When you attend a funeral for an elderly person, you don't expect the funeral home to be standing-room-only full. But that was exactly the case for the service I attended last Friday. The deceased, an 87 year old lady, had three children and six grandchildren. Although the throngs of people who gathered in remembrance clearly considered themselves "family", they were not family members in the biological sense - instead, they were all members of her church family, or what I like to call her community of faith. Seeing the outpouring of love and affection this woman's congregational family demonstrated for her was like an electric jolt to my spirit. Over the past couple of years, I've found myself pulling away from my own church, for reasons I can't quite explain. Whatever the reason, I've become lackadaisical about church attendance and participation. I was extremely impressed by the overwhelming show of support for this lady and her family, and the experience incited some deep thinking about what church membership means for life in general and my own in particular.
I believe being a church member should give you the opportunity to be part of something larger than yourself, and should offer you the ability to give of yourself to others. My church offers many ways to fulfill this mandate, from mission trips to Bible studies to collecting food for the needy. In my personal church experience, participating in the various music programs within the church has been a way to offer up my talent, be an integral participant in the worship experience, and feel as if I'm making a contribution to the rest of the congregation. As I've reflected on the reasons why I've been withdrawing from church, I wonder if being a church musician is no longer enough to help me fulfill my personal mission, if there might be another place I'm being called toward service within the church community, or in the wider world.
Another major part of the worship experience is what we take from the sermon each week. For me, a sermon needs to ground my faith in the real world, needs to explain to me what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century and how faith can guide me through life. Call me demanding, but I expect sermons to be concise, well structured, to the point, and delivered with confidence and style. Our senior pastor, who retired two years ago, was a master at all of the above, and I don't think I've ever reconciled myself to his absence.
And then there's that all important community of faith. The lady whose funeral I attended had been a member of the same church for over 50 years, nearly the entirety of her adult life. The connections she made were strong and everlasting, bound by births and marriages and deaths, cemented with Christmas pageants, Easter vigils, and Vacation Bible School. I've seen it time and again in church circles, the strong friendships that develop among entire families where the children grow up together and then have children of their own who grow up together in turn. It's a bond that lasts over time and distance, because it's rooted in more than the tangential acquaintance of work colleagues or club members - it's rooted in a 2000 year old tradition of faith and fellowship.
I want that community of faith for myself. Growing up, my family's involvement with church was sporadic at best. My aunt often took me to church with her, but I was such a shy little girl that I sometimes felt pressured and overwhelmed by everything I didn't know. Neither of my parents were fond of church going, although for a period of time we all attended a local Baptist church where my mother and father sang in the choir. But it always seemed strange and foreign to me, and I felt like an outsider, although I remember wanting desperately to fit in. In some ways, I've always felt that way about church - always feel as if I'm standing on the fringe and never quite belonging. It's that feeling which eventually wins out and keeps me in bed on Sunday mornings instead of in the pews.
Still, I know that my church family is right where I left it, and like most loving families will undoubtedly welcome me home with open arms. After all, that's what a community and faith are all about. Although my relationship with church may not be everything I hoped for, the reward for being part of a community of faith is worth the effort.