Martin Shupack is an elder in New Hope Fellowship [Mennonite] Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and Director of Advocacy for Church World Service. Though never an […]
Gerald and Marlene Kaufman are retired marriage and family counselors. They have authored several books. The most recent is Necessary Conversations Between Families and Their Aging Parents. They have lead numerous seminars throughout the church and broader community.
The Apostle Paul says that God’s people, “people of the light,” dispel darkness by living in a spirit of openness and by making choices that honor God and each other (Ephesians 5). It is in this community where people weep and rejoice together—where the unknown becomes known—where darkness is cast out. It is a place of truthfulness and love. That happened in the early church and it can happen today.
Are they staying away because nothing enriching and enlightening is happening? Or does their non-attendance simply reveal the influence of a culture of individualism—where religious affiliation no longer matters and self-determination is more important? Living, as we do in a world of texting, Facebook and tweets are we losing interest in connecting personally with each other? Can we be “friends” and “like” someone whom we have never met? Why is it that we are “going it alone” and no longer need a church community?
Perhaps disengagement is happening, n part because the worship experience has failed to meet their needs. Old forms of worship might seem hollow and routinized or lacking in meaning. Has the church not done as well as it should in utilizing a variety of music forms, aesthetic symbols and sermons that are relevant to daily living?
Sights, sounds and well-spoken words can bring meaning and a connection with God. God has created us as sensory persons whose needs can be met in ways that go beyond the intellectual. We are people of both the spirit and the mind. Sermons discussing the biblical story and theological explanations are important, but must be offered in ways that have relevance to the people in the benches. If not, attenders will seek other avenues to fill that void.
Yes, silent personal retreats can be helpful, but are not enough. God created us not only to be sensory people but God also created us to be relational people. That is seen in the Old Testament where God’s people gathered on the Sabbath to worship. Then in the New Testament they gathered to worship together to strengthen each other in the new and expanding church of Christ. Today the gathering can also be a place where we learn to know the story of others and where our story can be heard and valued. It is where we get a sense of belonging. There should be no strangers in God’s house. People who feel they belong are nurtured in an environment of love and trust. The experience can be life-giving.
Trust can be developed through the interactions that take place in the foyer, Sunday school classes and small groups. Deepening relationships also happen when we fellowship with church friends in our homes. In these informal settings we laugh and cry together, talk about personal things, and compare notes about the transitions that are happening in our lives. New persons and shy persons will intentionally be drawn into the circle. This is where we and our families form our primary friendships. This, too, is “living in the light.”
Church is where attenders face openly the challenges that are present in their lives, a place where they are heard, supported and connected. These challenges may include among other things troubled marriages, family conflict, drug addiction, mental illness, financial concerns, finding purpose or concerns about adult children who have no faith connection. No longer do these stories need to be whispered to one another in the cloak room. The mystery is best brought out to the light of day within the healing community and responded to with prayer and support. When members keep burdens to themselves it has a way of separating them from the community. Can the congregation be a center for “urgent care?”
When people experience serious challenges they need the help of trusted others to shape the way the congregation partners with them. Some persons might fear rejection or ridicule if their problems become known. Some may simply be shy or private persons. Although privacy laws can inhibit sharing within the church community, we need to find sensitive ways of bringing light in situations of darkness. God calls us to be people of light.
Healing for individuals, families and ultimately the congregation comes when we trust each other enough to be vulnerable and where we search together for solutions. Sharing concerns may happen primarily within a small group of trusted friends. Pastors need to lead the way in creating a spirit of openness, compassion, and guidance. The pastoral prayer during the worship hour can enhance the healing experience. The congregation can also be engaged through acts of prayer, weeping and rejoicing, and through providing support.
Perhaps this spirit of openness will encourage continued attendance and ongoing connections. It might even attract new people to this Holy Place where the lights are always on. The foyer will be lit up with the energy of attenders who feel privileged to be in God’s house and with God’s people. These people with their enthusiasm and passion are then enabled to bring relief and the good news to neighbors far and near.
The refrain of the song, Jesus, the Light of the World say it so well: We will walk in the Light, beautiful light. Come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright. Oh, shine all around us by day and by night. Jesus, the light of the world. In this spirit may we walk this journey together.
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