Our call as church

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

A big part of an interim period between settled pastors is reimagining “What are we doing here?” What’s the “why” behind being here at church in worship on a Sunday morning, when you could be communing with God in nature, mowing the lawn, reading the paper, sleeping in, getting a jump on your work week, or having a family brunch together? Today’s portion of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith pulls us into the thick of this question, in this era when the institution of the church is rapidly changing. You might notice that the two scripture passages that were just read do not even mention the word “church.” This is not a word you hear coming out of Jesus’ mouth, as he stays focused on calling people to discipleship, a radical way of being in the world. “Spread the message and cast out demons….get on with it,” he tells his inner circle of followers. Spread the message about what? Cast out what?

The piece from the early missionary Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth doesn’t talk about “church” in this instance either. Instead, Paul rattles on about how they no longer regard other people from a “human point of view,” but now as being new creatures in Christ. They are to be part of a “ministry of reconciliation.”  Messaging, casting out evil, reconciling. But wait, what about the August food drive and the stewardship campaign and fall clean-up day and youth group mission projects and choir rehearsal and the September newsletter?  What is church to be about in the 21st century?

One of you handed me a local newspaper clipping during after-worship coffee hour last Sunday that has me wondering about the purpose of church. I looked down and read the by-line: “Want sustained happiness? Try religion” – a copy of a recent Washington Post article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey. When I first started hearing “happiness studies” and “positive psychology” research a decade or more ago, I felt a bit irritated. As a Christian, is it my life goal to be happy? Jesus spoke about coming so that people could have “abundant life.” I don’t think God particularly likes it when I am suffering, but is happiness God’s goal for me? Was it Jesus’ goal to be happy himself or make other people happy? While I have appreciated how much of this happiness research has identified particularly actions we can take in our lives to be more joy-filled, instead of just passively waiting for circumstances to make us happy, something always irked me a bit about the whole venture.

Since we are looking at the part of the UCC Statement of Faith that talks about the church this week, this particular newspaper clip about church involvement re-engaged me in this whole happiness debate. How does this idea of “going to church to be more happy” resonate with what our Statement of Faith actually says about being “called into the church?” The article described recent research by the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Researchers considered four areas of social participation that can lead to “sustained happiness.” Volunteering with a charity; taking educational classes; participating in a religious organization; participating in a political or community organization. Conclusion? “The secret to sustained happiness lies in participation in religion.” It didn’t specify which religion, or what “participation” might look like. Important to note also that this was a study of 9,000 Europeans over the age of 50. How might the results be different for the 20-40-somethings among us? For teenagers? Also interesting was the researchers’ finding that “benefits could be outweighed by other negative impacts of volunteering, such as stress.” Don’t we know it!  Sadly enough, participating and volunteering in the life of a church can be stressful, it can be hurtful, it can challenge rather than support your sense of connection with God. You have experienced this in this congregation, and we continue to be faced with unresolved hurts, resentments, frustrations, and lack of accountability… not just in recent events but going back decades. This is not unusual in congregations, but we are finding it is problematic to this church moving forward into the future God plans for you.

One final piece from this European research. The newspaper article concludes: “Researchers noted that it is unclear whether the benefits of participating in a religious organization are connected to being in the religious community, or to the faith itself.” These two aspects of being the church are closely intertwined: being part of a congregation and experiencing/believing/trusting the faith. But the researchers are on to something, and that distinction between the two might help us as we consider this fourth portion of the UCC Statement of Faith today about the church.

Let’s read this portion about the church together, as it is printed on the front page of your service bulletin. As I have for the last several Sundays, I urge you again to join in even if you are uncertain as to whether or not you actually agree with every piece of this. Hear yourself voice it; listen to the voices around you; try it on:

You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world
and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

Like the rest of the Statement, each section testifies to the deeds of God: from calling the world into being, to Jesus Christ sharing our common lot and conquering sin and death, to bestowing the Holy Spirit upon us. In this section, God is described as calling us. Calling us into something, the church, in order to… in order for us to do some things. This is the section where we become deed-doers. Where we become partners with this God, Eternal Spirit.

Anthony Robinson, the UCC minister and author who works with congregations in times of transition, has written about a shift in our deed-doing in church. In “What Has Theology Got to Do with It,” he describes how “the central challenge facing many congregations today is to shift their dominant paradigm from being cultures of membership to cultures of discipleship.” Churches have come to reflect a wider culture that encourages us to be consumers of goods and services. Church decisions are driven by individual preferences, and for some people, if they don’t like what’s going on, they withhold giving or simply disappear. Robinson states that the point of church is not membership, but discipleship. “The church exists to form and sustain individuals and a people who are followers of Jesus Christ…the church does more than meets customers’ needs…the church redefines our true needs…the church transforms people according to the life and pattern revealed by God in Jesus Christ and unites them with others who are committed to this way of life.” (p. 162-163) Perhaps church is supposed to be a place where we makes mistakes, hurt one another, and are uniquely encouraged and supported in the forgiveness and reconciliation process. Could church be a safe place where we could learn to do this? Not silencing the hurts and frustrations and making nice to one another, but bravely and compassionately engaging in a ministry of reconciliation? Could this lead to true happiness?

My hunch is that the happiness, not just a fleeting feeling but a sense of contentment and fulfillment, is not just about membership in a like-minded, polite religious group. Our statement speaks of discipleship entailing both the “cost and joy” as we do things that will change us. Serving others, not just helping people because they need it, but because we need to do it; we are transformed in the serving. Speaking truth to power, daring to name and resist the powers of evil in our day that invariably will seem “political” because it has to do with life in the polis, in community. Our choices and actions in the world affect the whole of our being together as the wider community; it’s all political! And this discipleship changes us to speak up and work for justice. Coming together to share at the baptismal font and around Christ’s table. Reconciling with one another so we can do that coming together with integrity and hope. Because it transforms us into more whole and joy-filled people.

I find this to be the most challenging section of the Statement of Faith. It pushes me, holds be accountable. It has the potential to stir deep happiness and satisfaction within us. What does it stir in you? Let’s begin talking together about why God calls us into the church. Join me after worship in the sofa area of the Gathering Room, and let’s keep talking into the fall. What do you each believe about what it means to be “church”? Amen.