Perfect Attendance (and Healthy Participation): Old First E-pistle 08.30.12

Perfect Attendance (and Healthy Participation): Old First E-pistle 08.30.12

At my second congregation, I encountered something strange and new, Sunday School pins. Mildred, in her late sixties, arrived at church more Sundays than not with ecclesiastical medals pinned over her heart.

She’d come over to the UCC from the Baptist church years earlier, when the latter hit a rough patch. Truth be told, in that part of Brooklyn, we “Congregationalists” had more social cache than the Baptists, and, I think, Mildred and her husband liked that too. But God can work through all things!

Still most Baptist congregations have a stronger Sunday School tradition than the UCC. Adults in many Baptist congregations arrive an hour before worship — just like our kids do at Old First — and everyone participates in Sunday School classes before worship each Sunday.

That Christian Education tradition also involves recognizing attendance and participation. I don’t know all the particulars, but if church were the army, Mildred would have been a general! She had medals for years and years of Sunday School. I think she even had the 25 year pin!

In the Sunday School I grew up in, some years there was an attendance chart on the wall. You got to stick colored-foil stars for each week you attended. But other years, there was no attendance record-keeping. The UCC’s more lackadaisical, often unconcerned about such things.

But I believe in Christian Education. There’s a pedagogical aspect to worship, but it’s not only about learning. In our denomination, people are often a bit fuzzy about the details of our faith. That’s in part because we don’t think “right belief” is what gets you saved! Church itself is for us only one means to a greater end. Still we in UCC might do well to be more intentional about understanding our faith and tradition.

I am hopeful about Yajeh and the new Christian Education Standing Leadership Group’s vision and energy. I am also excited about the innovations Nancy is undertaking with the Adult Forum. I encourage you to keep your eyes open for — and to take advantage of — the learning opportunities church offers.

But I am not making a plea for everyone to be here for “first hour.” I’d love to see that, but, for now, I’m settling for the more basic exhortation to come to worship regularly!

Old First is — resolutely and proudly — a “no matter who you are or how infrequently you come to church, you’re welcome here” kind of congregation. We want people to feel welcome and a part of our community on their own terms — whether it’s their first time or their first time in a long time. A long-absent member laughed when the greeter welcomed him by asking him to sign our guest book.

And as fewer people go to church in our society, other activities — important other activities — are scheduled in what used to be the sacrosanct Sunday morning time slot. You all have family, work and other service obligations that sometimes keep you away on Sundays.

But I’m not afraid to make a second Old First promise clearer:

Frequent attendance at church will multiply your relationships, experiences, support, challenge and knowledge. You know the difference church makes in your life as you come more often. I think we need to stand by that!

Worship frequency is like gym work-outs. The results are cumulative, so coming more often yields geometrically more reward than once in while. With the gym you have to go 2 or 3 times a week; we’re mostly only asking for once a week! Try it and see.

We “take attendance” each week with the “friendship pads.” Fear not: there will be no chart and colorful stars on the wall for everyone to see. But at the end of this program year — let’s say on Pentecost — we’re going to find some fun, playful way to recognize our most regular attenders.

Folks, this isn’t about shaming or judging. It’s about setting goals for ourselves, about spiritual growth, about the difference church can make in our lives.

The gym analogy works further too. Just like we need to work out smart, we need to do church wisely.

Late last fall, I was going to see my ex-wife and my ex-boyfriend in the same weekend. Not having seen either for awhile, I wanted them to notice how good I looked. Ok, there was some insecurity and vanity involved! I decided that I was going to work out all of my muscle groups AND do cardio EVERY DAY for a whole month.

At first, there was noticeable, quick improvement. But then my muscles stopped responding. And, no matter how much sleep I got, I couldn’t get past tired. Rather than Arnold Schwarzennegger, I was looking beginning to look like an overstretched rubber band.

Finally, I asked Tony, Alice’s trainer, “Can someone work out too much?” He laughed and responded, “You have to rest. Growth and strength don’t come directly from the exercise, but from the recuperation afterwards.”

In that spirit, let me close with 7 tips on healthy participation in church.

1. Come regularly… as often as possible. But don’t feel bad when other important things in life keep you away. You are still in our concern and care.

2. Choose one way you to dedicate yourself and be involved — “your ministry” — some group activity or recognized role, or something only you (and God) know about. Some people have leadership positions. Others transport people to church, or bring flowers anonymously. One person sees herself as a “stealth greeter” who eyes the crowd for new faces who she then gets to know.

3. Old First believes church is to help you find “your ministry.” That’s a process of discernment — identifying your gifts and calling in the light of others’ needs. It’s your job as a Christian, but you can ask us for help with figuring it out!

4. Do what you like, what you want to most deeply. Feel free to say “no” to things that others’ ask you to do (or think you should be doing).

5. Remember: no one has to do it all (this is as true about life as it is about church!). In fact, it’s spiritually deadening to assume too much responsibility at or for church. God has gathered a whole bunch of people here: there are always others who can do what you are not called to do. And it’s church — finally, it’s more about God than us.

6. Don’t be surprised that none of us individually nor all of us together are perfect. Actually, that’s left-handed good news — permission to be your less than perfect self. There’s more to be gained by being imperfectly real than pretending. “Truly loving” is about loving even though we’re not always easily lovable.

7. Join us: we’re a congregation — as our website promises — striving to make a difference in more people’s lives and in the world. We’re far from finished, but we can help each other along the way.

See you in church,

Michael