Old First E-pistle 11.14.12

Lost and Found at Church (Part 2): Old First E-pistle 11.14.12

Last week’s E-pistle, “Lost and Found at Church: Things and People (part 1)” was about how things that get lost at church often magically reappear. Someone wrote me, “You should have reminded people that church is VERY public space… we need to always keep an eye on our things.” Folks, really, I am glad church can feel like home, but leaving stuff around is not a good idea.

This week, in part 2, I return to the subject of lost and found, this time focusing on when PEOPLE go missing. And curiously, but for very different reasons, again my counsel — with biblical warrant — is to wait and see if they turn up again later. People, really, folks can only decide for themselves if they want to be around.

From the get, thinking of anyone as being “lost” brings up thorny issues: how are they lost? and who decides? As my friend Geoffrey would say, “That’s deep.” Such considerations throw us immediately into the mire of profound and ambiguous territory:

~ what is a good human life? …or, more basically, what is it to be human.
~what do we understand about God? …how does God relate to people, or alternately how do people need to relate to God?

How we answer these sorts of questions, particularly vis a vis people whose beliefs or lives are different from our own, determines how we treat them.

I want to handle the whole issue on a more practical, day to day level: how people go missing from church. I’m talking about attendance and participation. Recently, a colleague wrote on a private blog for pastors about how frustrating it is when people — the long-term involved or promising newcomers — suddenly just drift away. She pointed out that churches actually invest in their members. This E-pistle is for that colleague.

I’m writing for myself too. Every Sunday is a little bit of Easter resurrection and joy. But I don’t know any pastors for whom there’s not also some weekly disappointment — someone we had hoped would be in church.

But this E-pistle is also for all of us at Old First. We talk about “the revolving door” — how someone goes almost as quickly as another has come. There’s a prayer in the UCC’s Book of Worship that reassures us “our churches are always changing. People come and go.” I sometimes think of everyone who is missing: if they all showed up on Sunday, it’d be like Easter.

Truth be told, it’s often hard to tell who’s MIA… hard to see who’s in and who’s out. I am continually surprised when someone shows up from out of nowhere and says or does something as if they were never gone. Belonging is in the heart and mind of the one who trusts s/he has a place among us. Unfortunately, the same is true for those who fear they don’t fit in. And we lose people who drift away because they feel that fear.

Our congregation is an ever-shifting community that’s cobbled together for precious, sacred moments. One might say it’s a different church each Sunday.

People come from different places with often contradicting hopes for what they hope to find with us. And Old First is just one of many communities in people’s lives. One that rather than claiming some pre-eminence among all other communities means to serve the others by sending “our people” back out into the world.

So it should be no surprise when all our younger adults and people “trying out” church for the first time… or anyone of the rest of us… comes for awhile and then moves on. If you think about it, that’s a pattern that sooner or later holds true for all of us!

Still there’s a sadness, and some congregational self-doubt, when we realize someone who has been a part of our community, for a little time or much longer, is missing.

Should we have done something differently to retain their commitment?
Could we change so this doesn’t happen over and over again?

These are important questions we must keep asking. And I’m open to anyone’s suggestions as to how we can do better. What we can do to increase our closeness and retention?

I also encourage everyone, if you notice someone is missing, reach out? A call to say, “Hey, I was thinking of you” Don’t be afraid of the response you might get.

“I’m taking a break from church for awhile.”
“I’m just not feeling it right now.”
“I’m re-evaluating my church involvement, maybe even my faith.” “
“I might look for another church.”

These are all things people have said to me recently. And, while each one makes me think, they’re all ok. People have to find their own way.

Sometimes church or our congregation can help. Other times, we’re not the right community for someone at a certain time. I’d rather people just name it! After all, we are a faith community that knows the first step towards any spiritual life is honesty. We don’t mean to judge. Whatever is said… or even if you guess something isn’t being said, you can respond, “It’s so good to hear your voice; I miss you.”

Thinking about all this, I do have one insight I want to share. When you realize someone is missing, reach out. But also be willing to let go.

Because people are not the same as sheep and coins. I take this lesson from Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Of all the “lost” examples he uses, the parable of parental love and a child’s waywardness plays out differently.

The Shepherd goes after the lost sheep; he’s even willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

The woman turns the whole house upside down to find the lost coin.

But the Father waits at home on the son to return. Until a child decides on his or her own to return, the Father has no choice — his deepest parental hope and love notwithstanding.

Even if your heart is breaking, you cannot compel someone to do something they don’t feel called to. That’s slavery, not love. Because you can decide if a coin or a sheep is lost. But only a person him or herself gets to decide if s/he is lost. And Jesus goes even further and challenges us to consider that only in losing ourselves do we find ourselves!

We can miss people. We should ask anyone who is leaving about their experiences. We should consider our own responsibility. We can stay in touch. I pray for people whether they are with us or not! But we also need to let them go. When they tell us it’s time, we ought to even send them forth with our blessing, even more than our sadness.

Like any home, church is a place people are always welcome and can always come home to. People moving on– maybe it’s not our failure. Certainly it’s their freedom! And their changing needs on the way to growth.

Church is like home waiting for us. And with all the complexity and ambiguities that people often feel about home. But if we decide to go back home, it will always be there to welcome us.

See (most of you) in church,