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The Challenge of Being in Church

The Challenge of Being in Church

Feast Day of Charles Henry Brent

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. – Ephesians 4:1-7,11-13

People I meet often tell me that they left the church of their childhood because they felt that the people in the pews were hypocrites – kind and warm on Sundays but cold and self-interested the rest of the week. Lately I’ve become a little suspicious of this way of characterizing things. While I think it is always wise for us church-goers to consider whether we communicate a disingenuous welcome, I have also begun to wonder if it isn’t a little bit of a projection to see us in such black and white terms.

The bottom line, of course, is that everybody is a hypocrite. All of us are, whether we go to church or not. Community is messy – fraught with tension, unmet expectations, unrealized dreams, and the cold reality of how we actually relate to one another when our egos are in charge. We have a hard time getting along. We are competitive, petty, misguided. We struggle over meaningless issues. We get our backs up.

But inside a church there are some guidelines and some expectations. We agree to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ideally, after our inevitable times of falling short we have to come to terms with what happened. We have to take responsibility for our part in how things are going between us and our fellow congregants. We have to ask for forgiveness and then we have to go on together. We have to struggle some more.

And then there’s the issue of “outreach”. I used to co-host a radio program that highlighted the interface between religious institutions and the larger community. We looked at how local synagogues, churches and other religious groups were helping to address the needs of the indigent, marginalized and oppressed in our area, interviewing people who were doing something to be of service. Prison ministries, ministries for veterans, assistance for the homeless and the jobless, tutoring, aid to undocumented residents, pet care and advocacy for battered women were just some of the many kinds of service people had taken on. It was a fabulous testament to the faithful love of those who engage together in corporate worship.

Within the church we challenge one another to take Jesus’ teachings seriously. We are each called to be who we most deeply are, manifesting the gifts and skills that are ours alone. We are urged to be a support and a help to one another We are invited to reach out with compassion to our fellow congregants who struggle to live the Way of Jesus with us. And we are nudged to make a difference in the lives of those beyond our doors, those who suffer, who are oppressed, who long for the basic necessities we so much take for granted.

The church is a milieu in which we can come to know our shortcomings and grow into the people of God we were meant to become. We are supposed to engage in “building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Part of that is this dance of getting pushed, reacting, taking ownership for what we need to claim, asking for forgiveness, and then going through the process again.

So, knowing what we know, how can we equip ourselves and one another to be in holy relationship? How can we measure our interactions against the altar and the cross? How can we live into God’s dream for us, working through being hypocrites into a place of genuine love?

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.

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