You might think with the 4th of July holiday just behind us, that my E-pistle title is an unabashed riff on or reappropriation of the “Uncle Sam Needs YOU!” wartime recruitment posters. Jesus pointing out at you pointedly! Maybe. The idea did come to me on July 3.
And pastors today think a lot about “recruitment.” Well, maybe not recruitment exactly, but rather, at least me, I think often about how to help the general public see or understand the church differently than most people’s perceptions these days. Hence the effectiveness of the “Be the Church” banners at the corner of 4th and Race.
Uncle Sam needs you? In our troubled social and political times, one could really make the case for how desperately this country needs all of us and a new civic engagement for the good of the whole. But I’m not sure how many of us contemporaries (particularly on the liberal side of the aisle) feel a particularly pressing personal responsibility towards the nation. Still in the abstract, it’s not absurd to suggest that our country should have a claim on us — all of its diverse residents.
How many of us think the Church has a claim on us? Maybe if my title were “Jesus Needs You” the personification or your personal relationship with God would exert some more pull. But the institutional connection in our time is weak, even rare. When church participation and membership are very much matters of personal choice… well, it gets hard sometimes for the church to feel confident in its claim even on those who have “signed up.”
As a pastor, I first remember wishing for a deeper and broader sense of commitment to the church over weddings. Unchurched couples show up wishing to be married. Of course, it’s a blessing for the church to be able to minister to them at such an important milestone and transition time in their lives.
But working with them and their families, planning and pulling off the rehearsal and their wedding services– the whole endeavor is often a lot of work. And as a percentage of their total wedding costs, the church’s fees are negligible. But wedding couples (or their parents) often complain about the cost of the church. Or ask of the church some special considerations that are way beyond what we can accommodate.
I used to feel the frustration: people just expect the church always to be there, without any sense of the effort — cost and work — involved in keeping the church going… and making sure it is available for them when they need it.
I often hear parishioners, the regulars, ‘our folks’ …have a similar reaction to the Christmas Eve and Easter crowds. We are happy to have folks we don’t know or see regularly join us to celebrate. But in between the big holy days, a small number of us are saddled with a lot of work keeping everything ecclesial together so we’re ready and able to keep Christmas and Easter for the larger community.
Likewise, folks notice that people show up bringing us their babies to be baptized. That’s an opportunity for ministry and a blessing. But in the words of the Baptismal liturgy, we promise to support those families, and then, often, never see them again… It’s not that we don’t want to welcome at the baptismal font little children and those who God’s entrusted to raise them. It’s more that we wish we would see them again! And maybe they’d lend their support to the ministry we want and feel called to do.
There’s a sense of exasperation; throwing one’s hands up; ok, and a little resentment. A few of us church-regulars are left “holding the bag,” keeping all the church things going so that they church will be there for folks occasionally dropping in along their life’s journey.
First, let’s remember that keeping the church going isn’t only a selfless act for outsiders. That same effort also promises us that the church will be there for us too. Our ministry is to serve both insiders and guests.
Second, perhaps, instead of pointing our fingers to the most obvious examples of folks who show up to take or expect more than they offer, maybe we need to ask about our own commitment:
~ are we making a primary commitment to church? Not just in our schedules, but also where we invest our time and effort, our resources and prayers?
~ are we recognizing how our ‘presence and spirit’ — as I say in thank you letters to our visitors! — add to the ministry our worship can be for all of us? It’s a depressing worship service if hardly anyone shows up! And counting on others to show up so there’s a nice crowd — well, that might be sort of ducking one’s responsibility and passing the buck.
~ are we contributing our fair share, a generous portion of what God has made available to us that we then dedicate back in thanksgiving? Of course, I’m talking about money. There are people in this congregation who give a tithe, 10% (a few who are even giving more than that).
But not everyone has money to contribute. And you might think about other ways you can share resources. Time and talent, yes. We need someone to take care of the paraments in the sanctuary. But you could also offer flowers from your garden. Or visits to the elderly or the homebound…
~ are we willing to take on the day in, day out leadership and less than glamorous work of the keeping a local community going?
~ and, finally, are we willing to keep the whole operation and all its people in our regular prayers?
I’m often wary of “family metaphors” for church — because I believe church relationships are ultimately more public than private interactions and need to be undertaken accordingly. But in a time when support for public institutions is at a low-ebb (the whole “Bowling Alone” phenomenon), maybe allusions to family would be helpful. It takes some real work and forgiveness and love to keep a family going. And, hopefully, most of us experience the rewards of our efforts.
I want to suggest it’s the same with your “church family.” Loyalty, a sense of dedication and duty, commitment, frequency, consistency, understanding — all are as important to bring here as to bring home. Anyway, I’m also pretty sure: with church, the more you put in, the more you get out of it.
See you there,