Accounting for Our Hope
Today, Karen, Adora, Bishop J, and I are heading to Annual Conference, where we’ll be hanging out with United Methodists from New York and Connecticut for four days: budgeting, hearing about clergy pensions, arguing over social issues, and worshipping together. We’ll also be feeling anxious together because, whenever I leave the counter-cultural world of The Church of the Village, I am reminded that most of the Methodist churches around are shrinking in numbers and growing in average age. And when church people get together, you can feel this anxiety that pretty soon no one will care about church anymore.
Where I grew up in Missouri, it’s much more normal to go to church than it is here in the northeast, but I actually decided to leave Missouri and be a pastor up here because I happen to like the religious environment here more than in Missouri. I like that people up here don’t go to church because it’s normal. I like that people up here struggle with their faith and, if they’re going to church, they’re going because of a reason more profound than just that it’s what’s done. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. It’s just different.
In that sense, the 21st Century church up here in the Northeast has more in common with the first century church in Palestine than it has with the 20th century church some of our parents and grandparents knew. The first century church was, of course, the church at its beginning—a strange handful of people surrounded by a non-Christian culture. No one made accommodations for their gatherings or wore their jewelry or bumper stickers. No government cared about their principles or traditions, nor did shopkeepers wish them a Merry Christmas. Wherever they went, they were unusual and they had to explain themselves because the people around them did not assume that what they did in religious community was good and important. We have that in common with those early Christians.
Let me tell you something you may or may not already know. Each and every one of you is strange. Whether you like it or not—by reading this church blog—you are a counter-cultural rebel. Many people you know—your friends, your family members, kids, people you work with, maybe even people you live with—don’t think religious community is necessary for their lives and assume you are strange for caring about it. So some people in your life probably wonder why it is you go to church.
And my public service announcement reminder for today is: I want to encourage you to talk to them about it sometime. Because you’re here with us for some reason. It’s not because it’s normal. It might be because you like the people. It might be because religious community got you through a time in your life that you would not have survived by yourself. It might be that being in church connects you to someone or something that you need to be connected to. Maybe you just like Katie’s coffee and Karen’s birthday cakes.
There’s no right reason to be in religious community. There is only your particular, individual reason—the simple way God has called you into this community. And it is worth talking about with people in your life.
I know we progressive Christians tend to think it’s impolite to talk to people about our religion. But it’s perfectly fine to talk to people about why other stuff is in our lives: “I just found this great face cream. Here’s why I like it!” “I go to this fabulous doctor. Here’s why she’s great!” “This is my favorite restaurant. Here’s why I love stuffing my face there!”
So how about: “I really like going to church. Or Church of the Village is really important to me. And here’s why…”
(While you’re accounting for the hope that is in you, why not invite friends to our amazing Pride Month?)
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the HOPE that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
I Peter 3:15b-16a