I can’t tell you how often people are absent from church for a while, then come back, and when they pass through the receiving line at church say sheepishly, “Sorry I haven’t been here – I’ve been bad.” They seem to expect disapproval or punishment.
In 40 years of ministry, I still haven’t quite figured out what to say. I usually opt for the non-judgmental, compassionate cadence, “We are glad you’re back! We’re not about guilt here! We’ll be here whenever you need us!” But while this is true, there are a couple of problems with the lack of fullness of my response.
Maybe they need to be needed and missed. Maybe they need to know there’s something at stake in them not coming. That, if they are former members, the promises they made to the church and to God mattered. And even if they are not former members, they matter – that we notice when they are gone, and we are diminished by their absence.
Maybe they need to hear that if they do come more often, their life might just get better. I say might – churches are flawed institutions, and mine among them, and there is no promise that life will be better simply because we live close to the Lord. Our faith will get better, but life may become much more challenging. But here is the thing, if you want to get wet, you have to get into the water. If you want grace, peace, hope, comfort, growth, you have to get into, or near, the people and places that have them.
What I want to say to people when they come before me and hang their heads is, “listen – you get out of it what you put into it.” I can’t say it, because it doesn’t sound very pastoral, but really it’s just a logic statement. You can’t win if you don’t play.
And God, though God rarely tells us this to our faces, needs us in church too. Some of us can only get the grace God wants to give us when we pass through that portal, into a sweet, slightly dusty, hardworking, authentic faith community. It’s not that grace is unavailable elsewhere; it’s just that – we’re tuned to the right frequency when we’re there together and we get it right. Church is the structure in which Jesus is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, where we ourselves can become God’s crib.
They say that 80% of life is just showing up, right? I add… showing up expecting to encounter God.
Dear Lord, help us to overcome all kinds of things that don’t necessarily deliver as promised, to be a regular part of a healthy faith community. Help us all to know we belong to you and to each other. Help us to know that you call us to be present with you in worship and service. Help us to show up ready for a life-changing encounter with you. In and through Jesus. Amen.
Grace and Peace