Well, that is an overstatement. I am trying to decide what my future will be in relationship to an individual congregation. I have actually, mostly, given up attending the congregation that I have been worshipping with for the past nearly ten years.
Why did I decide to attend there in the first place? It was the best that I could find. It was also a long drive, one that took a gallon of gas and a half-an-hour of time each way. What attracted me included the thoughtful, creative sermons, the fantastic, creative, jazz-driven music, and the social conscience of the congregation that was most immediately obvious by seeing that at least half of the worship space was being used by a child care facility during the week.
At that point I was very tired of attending churches where the worship was either plastic or worshipped for itself. “Plastic” congregations to me were those where it looked nice and shiny, but where there was little or no substance. Some years earlier I had realized that every Sunday we were saying the identical words. I did not need to read them in the prayer book because I had them memorized. One may experience this with the Lord’s Prayer. Can you recite it so easily that you don’t need to actually think about what the words of the prayer mean? I was tired of attending worship services where the service words were mostly memorized such that one could attend the service and be little or not at all affected by it. It is kind of like saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag without thinking about what the words mean, what you are actually pledging to do. Worship is not simply a pledge to a flag, it is worshipping in a community to our loving and ever-present God. It therefore requires of me much more than reciting the memorized words.
Likewise, I found the sermons in most of those congregations to be that form of baby formula cereal that we call pabulum. My criteria for whether a sermon is good or not? If I can remember some thread of the substance of the sermon on Monday or Tuesday then I deem it good. In most congregations that I tried, back there ten or so years ago, I couldn’t remember the ideas in the sermon while on my way home from church, let alone the next day!
The other kind of congregation was the kind that worshipped the worship service. They spent huge amounts of time, energy, and money making the worship service unique and special. The emphasis was so much about the worship service that to my mind, they missed the reason for the service, which involves praying to God corporately as a body, listening to God, all-in-all, the community being in communion with God. In those congregations, in my humble opinion, the worshipping experience appeared to become their God.
Over the years, attending “my “ congregation I did continue to enjoy the creative music, but there were negative aspects to it. The location is so far away from my home that I can not drive my electric vehicle to it and home again without recharging the batteries, so I drove the “global warmer.” The preacher’s sermons had become more pabulum and less thought provoking. The childcare center moved out of the sanctuary and into its own portion of the building, which was added on specifically for it. As a result the child care center became less immediate to the life of the congregation, in my humble opinion. And, more and more, the distance, time, and gasoline that it took to travel to and from church weighed upon my mind and soul, and my environmental ethics.
So, I am taking this Lenten season to review and contemplate what I could do differently about worshipping on Sunday mornings.
For two Sundays of this Lenten season I have tried to stay home and not attend a worship service. That experience reminded me that ever since my teenage years I have been attending Sunday morning worship services. When I was in high school and did not have transportation, and while my parents and siblings remained home, I would walk about a mile to attend the worship services at the cathedral. Sunday morning worship services have always been an important part of my spiritual life. It is somewhat like eating lunch. Yes, I could skip lunch and not die before dinner. I have skipped lunch on occasion, for very important reasons at the time, but I am not comfortable missing lunch. I get really hungry before dinnertime. Oh, even when I do eat lunch I am usually pretty hungry before we get to dinner. For me, Sunday morning worship is the same way. I can skip it, but I feel…uh, hungry later. Perhaps it is my soul that feels hungry when I skip church. I’m not certain what it is but I know that it is definitely something lacking inside me when I have not been in a worship service on a Sunday.
The first decision that has resulted from me “giving up church for Lent” is that I realize that I can not continue to give up church. I really need to attend someplace.
The second realization concerns the music. I am now a member of a local community choir. We meet weekly, Tuesday evenings, for two hours. The director is the best choral director I have ever sung with. His musical knowledge and directing skills, combined with his sense of humor and philosophy of choral singing are amazing and fun to be with. I enjoy singing with that choir much more than I enjoy singing in the church choir, which really is not a choir but a small group of us who get together on Sunday mornings to sing back up to the instrumentalists.
The third realization is that in the past ten years other congregations in the Seattle area have changed clergy and some have changed attitudes about the emphasis and directions of the worshipping experience. I need to check them out again. One way that I have found to observe and sense the spirit and directions of local congregations is by studying their websites. A poorly maintained or sketchy website does not tell me to avoid a congregation, but well maintained and complete websites can inform me about a congregations mission, direction, activities, commitments to the community, and even some sermons. From reading and viewing local congregations’ websites I have formed opinions about several of them.
I intend to continue this thread with further developments later.