Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Church: Hospital, School, Fitness Club, or Inn?

In a recent dedication of a new building at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas (the largest Episcopal church in the United States), former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said:
“Those [churches] that are growing are living the gospel in a relevant way with energetic leaders who adapt, good lay leadership and dynamic preaching...” 
Reading that this morning caused some thoughts to coalesce that have been drifting around for a while. As a response to the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, commentator (and ordained minister) Mike Huckabee famously talked about the tragedy as not surprising considering that "we've systematically removed God from our schools." He goes on to lament the fact that Americans often pretty much ignore God until a crisis hits, then go running to church in search of comfort only to vanish weeks or months later after the ripples from the latest tragedy have died down. The fallacy in his argument, beyond its pastoral shortcomings, lies in equating the church with God. But that theological discourse will have to wait for another post.

This is a frequent lament by pastors and priests: we have larger numbers of people in our pews on Christmas, Easter, and after traumatic national events but those people don't seem to be interested in sticking around and becoming a part of the faith community. Those of us who are part of this faith community are often puzzled about this. However, reflecting on what church means for people, such a phenominon, while perplexing to those who have made the church their spiritual home, makes sense based upon a person's view of what church is. Four views come to my mind.

St. Luke's Hospital, San Francisco
Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) has been famously quoted as saying that "a church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." Over and over again, I've heard this sentiment expressed--especially in evangelical circles. Pastors see the ravages of sin and death all around us and say "come to the church to be cured!" This model of the church certainly has its good points. Ever since Jesus' time, Christians have been heavily involved with healing. The founding of many hospitals has been at the behest of churches. Some people naturally gravitate towards churches when they are in need of healing. That's why we have a healing service as part of our worship every third Sunday (next one is January 20). The difficulty with this view of the church is twofold. First, there are plenty of people in the world who don't see themselves as having a "sin sick soul", to quote a famous hymn. If you don't feel like you are sick, why visit a doctor or a hospital? No one visits a hospital unless one is sick, visiting someone who is sick, or occasionally getting some preventative care to keep from becoming sick. Second, even if one does visit a hospital, no one stays there longer than absolutely necessary. So when people show up at our churches with acute needs and find some comfort and healing there, we shouldn't be surprised that they don't stay. After all, now that they're feeling better, why keep visiting the hospital/church?

Photo from the Forma web site--Godly play.
There is also the popular notion of the church as school. Again, churches have been some of the primary founders and supporters of schools--we've seen it as part of our vocation to care for children and to help them be formed and educated. In the church, we used to think of this only in terms of imparting information: telling Bible stories, recounting church history, teaching about the sacraments, etc... We've evolved into realizing that being a follower of Christ requires not just education, but formation. Recently, the National Association for Episcopal Christian Education Directors (NAECED) changed its name to Forma, reflecting not only an easier name to remember but also a shift from the notion of education (imparting information) to formation (shaping the whole person). Even so, the difficulty with this idea of the church as a school is also twofold. First, there are people who are not looking to be educated. Just as they don't feel sick enough to go to a church-as-hospital, they don't feel uneducated enough to to a church-as-school. In fact, they may even have been hurt by the church or a church-related school in some way and a loathe to repeat the experience. Second, one traditionally graduates from school, but ideally no one "graduates" from church! We've seen some of this notion play out with the rite of Confirmation (adult affirmation of faith). Many times, it has been seen as a graduation from church for teenagers--their parents made them go to church when they were children, but now that they've been confirmed they don't need to go anymore. When we talk about this area of our life together as lifelong Christian formation rather than matriculation through a set of requirements it makes it clear that we're not just imparting information.

With the evolution of being equipped to follow Christ moving from education to formation, many people man now look upon church as a fitness club--getting in shape for Jesus. The difficulty with this idea is obvious--how many people are truly excited about getting regular exercise? Even more telling, how many are excited about getting regular spiritual exercise? Frankly, this is what trips most people up--we all can become spiritually lazy (and pastors are not exempt). We can often exist on a sort of spiritual inertia until some crisis intrudes for which we are spiritually ill-equipped, then it is a trip to the church-as-hospital. Also, like physical exercise, we don't really think of ourselves as having the time to spiritually exercise--we're too busy doing other things. So when we talk about getting "fit for life" or other fitness metaphor, people have to overcome inertia, busyness, and lack of motivation to show up on Sunday mornings--and we don't often make explicit what we're doing. What would you do if you simply showed up to your local fitness club and there were people working out on strange machines, and talking with each other (some in great shape, some "in progress") and no one gave you any sort of orientation? Or what if you showed up to a fitness club and the room was empty of equipment? You would likely head back out the door. That is what I suspect church often looks like to the unchurched--a lot of strange looking hardware (what is a chalice? a paten? candles? prayer books? hymnals? organ music?) and odd routines without any sort of guidance about how to use them or what they are for. We need to be more explicit about how we are forming and spiritually exercising people.

Finally, appropriate for the season, some people see the church as an inn, or hotel. On the bad side of this, the church can degenerate into being seen as a social club--an exclusive place where the "beautiful people" congregate to reinforce how nice things are. That was the genesis of the Dear Abby quote about the church not being a "museum for saints." We don't want to be seen as, or actually be, a place where one must be perfect to attend. I've seen people apologize for crying in church! Why apologize? Because it is seen as not "seemly." Well, church should be the one place in which we can express our deepest emotions, so cry away! People also can see the church as a place for rich people--much like going to a hotel with a fancy lobby. The question "Do I fit in here?" is often at the top of people's minds when the visit a church. I actually think that an inn is a wonderful metaphor for the church. We need to constantly look at how hospitable we are: Are we easily seen from the road? Is our signage good and clear? Can people find their way to our front door easily? Are they welcomed warmly when they do? Does the place feel like an exclusive club or a warmly welcoming bed and breakfast? We might even be seen as having a (spiritual) exercise room, a buffet (coffee hour?), a spa for healing (holy oil at the healing service?), even a classroom or two.

I'm going to continue to reflect on the inn metaphor for church in the coming weeks. I think it is a rich one. We often talk about the church as "my church" as if we somehow own it. This does make us feel more at home (after all, how much more at home can you feel then when you are at home?) but may make others feel like they are temporary and unexpected guests rather than potential members of God's family. I much prefer the image of the church building that I learned as a child: God's house. We are all in God's house. We are all staff (paid or unpaid) and we are welcoming guests who intentionally seek us out as a place to rest that is apart from the hustle and bustle of the world. We also need to be mindful that God is both our host and our permanent guest--we need to make sure we have room in each of our "inns" for God as the Christ child. We also need to be aware of whether we're "living the Gospel in a relevant way" as a church--making sure that we are adapting well to changing needs and providing things for which people seek out the church. I'm not suggesting that we become some sort of plastic "dream church" for everyone, but that we make sure that we are engaged in actively living the gospel in the world rather than merely supporting one another.

As we end Advent and approach the Christmas season, may we have room in our hearts for Christ, our homes for one another, and our church for those who seek a place of rest and refreshment--and perhaps an appointment with the One who is Emmanuel, God with us.